The case of Jaseekaran and the Rule of Law in Sri Lanka
On 26 October 2009, B. Jaseekaran and V. Valarmathi were released as the state council withdrew the charges filed against them. Both of them were partners of journalist J. Tissainayagam who was sentenced to 20 years of hard labour on 31 August 2009. Both cases were heard at the Colombo High Court and were interlinked: Tissainayagam was charged for writing and publishing two articles in the North Eastern Herald, a magazine he edited. Jaseekaran and Valarmathi were charged for printing the magazine. In both cases another charge was made for collecting money from the LTTE.
Jaseekaran and Valarmathi were arrested by the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) on 6 March 2008. It took more than hundred days to file charges against them. They were released on the 600th day of their detention.
They were kept by the TID for more than 90 days under detention order from the Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse, even though in a separate case the Supreme Court has ruled that the maximum period a person can be detained under such detention order is 90 days.
Fundamental Rights petitions filed on behalf of Jaseekaran and Valarmathi on 23 June 2008 came up for inquiry before a three-member bench of the Supreme Court chaired by Justice Shiranee Bandaranaike on 19 August 2008. Jaseekaran was granted leave to proceed for the alleged infringement of his fundamental right to freedom from torture, right to equality and equal protection of the law, freedom from arbitrary detention, freedom of speech and expression including publication and freedom to engage in any lawful occupation, trade, business, enterprise etc. Valarmathi was granted leave to proceed for the alleged infringement of her fundamental rights to the above as well as freedom from arbitrary arrest.
On 4 September 2008, the three-member bench comprised of Chief Justice Asoka de Silva, Justices N. G. Amaratunge and Chandra Ekanayake fixed the inquiry for 30 October 2009.
The arrest of Jaseekaran and Valarmathi was portrayed as breaking an LTTE spy ring in Colombo by certain nationalist media in Sri Lanka. All these newspaper reports were sourced to unnamed intelligence officers of the TID. The official website of the defense ministry published a number of editorials alleging serious crimes to both of them. Following quotes posted on 30 January 2009 under the heading â€œWho are the Human Rights Violators?” can still be found on the Ministry of Defense Website, www.defense.lk, on 2 November 2009, one week after their release:
The Ministry of Defense
â€œThe suspect Vettivel Jaseekaran, Batticaloa was running a printing press at No. 317, Jampettah Street, Kotahena, Colombo 13 and printing literature against the government by aiding and abetting the LTTE propaganda work, thus damaging the reputation of the Sri Lankan government. Police conducted further investigations and sealed off the printing press and also took the van used by the suspect into custody. [â€¦]
The suspect Vadivelu Valarmathi, Avarangal West, Puttur who is supposed to be an associate (finance handler) of Jaseekaran, the owner of the printing press at No. 317, Jampettah Street, Kotahena. The suspect has aided and abetted to LTTE in the propaganda work of the LTTE.” (accessed on 2 November 2009)
Another editorial published on 22 December 2008 on the Ministry of Defense website leveled more serious charges:
“The arrest and detention of Mr. Jaseekaran was shown to the world as a gross violation of media freedom. The perpetrators behind these false allegations introduced the suspect as an independent Tamil journalist but refrained from revealing his involvement with the terrorist propaganda work.
In 1993, he had come to Colombo to work as a typesetter at the LTTE funded newspaper “Saranihar”. This newspaper was run by one of the key agents in the LTTE propaganda machinery. In 1994, Mr. J had returned to Batticaloa to work as a local reporter for LTTE publications. He had been employed in this task till 2000 by the LTTE.
Also, the suspect has confessed that he had been an LTTE intelligence agent in Batticaloa since the mid-90s. He had provided intelligence on security forces movements, deployments, political developments, etc in the east to LTTE intelligence wing leader Atpudan Master. He has admitted that the LTTE had bombed in an Army bus killing two soldiers and 4 civilians in 1996 in Sathurukoondan on information given by him.
Also, he had conducted psychological operations for the LTTE from 1998 to 2000 through a street drama group called Theatre Action Group.
In Colombo, the suspects had started another printing press for the LTTE under the name E-kuality graphics in 2002. Since March 2002, the suspect along with Shivakuamar had run the business for the LTTE under their names.
In December 2005, Mr. J had received orders and funds as well from the LTTE to start the website for the outfit to carryout its propaganda campaign.” (accessed on 2 November 2009)
The Attorney General Department
The Ministry of Defense website tells us these charges are based on Jaseekaran’s so-called confession. At the same time, when releasing Jaseekaran, the Judge stated that the only evidence led by the prosecution so far was the alleged confession by Jaseekaran. In addition, the Voir-dire inquiry presented in front of her had not reached a conclusion, and the evidence presented before courts so far had given rise to suspicions whether the confession was voluntary.
The so-called confession was written in Sinhala and Jaseekaran had evidence to show that he was tortured. Most of the allegations made by the Ministry of Defense website were not in the charge sheet produced in the courts.
On 21 November 2008, another development related to this case was reported, just one week before the Supreme Court was to take up the fundamental rights petition of Jaseekaran and Valarmathi!
“The Attorney General (AG) in Sri Lanka has expressed his willingness to withdraw the charges against the publisher of an imprisoned journalist.
AG Mohan Peiris, PC, has informed Colombo High Court through state counsels that the charges against Vetrial Jaseekaran and his wife will be withdrawn provided the accused withdraw their Fundamental Rights (FR) petitions filed in the Supreme Court against police Terrorist Investigation Division (TID).” Â (accessed on 2 November 2009)
The deal was agreed upon, the fundamental rights petition was withdrawn, Jaseekaran and Valarmathi were released. Would the Attorney General department have come up with a bargain if they could have proved the case against Jaseekaran and Valarmathi? If Jaseekaran and Valarmathi could have proved the case would not it have some impact on the Fundamental Rights petition as well?Â Was it the reason that the State did not have a strong case against both of them? Did the Attorney General’s department use the possible prolong detention of both of them as bargain to get rid of the Fundamental Rights petition? Is the role of the Attorney General department not to protect human rights of the people, rather than to bargain withdrawal of Fundamental Rights petitions? What is the logic of this bargain by the Attorney General’s department?
As layman my understanding of Fundamental Rights petitions is that once filed in the Supreme Court they have to take their course. Human Rights are fundamental rights that cannot be compromised. In recent times, it was reported on two occasions that journalists who were arbitrarily arrested, “voluntarily” agreed to withdraw their Fundamental Rights cases in the Supreme Court. The first case was the case of Sudaroli and Uthayan chief Editor N. Vithiyatharan, who was abducted, assaulted, named and shamed by the defense secretary on a TV channel but later released without any chargers filed against him.Â The second case was the one of Sunday Leader journalist Arthur Vamanan, who was arbitrarily arrested and detained. According to Sunday Leader the case against him was a complete fabrication.Â Nevertheless, it was reported recently that the Fundamental Rights petition would be withdrawn as a compromise with the police.
We, the citizens
This brings us back to the basic questions of rule of law in our society: The defense ministry through its official website is enjoying complete impunity in naming and shaming citizens of our country. In addition, a number of editorials were published in the Ministry of Defense website which has accused journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders on various unproven charges. Finally, the Attorney General’s department, which should be an independent agency protecting citizens’ rights, is bargaining Fundamental Rights against their possible loss of court cases.
And it is not surprising that all four citizens who had to withdraw their Fundamental Rights cases were Tamils.