(New York) - The Sri Lankan government should immediately drop charges and free J.S. Tissainayagam, a prominent Tamil journalist on trial for his writings, Human Rights Watch said today. A Tamil publisher, N. Jasiharan, and his wife, V. Valamathy, who were also arbitrarily arrested, should be freed immediately.
"The Sri Lankan government is shamefully using antiterrorism laws to silence peaceful critics in the media," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "This is no way for a government that claims to be a rights-respecting democracy to act."
Tissainayagam, a columnist with the Sunday Times newspaper and editor of the Outreach website, was arrested by the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) of the police on March 7, 2008. The previous day, the terrorist investigation unit had arrested Jasiharan, the owner of E-Kwality press, and Valamathy. Tissainayagam and Jasiharan are co-directors of the company Outreach Multimedia. Valamathy has no official role with the company.
On August 25, more than five months after Tissainayagam's arrest, prosecutors charged him under the country's Emergency Regulations and the Prevention of Terrorism Act for printing and distributing the North Eastern Monthly magazine, of which he was previously an editor, and for aiding and abetting terrorist organizations through raising money for the magazine. He is currently on trial before the High Court in Colombo.
Tissainayagam's indictment cites two of his writings from the North Eastern Monthly. In a July 2006 editorial, under the headline, "Providing security to Tamils now will define northeastern politics of the future," Tissainayagam wrote: "It is fairly obvious that the government is not going to offer them any protection. In fact it is the state security forces that are the main perpetrator of the killings."
The charges against Tissainayagam also include part of a November 2006 article on the military offensive in Vaharai, in the east, which said:
"Such offensives against the civilians are accompanied by attempts to starve the population by refusing them food as well as medicines and fuel, with the hope of driving out the people of Vaharai and depopulating it. As this story is being written, Vaharai is being subject to intense shelling and aerial bombardment."
Human Rights Watch said that the written passages over which Tissainayagam has been charged reflect mere opinions about the conduct of the armed conflict between the government and the LTTE, which is seeking an independent Tamil homeland. The rights to freedom of opinion and expression are protected under article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Sri Lanka is a party. Although the covenant allows for certain restrictions on freedom of expression on grounds of national security, the terms of any such restriction must be specific and narrowly tailored to prevent against arbitrariness and to ensure that the internationally recognized human rights of all individuals are protected.
Human Rights Watch expressed concern for the safety of all three detainees. Since November 18, the authorities have held Tissainayagam in the Magazine prison in Colombo, which houses 140 convicted criminals. Upon his transfer there, Tissainayagam was threatened by other inmates.
Jasiharan and Valamathy have also come under threat. On November 25 and 26, Jasiharan's family in Batticaloa received calls demanding Rs.100,000 (approximately US$900) in return for his safety. The caller threatened that if payment was not made within three days, Jasiharan would be killed in prison. The family has filed a complaint with the police. Human Rights Watch has also learned that Valamathy is in the female ward in the Colombo prison with 110 other prisoners, the majority of whom are convicted criminals. The international covenant provides for the separation of accused persons from persons convicted of crimes.
None of the three detainees has had adequate access to counsel. Police officers have been present during Tissainayagam's discussions with his lawyers, 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.
Article 14 of the Sri Lankan constitution enshrines the right to freedom of speech. However, since 2006 the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse has increasingly intimidated and tried to silence the media, nongovernmental organizations, and others with independent or dissenting views of the government's military policies and human rights practices. Senior government officials have attacked such critics as supporters of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and traitors of the state.
"The government's disregard for the basic rights and well-being of three well-known detainees raises even greater concerns for the hundreds of others detained under the security laws," Adams said.