Sri Lankan court grants bail to long-held rights lawyer in 2019 Easter bombings

A Sri Lankan court on February 7 granted bail to long-held prominent human rights lawyer and activist Hejaaz Hizbullah, who was arrested under a draconian law for suspected links to the 2019 Easter attacks which killed 270 people, including 11 Indians.

Nine suicide bombers, belonging to local Islamist extremist group National Thawheed Jamaat linked to ISIS, carried out a series of blasts that tore through three Catholic churches and as many luxury hotels in Lanka.

Mr. Hizbullah was arrested by Sri Lankan security forces under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) on April 14, 2020 for his alleged involvement in the Easter suicide bombings. He was held without being charged.

The Court of Appeal in Colombo upheld his appeal after last week’s refusal by a court in the north western town of Puttalam to grant him bail.

Mr. Hizbullah’s family said he had been denied access to his family or lawyers during the detention.

The bail order assumes significance as Sri Lanka is scheduled to meet the European Union (EU) sub committee on human rights on February 8, rights activists said.

Sri Lanka is under pressure from the EU to reform the controversial PTA which allows detention up to 90 days without being charged with provisions for further extension of the time.

The EU Parliament in June last year demanded the repealing of the PTA.

Last month, the Sri Lankan Cabinet approved some amendments to the counter terrorism law.

The Bill proposes a number of amendments and ensures the suspects are allowed to approach the Supreme Court on grounds of violation of their fundamental rights and seek relief.

Mr. Hizbullah’s long detention was condemned by the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists, the EU and U.N. Human Rights Core Group on Sri Lanka by dubbing it as an arbitrary arrest and detention.

A group of 11 international rights organisations led by Amnesty International in July last year demanded his immediate and unconditional release.

Since Mr. Hizbullah was kept under detention, “the allegations against him have changed several times and his detention has been extended for over 15 months”, the rights groups had said.

Senior EU officials visited the island nation in October last year and discussed the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), recalling that its amendment was a key commitment in readmitting Sri Lanka to the GSP+ in 2017.

GSP+ preferences for Sri Lanka were withdrawn in 2010 due to significant shortcomings in the country’s implementation of three U.N. human rights conventions.

Sri Lanka was readmitted to GSP+ in May 2017. The EU’s GSP+ trade concession allows Sri Lankan exports to Europe without taxation. This has been a big boost to Sri Lanka’s apparel and fishing industries.

The EU remains Sri Lanka’s biggest exports partner followed by the U.S. and India. Over 80% of Sri Lanka’s exports to the EU are eligible for GSP+ concessions.

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