A courtroom drama unfolds in Sri Lanka

J.S. Tissainayagam is a journalist who wrote magazine articles critical of the government. Now he faces 20 years in jail. He was arrested on Mar. 7, 2008, and was convicted on Aug. 31, 2009, of causing ethnic disharmony and for collecting money for the purpose of furthering terrorism. He became the first person to be sentenced under Sri Lanka’s terrorism laws explicitly because of his writing.

How Tissainayagam’s journalistic work translated into offenses punishable under Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act and Emergency Regulations has been difficult for many Sri Lankans, journalists in particular, to understand. The International Commission of Jurists released a report last week that might clear up some of the details.

The report, a straight-forward account of observations of the court proceedings, offers translations of the two passages cited in Tissainayagam’s indictment. Both were written in 2006, during the ceasefire.

“Providing security to Tamils now will define northeastern politics of the future … It is fairly obvious that the government is not going to offer them any protections. In fact it is the state security forces that are the main perpetrator of the killings.”

“With no military options, Govt. buys time by offering watered-down devolution … Such offences 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 Valahari and depopulating it. As this story is being written, Valahari is being subject to intense shelling and aerial bombardment.”

It also outlines arguments regarding Tissainayagam’s police statement, which the defense said was not given voluntarily. In a statment to the court, Tissainayagam said that “he cannot speak Tamil fluently, and that for the first time since he left school he was made to write Tamil when the investigating officer from the TID, Razik, forced him to take down what Razik dictated to Mr Tissainayagam.”

In its conclusions, the Commission found that the proceedings were generally fair, but also notes that “this conclusion does not address the serious rule of law and human rights issues raised by the use of anti-terrorism laws to prosecute journalists for written expression…” The report also points out “that the police arrested Mr Tissainayagam not in the period in 2006 or 2007 shortly after the publication of articles in the North Eastern magazine, but in May 2008 at the time he visited colleagues held at the offices of the TID [Terrorism Investigation Division]…”

The report’s final conclusion is a strong one: “The effect of a prosecution case being brought under terrorism laws includes that no jury can preside over questions of fact, the burden of proof falls on the defendant and the Court determines matters without publishing reasons within time to allow an appeal.”

Sri Lanka’s judicial systems is a complex world indeed. You can read more about the report at the International Commission of Jurists website and find the entire 35-page report as a PDF. I wrote more about Sri Lanka’s judicial system in the September issue of the Far Eastern Economiv Review.