COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — An international human rights group is urging Sri Lanka’s government to withdraw draft legislation that would create military-run rehabilitation centers, saying it would give authorities broad powers to detain people without charge and place them at risk of abuse.
Rights activists and opposition lawmakers have strongly criticized the bill, saying it aims to suppress people seeking political reform and accountability during the country’s unprecedented economic crisis. A lawyer and an opposition legislator have challenged the legislation in the Supreme Court.
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch said on Monday that the Bureau of Rehabilitation Bill would allow compulsory detention in “rehabilitation centers” of “drug dependent persons, ex-combatants, members of violent extremist groups and any other group of persons.”
The group said the bill, which was presented to Parliament last month, would create an administrative structure controlled by the Defense Ministry to operate centers staffed by military personnel.
“The Sri Lankan government’s proposed ‘rehabilitation’ efforts appear to be nothing more than a new form of abusive detention without charge,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, the group’s South Asia director.
Sri Lankans protested for months over the country’s economic crisis, which has led to severe shortages of many essential imported items such as medicines, fuel and cooking gas.
The economic meltdown triggered a political crisis in which thousands of people stormed the official presidential residence in July, forcing then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign.
The protesters also occupied other key government buildings, including the offices of the president and prime minister.
The demonstrations dismantled the powerful Rajapaksa family’s grip on political power. Before Rajapaksa resigned, his older brother stepped down as prime minister and three other close family members quit their Cabinet positions.
The country’s new president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, has since cracked down on protests. His first action as leader included ousting the protesters and dismantling their tents in the middle of the night.
Wickremesinghe was elected by Parliament to complete Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in 2024.
Rights groups say the military has sought to curtail protests through intimidation, surveillance and arbitrary arrests since Wickremesinghe took office in July.
“The Rehabilitation Bill would open the door widely to more torture, mistreatment and endless detention,” Ganguly said.
Dozens of protest leaders and activists have been arrested since July. Wickremesinghe has promised leniency for those who committed violence unknowingly or at the instigation of others but promised to punish those who broke laws willfully.
“President Wickremesinghe is pursuing abusive and repressive policies that make it difficult for Sri Lanka’s international partners to wholeheartedly back desperately needed economic measures,” Ganguly said.
There was no immediate comment from the government. Some governing party lawmakers have called for legal action against those who led the protests and measures to rehabilitate participants they described as “misguided.”
Sri Lanka is bankrupt and has suspended repayment of nearly $7 billion in foreign debt due this year pending the outcome of talks with the International Monetary Fund on a rescue package
The country’s total foreign debt exceeds $51 billion, of which $28 billion has to be repaid by 2027.
“Foreign governments should make clear that they will support the urgent needs of the Sri Lankan people, but they will also take action through targeted sanctions and other measures against those committing serious human rights violations,” Ganguly said.