Photo courtesy of Twitter
The gold balloon tubes spelling out the words “welcome back” still hang in the living room, swaying in the gentle breeze one month after he finally returned home, a stark reminder of the fragility of his freedom. It had been 22 months in detention under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) for what are widely believed to be cooked up charges by a government desperate to find a scapegoat for the Easter Sunday attacks in April 2019.
Even as the handcuffs were being clamped tightly around his wrists that day in April 2020, Hejaaz Hizbullah never believed the government, and the Attorney General’s Department in particular where he had spent several years as a State Counsel, would actually go through with his arrest and detention.
A human rights lawyer who fought fiercely for the freedom of many people who had been arrested under the PTA for the flimsiest of reasons, Hejaaz, 41, found himself in the ironic position of being incarcerated under the same act, fighting for his very survival.
A social media campaign, Justice for Hejaaz, chronicled reports of progress and support from a variety of sources, including his wife Maram, an Egyptian national, who posted regularly highlighting her husband’s plight. “662 days incarcerated, 662 days deprived of basic rights, 662 days away from family, 662 days of vilification, 662 days silenced. What more torture could be done to an innocent man?” she asked.
Maram spoke to Groundviews after his release and said, “We always thought it was not going to finish today or tomorrow or in ten years. He has even thought of telling me to return to my country and telling his family to forget about him and move on with their lives and that he would fight this case on his own.” Hejaaz’s trial is going on in the Puttalam High Court and he has to fulfill stringent bail conditions.
One of the few people to get bail under the PTA – including 25 year old poet and teacher Ahnaf Jazeem, who was released after 18 months in December last year – his family credits pressure from the international community, local supporters and social media for his freedom.
Designated as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, petitions and statements demanding his release came from international bodies such as the International Commission of Jurists, Law Asia, Human Rights Watch and the International Bar Association as well as European Union MPs and local organisations including the Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Law and Society Trust. Many academics and lawyers also issued statements for his release. His support base included school friends from S. Thomas’ College and friends and colleagues from all over the world, some in positions of influence.
Throughout his incarceration, Maram visited her husband every Saturday whenever she was able to. It entailed several hours of patient waiting in hot and crowded mosquito infested corridors. Even though she was a regular visitor, Maram had to undergo the same tedious bureaucratic process of filling forms and waiting for lackadaisical officials to let her through. She had to conform to unfathomable rules – no apples, they could be injected with poison, but bananas were acceptable.
Even while heavily pregnant, Maram would struggle up the stairs carrying bags of supplies for Hejaaz. The most cruel blow was not being there when his daughter was born in November 2020. When Maram went into labour, Hejaaz spent an anxious night without any news until she delivered the baby. During a phone call Hejaaz asked Maram to make the baby cry so he could hear her voice. He saw his daughter only a few times from a distance before he came out on bail.
Every time Hejaaz visited his lawyer he was strip searched and examined each time.
Hejaaz started his career as a lawyer at the Attorney General’s Department and then, as a Chevening scholar, studied at University College London. He spent several years studying and working in the United Kingdom where one of his mentors, international human rights lawyer Phillipe Sands QC, sparked his interest in human rights law.
Upon his return to Sri Lanka in 2012, Hejaaz was confronted with the rise of the Bodu Bala Sena and the particularly virulent hatred of Galagoda Aththe Gnanasaara. To counter the fake news and misinformation, Hejaaz began documenting hate crimes, writing to defence establishments and appearing for those who were victims of discrimination such as the girl who wanted to wear a hijab to school. He also worked on a number of PTA cases. Then came the Aluthgama riots of 2014, which the police tried to say were only a fight but which Hejaaz argued were coordinated and planned attacks on the Muslim community. During the constitutional coup of 2018, Hejaaz fought to uphold the constitution, becoming a part of the team that defeated the coup. In 2019 he campaigned for the losing candidate in the Presidential election. He continued to represent PTA detainees and also defended Dr. Shafi Shahabdeen, charged for performing illegal sterilization in Ratnapura of which he was acquitted. He spoke out strongly against the unjust practice of forcefully cremating Muslim Covid-19 victims. He became a well known figure; he was rapidly becoming a thorn in the side of the Rajapaksas. The Easter Sunday attacks sealed Hejaaz’s fate.
The CID and the TID tried their best to find collaborators to back the narrative that Hejaaz was involved in the attacks. Searches through his files revealed connections to such people as Rishad Bathiudeen and Azath Salley, both arrested under the PTA. Mr. Bathuideen is out on bail while Mr. Salley was acquitted. The connection was easily explained since Hejaaz had represented them in land cases. They put pressure on several people to come forward as witnesses. They suggested he was in league with the Qatar Charity, banned in Saudi Arabia and the UAE although the same fund was supporting schools in Sri Lanka; they connected him to a charity called Save the Pearls that had ties to one of the bombers; and they insisted he had visited a madrassa in 2018 and given an incendiary speech when he could prove he hadn’t been there. All their efforts came to nothing and now the case rests on one witness who, in a serious legal lapse, was shown a photograph of Hejaaz before he was called for a line up. The witness said his lawyer was retained by the CID.
After his release on bail, Ahnaf Jazeem gave an interview to the media in which he said, “They wanted me to tell them that Hejaaz Hizbullah paid me a salary while I was teaching. I said I did not know anything about Hejaaz Hizbullah and I had not even seen him ever in my life.”
The case is sure to drag on with many postponements and delays while the wheels of justice turn ever so slowly. Meanwhile Hejaaz and his family can only wait and hope that in the end, he will be a completely free man.
Because Hejaaz is an educated, articulate, well connected man who knows his rights and is not frightened to fight for them and can confidently speak truth to power, he is out of jail today. There are many hundreds of PTA prisoners – Tamils, Muslims and some Sinhalese – who remain incarcerated without any recourse to courts. Some Tamil prisoners have been there for over a decade although the PTA says they have to be brought before a judge in 18 months. People in jail for 12 years have been recently released without charge. After the Easter Sunday attacks, young Muslim men have been taken in for listening to a sermon at a mosque or taking a trip with a moulavi.
Ahnaf was arrested because his book cover had a photograph of ISIS fighters but the photograph was used merely as an illustration for his poems that condemned Islamic extremism and the ISIS in particular. “They forced me during this time to deliver a confession. They threatened me saying that they would keep me in prison for 15 or 20 years. At the time, I had a proposal for an arranged marriage – they threatened me saying that the girl would also be arrested. That is how they threatened a confession out of me,” Ahnaf told the media. “I was also made to kneel down with my hands cuffed behind me, and threatened in harsh language to confess that I was connected to ISIS or Al Qaeda. They would hit other people while I watched and would ask “Will you do as we say or hit you like this?”.
Interviews with relatives of PTA detainees confirm that many detainees are tortured and threatened until they agree to sign confessions for things they have not done. The same questions are asked ad nauseum in the hope that the answers will change. Families are threatened. The detainees are subject to inhuman conditions in cramped, hot cells with no proper food. The confession statements are in Sinhalese, a language they cannot read or understand. In the absence of actual evidence, the signed confessions can form the basis of charges and conviction. If they refuse to sign, they face the prospect of decades in jail and a life they can never get back.
It is time to do away with the PTA – even President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had to instruct the police not to use it unfairly in an admission that the act is indeed being abused.
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