As Ahnaf Jazeem languishes in detention for writing poems that were said to have advocated peace and harmony, many academics and human rights activists believe that arbitrary arrests on minority communities are an extension of the ethnic issue. He is one of many people who has been detained under charges of violating the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) which was enacted in 1979 to counter separatist insurgencies, particularly the LTTE. The law allows arrests for unspecified ‘unlawful activities’ without warrant and permits detention for up to 18 months without the authorities having to produce the suspect before a court pre-trial. According to an annual survey by the international body Committee to Protect Journalists, as many as 274 journalists have been imprisoned as at December 1, 2020. Out of them, two-thirds have been charged with anti-state crimes such as terrorism or membership in banned groups. However, many academics, writers and activists who condemn arbitrary arrests are of the view that this incident is an example of the failure in the state machinery.
The fault in his stars
The young poet who hails from Silavathurai, Mannar is the author of ‘Navarasam’, a book of poems published in July 2017. The anthology includes humour, courage and even political themes, but those who have reviewed his book opine that he was critical of US Imperialism, Rohingya Genocide and the Islamic State. Around 1000 copies were printed and distributed, but little did he know that his freedom to express had limits. Three years later, in May 2020, Jazeem was arrested on grounds that he was aiding and abetting terrorism where according to the Criminal Investigation Department some poems refer to ISIS. But eminent Tamil language academics are of the view that his book of poems has been completely misinterpreted. Many civil rights activists view that while the allegation of the state’s criminal investigating machinery that Hizbullah has been directly linked to the Easter Sunday attacks is false, Jazeem’s arrest is wrongful and unjustifiable.
Lawyer demands immediate release
“Jazeem’s poems advocate for peace and social unity where he calls upon people to get together to build a better world,” opined Sanjaya Wilson, attorney-at-law and President of the Action Committee for the Defense of Freedom of Art and Expression. “So far he hasn’t been produced to courts and therefore we cannot obtain bail. He’s under detention orders. But what is appalling is the fact that his book was given to a team of psychiatrists at Lady Ridgeway hospital who arrived at a conclusion based on a translation done by a sworn translator. What would happen if Shakespeare’s poetry is translated word to word? So according to available information the team of psychiatrists has released another report based on this paraphrased translation claiming that the poems advocate violence, hatred and contain sexual content which are harmful for children,” said Wilson.
But Wilson said that the book isn’t banned and six copies are available at a Sri Lanka public library as well. “He was a gem to his community but was he was wrongfully charged with connections to terrorist activities and baseless criminal allegations. More arrests are happening now with aim to subjugate or pressure the minority communities and to divide and rule the working class.”
He further said they would file a Fundamental Rights application demanding the immediate release of Jazeem and called upon everybody who support democracy to come forward and voice out in favour of his release.
An extension of the ethnic issue
From time to time, authors who have attempted to fully exercise freedom of expression were interrogated, imprisoned and their works were censored. Manjula Wediwardana’s ‘Mary Nam Wu Maria’ faced a similar plight where he was also interrogated by the CID for penning a novel that transcended the limits of religious boundaries. Speaking on Jazeem’s case, Wediwardana said that according to Prof. M. A. Nuhman, a professor of Tamil at the Peradeniya University, Jazeem’s book of poems doesn’t contain any violent content. “How can someone do a Google Translation of a poem? Ahnaf chooses to express his ideas in the Tamil language. Those with the Sinhala-Buddhist mentality suspect those who speak in Tamil. This incident clearly shows the distancing we have with the Tamil language. It is also an extension of the ethnic issue at hand. So far he’s only being detained without filing any charges or producing him in courts. Those who are in power draft laws to favour them and not the common man.” said Wediwardana who fled Sri Lanka because his life was under threat and is now domiciled in France.
He also said that nobody can suppress thoughts and expressions, but that its often challenged in a hegemonic backdrop. “Irrespective of race, religion and ethnicity, everybody should have the freedom to express their thoughts,” he opined while blaming the influences of Victorian morality.
Grotesque failure of state machinery
Writer, critic and fiction editor at Strange Horizons –a weekly magazine of and about speculative fiction Vajra Chandrasekara said, “We can correctly say that Mannaaramudhu Ahnaf is in detention because of a grotesque failure of state machinery and the police. But we would also be correct to say that he is in detention because that state machinery is working successfully, exactly as designed by a repressive state and a deeply racist Sinhala Buddhist society. The machinery itself is grotesque. The magistrate seeks to justify the nonsensical detention by any means necessary, requiring translators and psychiatrists to shame their professions by going along with the farce. The CID is intent on the absurd prosecution of targets of convenience like Hejaaz Hizbullah and Ahnaf Jazeem because they want to claim that some progress has been made in their investigation of the Easter bombings. The pretence that any of this has anything to do with justice or the truth grows thinner by the day.”
He only wrote ‘don’t take guns but use pens for your struggle
“Ahnaf’s poetry has nothing to do with extremism,” opined human rights activist Shreen Saroor. “He only wrote ‘don’t take guns but use pens for your struggle.’ He’s a graduate from Neleemiah Institute of Islamic Studies and was teaching Tamil literature at a school in Puttalam. This school follows the government approved English medium curriculum and is still functioning. But one parapet wall divides this school and Hejaaz Hizbullah’s Charity Organisation which is in the adjoining land. Since this building was abandoned, some A/L students who were traveling from afar have decided to stay there. Ahnaf too has thought he would reside there since he comes all the way from Mannar. But somehow an arrest warrant was issued on him on charges of aiding and abetting terrorism.” said Saroor.
ICCPR Act used against minority communities
She further said that she observes a spike in arbitrary arrests done in this nature. “During the Easter Sunday bombings, emergency regulations, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and PTA were enforced. But there’s continuous abuse of PTA. Sri Lanka is one of the countries to have taken the lead to introduce the ICCPR Act, but it has been used against many people in the minority communities. We don’t know the numbers that have been taken but prisons are overcrowding. We don’t know why they are being arbitrarily arrested and not being produced to courts. Besides the courts are not functioning as well,” she added.
PTA’s draconian avatar
“Based on information in the public domain, Ahnaf seems to have been detained due to a book of poems, which supposedly promotes extremism, but actually calls for an end to extremism and anti-violence,” said lawyer and human rights advocate Ambika Satkunanathan. “Like Ramzy Razeek, who was detained under the ICCPR, disturbingly, persons who call for an end to violence and bigotry are being arrested and detained, while those who incite ethnic and religious hatred are not being held accountable. Further, PTA is a Draconian law that denies the arrested person many due process rights, and allows to detention for up to 18 months without being produced before a judge. Therefore PTA creates space for many rights violations including torture.” she added.
Speaking on the incident, Minister of Mass Media Keheliya Rambukwella said that he cannot interfere with the judiciary. “They (those detained) have been arrested and will be interrogated by the law enforcement authorities.”
He also said that the Press Council Act will be amended to include new regulations since it was drafted 20-30 years ago at a time when there was no social media. “There has to be a place for the people to complain. Otherwise 21 million people in this country will have no say.”
When contacted, Minister of Public Security Sarath Weerasekara said that it is important to think of national security and the security of people. “Many people who have been arrested have had direct or indirect links to the Easter Sunday bombings. As far as the attacks are concerned we have submitted 32 files to indict 32 individuals while another 241 people are being kept under detention orders. Ahnaf is one of them.”
Responding to a query about claims of authorities misinterpreting Ahnaf’s poems, Weerasekara said that it has been brought to his notice and that he would personally look into the case and see how justice could be done.