Sri Lanka under fire after extends emergency rule

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka faced criticism Saturday for extending a state of emergency giving sweeping powers to security forces to detain suspects ahead of parliamentary elections due by April.

A private poll-monitoring body, the People's Action for Free and Fair Elections, said continuation of emergency rule could undermine the vote slated to be held after last month's presidential election, won by Mahinda Rajapakse.

"The use of emergency laws could seriously affect the campaign and there is no guarantee that the government will not use it against political opponents," the group's executive director, Rohana Hettiarachchi, said.

On Friday, Sri Lanka's parliament voted heavily in favour of extending the state of emergency for one month despite international calls to revert to normal laws. The extension must be approved by parliament every month.

"The emergency is needed because enemies of the state are trying to regroup and unite," Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake told parliament. Emergency rule allows suspects to be kept in custody for prolonged periods without trial.

Official sources said the national assembly could be dissolved next week, two months before its six-year term ends in mid-April, and elections scheduled for early April.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch has been pressing for the emergency laws to be lifted and a halt to violence targeting opponents of the government.

"We fear that this (violence targeting the opposition) is just the beginning of a campaign to get rid of critical voices before the parliamentary elections," HRW director Brad Adams said in a statement last week.

"Sri Lanka's friends should tell the government that any crackdown on civil society will harm future relations." Dozens of opposition workers have been held under emergency laws.

Wickremanayake said although troops crushed separatist Tamil guerrillas last year, rebel remnants were trying to make a comeback, a claim rejected by the opposition, which says the government is using the emergency to suppress dissent.