The release of eight long term LTTE prisoners held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act by the government was unexpected. The government led by President Ranil Wickremesinghe has arrested and detained about 4000 people associated with the protest movement though it has permitted bail to be granted to most of them. But several hundreds, if not more, continue to languish in detention for several months.

The government has so far not been receptive to calls for their release, or amnesty, by national and international human rights organisations. In particular, the arrest of Wasantha Mudulige, a student leader, and Venerable Galwewa Siridhamma Thero, a young Buddhist monk active in leadership of the student movement. Both have been charged under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, their arrest elicited widespread condemnation most recently from the country's Human Rights Commission, which has been demonstrating a sterling sense of independence for a state body.

The release of the eight LTTE members by the government needs to be commended as it is a long standing demand from the Tamil community and Diaspora and will be helpful in creating a climate for national reconciliation. At least four previous governments have baulked from doing this despite protests and pleadings from their families and national and international human rights organisations.

Three of those released had been convicted of trying to assassinate former President Chandrika Kumaratunga who was blinded in an eye by the bomb attack. Prior to releasing them through a Presidential pardon signed by President Ranil Wickremesinghe, the government has ascertained the sentiments of the former president and obtained her consent.

In a manner similar to her former protégé President Maithripala Sirisena who pardoned an LTTE member who had tried to assassinate him, former president Kumaratunga demonstrated the magnanimity that is required to bring healing to our tortured and divided country and people.

In a startling admission the presidential secretariat stated that four of the eight prisoners had served longer prison terms than their court-ordered sentences. "Three prisoners had been sentenced to 30 years in prison and had served 22 years, one prisoner who had been sentenced to 11 years and had served 14 years, one who has been sentenced to 10 years and had also served 14 years, two prisoners who were sentenced to five years but had served for14 years, were among those who received a presidential pardon."

This would appear to be a serious violation of human rights and an intolerable abuse of power by those who kept them incarcerated in this manner. The government would need to conduct an inquiry and offer an explanation to the victims as well as the larger national and international communities how this happened.

The extrajudicial detention would tend to justify the claims made at international forums such as Geneva and also raises the question of how many more are incarcerated without any judicial mandate. The powerlessness of victims and their families in the face of the government's use and abuse of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and the pathetic plight they can be reduced to can be seen in the case of the LTTE prisoners.

The Human Rights Commission has pointed out that "Under section 9(l) of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) No.48 of 1979 as amended, where the Minister has reason to believe or suspect that any person is connected with or concerned in any unlawful activity, the Minister may order that such person be detained for a period not exceeding three months in the first instance, in such place and subject to such conditions as may be determined by the Minister. Any such order may be extended from time to time for a period not exceeding three months at a time, provided that the aggregate period of detention does not exceed twelve months."

The PTA has been used and abused in this manner for 43 years and is rightly called a draconian law as it permits people to be incarcerated without a judicial order. No sooner had President Ranil Wickremesinghe been elected President by a majority vote in Parliament in July this year the government cracked down hard on the protest movement through the security forces.

Protest sites that had been in existence for over three months and which had been shown on media throughout the world as a testament to the power of non-violence by masses of people, were torn down and protestors on the streets were baton charged and tear gassed till they fled. These severe deterrent actions, in violation of the rights to freedom of association and freedom of expression, soon brought the mass protests to a halt.

Worse still, the government has used the dreaded Prevention of Terrorism Act to incarcerate those who have not been shown to have engaged in violence or to have plotted it.

Today the country has a veneer of normality, due to the forcible suppression of protests, which can be helpful in bringing tourists and their dollars back to the sustenance of the economy. But in reality the President and government are presiding over a powder keg of economic deprivation and sense of injustice suffered by the masses of people.

Those in the protest movement are well aware that many of their fellow protestors have been arrested and are in prison. Their sense of injustice rankles when they see government-affiliated hoodlums who instigated and took part in attacks against peaceful protestors continue to enjoy their freedom and engage in their corrupt practices.

The double standards being practiced continues to erode the credibility of the government and its leadership and can act as a lightning rod to mobilise future protests. The protest movement does not consist of only those who come out publicly onto the streets to shout slogans and obstruct traffic and make a show of strength.

There is a much larger protest movement that is currently dormant, who are suffering due to the collapse of the economy and who have to give priority to earning for their families. It is not enough that the government should reduce the price of a few essential commodities, when the real income of the people has shrunk by at least a half due to inflation rates that exceed 70 to 100 percent.

There is also a need to assuage the sense of injustice that those who caused the economic collapse are free and in power but those who protested and ensured that a new president and new government should take over are the ones being punished.

Wasantha Mudalige and Ven Galwewa Siridhamma have become symbols of the injustice perpetrated against those who are powerless by the government. Both of them were arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The PTA is about terrorism and is meant to prevent terrorism.

The Human Rights Commission has defined terrorism to be where "Any person by the use of threat or use of force and violence by unlawfully targeting the civilian population or a segment of the civilian population with the intent to spread fear thereof in furtherance of a political, ideological or religious cause commits terrorism."

Applying this standard, the Human Rights Commission has asserted that the arrest, detention and continued incarceration of Wasantha Mudalige and Ven Galwewa Siridhamma from August 18 onwards under the PTA is "unreasonable and without justification."

Both of them are in poor health, are reportedly kept in appalling conditions, and Ven Siridhamma in particular has been hospitalised due to the possibility of him contracting the dengue virus which can prove fatal. They have not yet been charged for any offence and are being detained under the draconian provisions of the PTA that the government has pledged to repeal in its entirety to the international community.

An amnesty to them declared by President Ranil Wickremesinghe can exert a healing influence in the same way as intended for ethnic reconciliation by the pardons granted to the LTTE prisoners.