Colombo, Human Rights, Human Security, Media and Communications, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

100 days in hard labour and counting: The plight of J.S. Tissainayagam

Today is Human Rights Day, which honours the UN’s adoption and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on 10 December 1948, the first global enunciation of human rights.

Today is also the one hundredth day Tamil journalist J.S. Tissanaiyagam will spend imprisoned doing hard labour. He has already spent over six hundred days in prison. On 31 August 2009, Tissa was sentenced by the High Court in Colombo to an incredible twenty years of rigorous imprisonment under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Nimalka Fernando, a leading human rights activist, called the judgement a travesty of justice, a position Groundviews unequivocally endorsed and associates itself with. As the eminent International Commission of Jurists noted, Tissa’s case,

“…raises a number of concerns regarding fair trial standards, including the judge’s interlocutory decision to allow into evidence what counsel for Mr Tissainayagam described as a forced confession, and subsequent denial of the accused’s right to appeal this decision. The [ICJ] also expressed concern that Judge Wijesundara is the sister of the officer who signed the Indictment against Mr. Tissainayagam.”

The report went on to say that,

“Criminalizing written expression without evidence of resulting violence, equating terrorism with an intention to cause feelings of ill will, stripping accused persons of basic rights, admitting into evidence confessions while in police custody and shifting the burden to the accused to prove coercion, mandating harsh minimum sentences – all of these factors pose a threat to the rights of citizens to express controversial views, a pillar of a law-based democratic society.”

When Groundviews first flagged Tissa’s case, we noted that,

“Salient points of Tissa’s case point to a larger and more chilling deterioration of media freedom in Sri Lanka under the Rajapakse administration.”

In May 2009, President Barack Obama referred to Tissa as an emblematic example of the distressing reality of journalist’s jailed for their writing. Late November, it was reported in web media that President Obama wrote “an urgent letter to the President Mahinda Rajapakse for the release of Senior Journalist Tissainayagam”. Further, the US State Department suspected the imprisonment to be politically motivated, as noted in the recent report on Sri Lanka by the US Committee on Foreign Relations. Many in Sri Lanka concur. In her statement, Ms. Navanethem Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights at the 12th session of the Human Rights Council said,

“We should all be dismayed by the recent sentence of twenty years’ imprisonment imposed on Sri Lankan journalist J.S. Tissainayagam, who had been critical of the army’s treatment of Tamil civilians. His conviction raises serious concerns about respect for the right to freedom of expression.”

Yet no amount of domestic and international pressure and condemnation seems able to get Tissa out of prison. As this site noted previously, Tissa’s case is more than a set of ludicrous charges against an individual leading to detention, torture, arrest and imprisonment. The conduct of the case, the legal and the evidentiary basis of the judgement, the length of time Tissa was interrogated in prison without any charge, the inhuman manner in which he was treated, the enforced confession and his miserable fate today are all carefully engineered to generate fear and anxiety amongst other independent journalists and media. In this, the Rajapakse regime has been tremendously successful.

Revealingly, the most compelling article we have published on Tissa’s plight comes from a staunch supporter of President Rajapakse and the war against the LTTE. Read nearly six thousand times to date, Sandun Ratnaweera’s The sentencing J.S Tissainayagam: Not in my name! poses a pertinent question,

“I heard today that Daya Master the LTTE Media head had been released on bail and that according to the Daily Mirror the CID found that they had committed “no crime under the prevention of terrorism act.” If Daya Master, whose only livelihood for the last 30 years was blatant LTTE propaganda and who obviously drew a pay check from the LTTE every month is, in the eyes of our courts, not guilty of any crime under the PTA, I am really at a loss to understand the sentence handed down to Tissainayagam.”

To date, the regime has no answer.


Other cogent articles on Tissanaiyagam published on this site include: