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Updated: September 1, 2009 16:22 IST

20-year jail term for Sri Lankan journalist

B. Muralidhar Reddy
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J.S. Tissainayagam being taken to prison in Colombo on Monday. Photo: AP
AP J.S. Tissainayagam being taken to prison in Colombo on Monday. Photo: AP

The Colombo High Court on Monday sentenced senior journalist J.Tissainayagam to 20 years of rigorous imprisonment under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

A report on the Information Ministry website said he was tried under the PTA for alleged involvement in terrorist activities. Mr. Tissainayagam was under detention since March 7, 2008 under PTA regulations.

His family is reported to be approaching the Court of Appeals against the High Court judgment. Under the Constitution, there is no provision for a review petition in the same court. After the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court is the highest judicial body.

The legal aspects on the powers of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to pardon a person convicted under the PTA are not clear. On Monday, he left for Libya on a two-day official visit to attend the 40th anniversary of Libyan revolution.

Mr. Tissainayagam was detained when he went to the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) to look for his colleagues Jasikaran, owner of E-Kwality Printing Press and Valarmathy, Jasikaran’s partner, who were arrested earlier.

After being held for five months without charges, Mr. Tissainayagam was formally charged over an article he contributed to the North Eastern Herald magazine published by him.

The contention of the TID was that the article brought disrepute to the government. He was also charged with violation of the 2006 Emergency Regulations with regard to allegations of aiding and abetting terrorist organisations through raising money for the magazine.

No journalist or media entity has been charged under the PTA in the almost 30 years since it was adopted as a “temporary” measure.

On May 15, the Supreme Court refused to declare the detention of Mr. Tissainayagam as illegal, arbitrary and contrary to the Provisions of the Emergency Regulations.

Justice K. Sripavan with Justices Jagath Balapatabendi and Asoka de Silva held that the court was unable to rule that the petitioner had been kept in detention beyond 90 days without being produced before a court of competent jurisdiction.

Mr. Tissainayagam’s case has evoked a lot of interest within and outside Sri Lanka. On May 3, U.S. President Barack Obama speaking on the World Press Freedom Day had said he was concerned about threats against the media the world over, and mentioned his case.

“In every corner of the globe, there are journalists in jail or being actively harassed: from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, Burma to Uzbekistan, Cuba to Eritrea,” Mr. Obama said. “Emblematic examples of this distressing reality are figures like J S Tissainayagam in Sri Lanka, or Shi Tao and Hu Jia in China.”

In a statement, the Bangkok-based Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) said it was “saddened, disappointed and shocked but not surprised at the judgment of the High Court of Colombo in sentencing J.S. Tisssainayagam to 20 years of rigorous imprisonment for a simple piece of writing which he had done and which was interpreted as aiding and abetting terrorism.

“The AHRC is not surprised by this judgment because at the very inception of this case the AHRC pointed out that this is purely a political case, the first of its kind in which the accused, Mr. Tisssainayagam’s guilt or innocence was not an issue but an opportunity to send a message to society on the changed circumstances of the country where freedom of expression does not matter at all. That was the real aim of this case. It is the sort of prosecution that could have happened under the regime of Joseph Stalin through the prosecutor, Andrei Vyshinsky.”

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