(New York) - The Sri Lankan government should release a prominent journalist and two others connected to a website critical of the government, Human Rights Watch said today. The three have been held without charge since March under emergency regulations.
On March 7, 2008, the police Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) arrested J.S. Tissainayagam, a columnist with the Sunday Times newspaper and editor of the Outreach website. The previous day the TID had arrested N. Jasiharan, the owner of E-Kwality press, and his wife V. Valamathy. Tissainayagam and Jasiharan are co-directors of the company Outreach Multimedia; Valamathy has no official role with the company. In a court appearance on June 23, Jasiharan stated that TID officers had assaulted him.
“The three have spent more than 150 days in custody, yet no charges have been filed and no evidence of any crime has been produced,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “If the authorities have no credible basis to charge Tissainayagam and the two others, they should be immediately released.”
The government has yet to provide reasons why the three were detained. Tissainayagam has been critical of the government on many issues. At the time of his arrest, government sources suggested that he may have connections to the armed separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), but have produced no evidence of this. Reports have suggested that Jasiharan and Valarmathy were detained due to their connections to Tissainayagam. Journalists and others who are vocal critics of the government are often accused of having links with the LTTE and branded as traitors and terrorists.
Human Rights Watch expressed deep concern at the government’s disregard for Sri Lankan and international law in these cases. Detention orders for the three were not issued at the time of arrest as required by the emergency regulations. On March 27, the attorney general’s department stated before the Supreme Court that a detention order had been issued for Tissainayagam, but said that the order was not in their possession to be given to the courts or the detainee. Later the same day, a detention order was issued to Tissainayagam, backdated to March 7.
None of the three detainees has had adequate access to counsel. Tissainayagam has been allowed visits by his lawyers only twice. On both occasions, police officers were present during the discussions, violating his right to communicate and consult with a lawyer in full confidentiality. The three have filed a fundamental rights petition in the Supreme Court challenging the legality of their continued detention.
On July 11, the attorney general’s department informed the Supreme Court that investigations into Tissainayagam’s case had been completed. But the attorney general’s department obtained an extension until August 20 to report back to the court on the status of the investigations. Human Rights Watch said that the slow pace of the investigation reflected broader concerns about the department’s independence and impartiality that raised troubling due process issues.
“The attorney general should release the three, instead of continuing to violate their rights under domestic and international law,” said Adams. “By detaining a prominent government critic without charge, he is seriously risking the credibility of his office.”
Human Rights Watch reiterated its concerns about sweeping emergency regulations introduced in August 2006 after the assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgama. The present regulations give the security forces expansive powers of search, arrest, detention, and seizure of property, including the authority to make warrantless arrests and to hold individuals in unacknowledged detention for up to 12 months. Most of those detained under the emergency regulations are young Tamil men deemed by the security forces to have LTTE ties. Increasingly, however, the regulations are being used against Muslims and Sinhalese who challenge or criticize the state.