Sri Lanka scales down state of emergency
Colombo: Sri Lanka`s Parliament on Wednesday voted to scale back tough state of emergency laws that were first introduced 27 years ago to deal with separatist Tamil rebels.
Government troops finally defeated the Tamil Tiger guerrillas a year ago after a massive military offensive and the country is now beginning to recover from the decades of ethnic fighting.
Prime Minister DM Jayaratne also told Parliament yesterday that the government would set up a reconciliation commission to foster ethnic unity between the majority Sinhala and minority Tamil ethnic groups.
"The commission is expected to prevent the communities falling into an unfortunate situation again," the Prime Minister said.
The assembly in Colombo voted to reduce some of the strictest provisions of the state of emergency, which has been extended monthly since 1983 to give sweeping powers to security forces.
Soldiers will now have reduced powers to carry out search operations, while the police will lose the right to ask for details of householders in any part of the island.
The authorities previously required residents to register all overnight visitors at the nearest police station.
Parliament also reduced the period that a suspect can be held in custody without being produced before a magistrate from 18 months to three months, but many elements of the state of emergency law remain in place.
"There cannot be a wholesale lifting of the emergency. It will be done part by part," External Affairs Minister Gamini Lakshman Peiris told Parliament during the debate on Tuesday.
He also stressed that the easing of emergency regulations would not lead to the automatic release of some 11,700 Tamil rebel suspects who have been in detention for over a year.
The UN estimates that up to 100,000 people died in Sri Lanka`s Tamil separatist conflict after the Tigers took up arms in 1972.
The separatists fought for an independent homeland for the island`s 12.5 percent ethnic Tamil minority concentrated in the northern and eastern parts of the country.
France had led international calls to scrap the emergency laws soon after the defeat of the rebels.
The emergency has also been used in the past to impose press censorship, arrest and detain journalists, shut down newspapers and introduce curfews.
Opposition parties and international human rights groups have accused the government of using the laws to suppress legitimate dissent and freedom of expression.