Sri Lanka reforms anti-terror law as EU reviews trade scheme

March 23, 2022 GMT
FILE - Sri Lankan vegetable and fruit sellers wait for buyers at a market place in Colombo, Sri Lanka on July 25, 2019. Sri Lankan lawmakers on Tuesday, March 22, 2022 approved reforms to a harsh anti-terror law that rights groups have long criticized, as the country looks to shore up its trade relations with the European Union amid its worst economic crisis in memory. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, File)
FILE - Sri Lankan vegetable and fruit sellers wait for buyers at a market place in Colombo, Sri Lanka on July 25, 2019. Sri Lankan lawmakers on Tuesday, March 22, 2022 approved reforms to a harsh anti-terror law that rights groups have long criticized, as the country looks to shore up its trade relations with the European Union amid its worst economic crisis in memory. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, File)
FILE - Sri Lankan vegetable and fruit sellers wait for buyers at a market place in Colombo, Sri Lanka on July 25, 2019. Sri Lankan lawmakers on Tuesday, March 22, 2022 approved reforms to a harsh anti-terror law that rights groups have long criticized, as the country looks to shore up its trade relations with the European Union amid its worst economic crisis in memory. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, File)
FILE - Sri Lankan vegetable and fruit sellers wait for buyers at a market place in Colombo, Sri Lanka on July 25, 2019. Sri Lankan lawmakers on Tuesday, March 22, 2022 approved reforms to a harsh anti-terror law that rights groups have long criticized, as the country looks to shore up its trade relations with the European Union amid its worst economic crisis in memory. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, File)
FILE - Sri Lankan vegetable and fruit sellers wait for buyers at a market place in Colombo, Sri Lanka on July 25, 2019. Sri Lankan lawmakers on Tuesday, March 22, 2022 approved reforms to a harsh anti-terror law that rights groups have long criticized, as the country looks to shore up its trade relations with the European Union amid its worst economic crisis in memory. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, File)

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lankan lawmakers on Tuesday approved reforms to a harsh anti-terror law that rights groups have long criticized, as the country looks to shore up its trade relations with the European Union amid its worst economic crisis in memory.

The vote on the anti-terror law followed a European Parliament resolution last year that called for a preferential trade scheme with Sri Lanka to be used as leverage for rights reforms in the South Asian country.

The Generalized Scheme of Preferences, or GSP Plus, allows substantial duty concessions on imports from selected countries. The EU review on the concession is expected shortly.

Sri Lankan opposition groups and lawmakers called the reforms “cosmetic,” saying anti-terrorism laws still would allow an arrest of a suspect without a warrant and courts would allow confessions often obtained through torture to be used as evidence. They say the 1979 anti-terror law has been widely abused, causing a large number of innocent people to spend years in prison without trial.

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Justice Minister Ali Sabry, however, said the reforms were substantial and allow suspects to challenge their detention in court and expedite hearings to prevent lengthy pretrial detentions.

The reforms were only the beginning of a process and the government will soon introduce a new law, Sabry added.

Most of Sri Lanka’s history since its independence from Britain in 1948 has been mired in armed uprisings. There were two Marxist insurrections in 1971 and 1987 to 1990. There was also a full-blown civil war between government forces and ethnic Tamil rebels for 26 years.

With a $7 billion debt obligation for 2022, Sri Lanka is badly in need of foreign currency with dwindling reserves and massive debts to pay.

There are severe shortages of essentials like medicine and fuel that have handicapped power supplies.

Europe’s GSP Plus eliminates import duties on a large share of Sri Lanka’s products, such as textiles, tea and fish, an advantage worth some $360 million annually, according to the EU.