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Senior Tamil journalist J.S. Tissainayagam was sentenced to a
20-year jail term on August 31 for articles he wrote in 2006 and 2007, making him one of the first journalists in the democratic world to be convicted under terrorism charges for his professional work.
The IFJ, one of the leaders in the longstanding "Release Tissa" campaign, called the conviction
"brutal and inhumane" and accused Sri Lankan authorities of abusing anti-terror
laws to silence peaceful critics.
A statement issued by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) said a report on its independent trial observation program revealed that while fair judicial process was followed during Tissainayagam's trial, Tissainayagam's conviction was a vindication of internationally expressed concern about the application of Emergency Regulations against independent voices in Sri Lanka.
Tissainayagam was detained last year and later
charged with inciting violence in articles in his magazine, the North
Eastern Monthly, which has since closed. The landmark ruling makes
Tissainayagam one of a handful of journalists in the world to be convicted of
terrorism for the content of their journalism.
report is a clinical analysis of a flawed judicial process," said Aidan White,
IFJ General Secretary. "It shows, in particular, lack of reliable evidence against
Tissainayagam and an apparent conflict of interest. These conclusions indicate
that the sentence is unsafe and should not stand."
On March 7, 2008, Tissainayagam
was detained without charge by the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) of
the Sri Lankan police. At the time he was the editor of an online newspaper, OutReach.sl.com. He was
held for more than five months until being charged with publishing and
distributing a magazine containing material alleged to have brought the
government into disrepute.
Earlier this year, United States President Barack
Obama named Tissainayagam as an
"emblematic example" of the "distressing reality" of courageous journalists who
face intimidation, censorship and
arbitrary arrest for their professional work.
"The IFJ is anxious over the welfare of Tissainayagam
in prison," White said. "Sri Lankan authorities must ensure he is housed in a
safe environment and has access to medical assistance for his deteriorating
The Colombo High Court found Tissainayagam guilty of
inciting ethnic and racial disharmony, of printing and publishing such
material, and of collecting money for the North Eastern Monthly from NGOs.
However, defence lawyers said there was no evidence of
attempts by him to stir up religious, racial or regional conflict. He was being
accused only because he is a Tamil, they said, and because of his criticism of
government and state security forces. The charges against Tissainayagam and two
colleagues, Jesiharan and Valarmathi, were laid under the PTA, a draconian and
"temporary law" that has remained on Sri Lanka's statute books since it
was introduced in 1979.
Since Tissainayagam's arrest, the IFJ has been
concerned about his treatment in detention, including how he was tortured to
make a confession. He was held without explanation for more than 150 days,
during which time he was reportedly tortured and denied medical treatment.
Court hearings were postponed arbitrarily and a human rights case lodged by his
lawyers was not properly investigated.
The IFJ says the prosecution and conviction
is symbolic of crumbling press freedom in Sri Lanka, where at least eight
journalists have been killed since 2007. Others have been beaten, harassed,
detained and threatened with death. Many
journalists have been forced to leave the country for their safety.
The IFJ and its local affilates continue to demand his immediate release and complete unconditional withdrawal of all convictions.