One year after J.S. Tissainayagam, a journalist, a widely-read political commentator and an ethnic Tamil, was taken into custody without charge in Sri Lanka, international media rights organisations remain deeply worried about his continuing detention on charges of terrorism.
Marking the anniversary of his detention on March 7, 2008, the International Press Freedom Mission is calling for the unconditional release of Tissainayagam and his co-defendants, B. Jasiharan and V. Vallarmathy. The hearings of the case against them have been repeatedly adjourned and prolonged incarceration has had a seriously deleterious effect on their health status, particularly in the case of Tissainayagam.
"The treatment of Tissainayagam and the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) against him have set an alarming precedent in efforts to silence independent voices and criticism in Sri Lanka, especially in regard to reporting on the conduct of the war in Sri Lanka," the press freedom organisations said.
Tissainayagam, the editor of OutreachSL, and a respected columnist with the Sunday Times, was detained on March 7, 2008 by the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) of the Sri Lankan police force. He was detained as he sought to check on the welfare of his colleagues, Jasiharan and Vallamarthy, who were taken into custody the previous day.
Tissainayagam was held without charge for more than five months. Successive courts extended his detention with no explanation. During this time he was granted only sporadic access to family, legal advice and medical attention for a degenerative illness.
Court hearings were regularly postponed. Tissainayagam's lawyers lodged a fundamental rights petition to seek interim relief, on the grounds of arbitrary arrest, torture, ethnic discrimination and a denial of equality of protection under law. It was denied.
On August 25, indictments were issued against Tissainayagam, Jasiharan and Vallarmathy in the High Court of Colombo.
The charges were laid under the PTA, a draconian law that has remained on Sri Lanka's statute books despite being introduced in 1979 as an ostensibly temporary measure. The Government has repeatedly rejected calls for bail.
The charges are:
1. The accused together with unknown persons conspired to commit an offence by intending to cause the commission of acts of violence through inciting communal disharmony by words either spoken or intended to be read or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, through the printing or distribution of the publication North Eastern Monthly magazine.
2. An offence by the accused himself has been committed by intending to cause the commission of acts of violence through inciting racial or communal disharmony by words either spoken or intended to be read or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, through the printing or distribution of the publication North Eastern Monthly Magazine.
3. The third charge under the Emergency Regulations of 2006 relates to acting in furtherance of specified terrorist activities, ("specified terrorist activities" being defined as offences under the PTA) by contributing or collecting or obtaining information relating to the purpose of terrorism through the collection of funds for the North Eastern Monthly magazine.
The evidence cited against Tissainayagam refer to two articles he wrote in 2006 for the North-Eastern Monthly, in which he criticises the Government's military campaign and its impact on civilians.
Tissainayagam is the first Sri Lankan journalist formally charged under the PTA and one among an estimated two facing terrorism charges in any country around the world.
On November 17, Tissainayagam was suddenly moved from a remand prison to the notorious Magazine Prison in Colombo, which is known for violence against Tamil prisoners. Reports at the time said he showed signs of being physically tortured.
The International Mission says that: "Tissainayagam's health and physical well-being remains a major concern and the authorities in the prison where he is held will be accountable for any failure to provide him needed medical care".
There have been alarming reports that Tissainayagam has contracted tuberculosis and an acute infective scabies over his months in prison.
The International Mission:
o demands that Sri Lankan prison authorities answer concerns about Tissainayagam's health..
o remains committed to the unconditional release of Tissainayagam, Jasiharan and Vallamarthy.
o appeals to the authorities in Sri Lanka to abide by internationally recognised standards to ensure that Tissainayagam, Jasiharan and Vallarmathy do not suffer further imprisonment on account of arbitrary adjournments of the judicial hearing of their case.
The mission includes and is supported by the following international organizations:
o Amnesty International
o Article 19
o Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
o International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)
o International Media Support (IMS)
o International Press Institute (IPI)
o Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
o World Association of Newspapers (WAN)
Photo credit: Amnesty International