Sri Lankan Muslim leader arrested under anti-terror laws

Sri Lankan police arrested a top Muslim politician on allegations of supporting Islamic extremism on Tuesday, days after the government invoked new regulations to combat what it calls religious radicalisation.

Azath Salley, 57, was detained in connection with an investigation into the 2019 Easter Sunday suicide bombings blamed on a local jihadi group, police spokesman Ajith Rohana said.

“He was arrested in terms of the PTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act), especially in connection with the incident on April 21, 2019,” Rohana said, referring to the attacks that killed 279 people.

Salley, a former governor of Western province, last week angered the government by saying he would honour only Islamic sharia and not Sri Lankan laws.

His arrest came days after Colombo used the controversial PTA and gave itself sweeping powers to detain suspects for up to two years for “deradicalisation”.

The government also announced on Saturday that it would outlaw the burqa, a traditional Islamic head-to-toe garment, and the niqab veil, formalising a temporary ban imposed in 2019 after the bombings.

On Saturday President Gotabaya Rajapaksa — who came to power with a promise to battle Islamic extremism — announced plans to allow the detention of anyone suspected of causing “acts of violence or religious, racial or communal disharmony or feelings of ill will or hostility between different communities”.

Sri Lanka’s previous government, which was defeated by Rajapaksa at 2019 elections, had pledged to repeal the PTA after admitting it seriously undermined individual freedoms, but failed to do so.

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