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Poetic injustice: Another writer languishes in prison under PTA in Sri Lanka

Image: Ahnaf Jazeem, a Tamil poet from Mannar, has been in detention for 7 months with no hope of release until March 2021.

In July 2017, 25-year-old Ahnaf Jazeeem published Navarasam, a book of poetry in Tamil. The poems were organised along the themes of the nine rasas concept in Indian aesthetics, about the ‘flavour’ of any artistic work that evokes an emotional response in the audience or reader.

The anthology included poems of wonder, humour, courage, anger, and some verses on political themes. Ahnaf’s poetry was critical of US imperialism, the Rohingya genocide and the Islamic State (IS).

Three years later, the book of verses has condemned Ahnaf to a prison cell for seven long months under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

Jazeem hails from Silavathurai, Mannar and is a tuition teacher at the School of Excellence in Madurankuliya, Puttalam. The poet’s incarceration has failed to make the headlines, but the CID claims his detention is allegedly based on investigations into the Easter Sunday bomb attacks and linked to the case against attorney Hejaaz Hizbullah who has been in detention since April.

Hizbullah has received limited access to his attorneys at best, with CID officers present at every meeting, taking contemporaneous notes of the conversations. To date, Ahnaf has had no legal representation at all.

A hearing in the Mannar poet’s case came up on 8 December, but with lower court functions curtailed by the coronavirus outbreaks all over the capital, the hearing was postponed until March 2021. Being less privileged and powerless, the poet from Mannar is one of thousands of PTA detainees who have fallen through the cracks.

Hizbullah’s lawyers who were contacted by Daily FT about Ahnaf’s case said the poet’s incarceration might have remained completely in the shadows if Navarasam had not come up during a hearing in the well-known attorney’s case at the Fort Magistrate’s court on 16 September.

During that hearing the CID told the Fort Magistrate that they suspected Navarasam was promoting “extremism” and announced they had arrested the writer. Ahnaf was dragged into the CID investigation after copies of Navarasam were found at the premises where Ahnaf and others conducted after-school tuition classes for village children in Madurankuliya.

The school is situated on a property owned by the Save the Pearls charity, Daily FT learns. Save the Pearls is a charity Hizbullah has been associated with that the CID has been investigating for over eight months with no significant breakthroughs.

Ironically, the CID officers had confiscated the book and arrested Ahnaf even though they could not read a word contained in the anthology. They were triggered by a poem in which Ahnaf is extremely critical of the Islamic State (ISIS) and calls for the caliphate to be defeated.

Unfortunately, the photo chosen to accompany the verse for publication was of an ISIS fighter in uniform, a source fluent in Tamil who read the poem told Daily FT. Ahnaf’s poem recalls that the Prophet Mohammed lived in Medina among Jews, Christians and pagans, where all the communities lived in harmony, and encourages his readers to “defeat ISIS” if they ever stepped on Sri Lankan soil. Unable to read the verse to determine its meaning, the CID moved swiftly to arrest Ahnaf Jazeem.

On the basis that the book had been circulated among minors, the Fort Magistrate reportedly ordered a sworn translation of Navarasam and an evaluation of the translated material by a team of child psychiatrists from the Lady Ridgeway Hospital.

These experts, basing their report on direct word-to-word translation of the literary work of selected sections of the book, claimed that the book could be harmful to children. According to their report produced to court, the book “incites violence, arouses sexual feelings, promotes suicide, glorifies death, talks of perceived injustice against Muslims across the world and incites hatred against the perpetrators of the violence in some of the poems”.

But other writers and native Tamil speakers who spoke to Daily FT about Ahnaf’s incarceration said the book contained no such messages. Quite the opposite, they said, because Ahnaf’s writings make it clear he abhorred violence. In fact, one of the poems in Navarasam was entirely about following the concept of ‘ahimsa’, or non-violence, in which Ahnaf even uses the word ‘ahimsa’ in Tamil.

Lohan Gunaweera, a visual and performance artist, writer and translator who has been raising awareness about Ahnaf’s detention told Daily FT that getting psychiatrists to assess the impact of a book of poems was a problematic approach in the first place. “But evaluating poetry with no understanding of the original language in which the verses were written when the life and wellbeing of the poet is hanging by a thread on the basis of such evaluations is highly objectionable,” Gunaweera said.

Speaking to Daily FT, Sri Lankan fiction writer and editor Vajra Chandrasekera said Ahnaf’s writings had never been considered in the least radical prior to 2020.

“The assessments based purely on whatever garbled nonsense resulted from rushing the text past translators appointed by court, who almost certainly have no idea how to translate poetry in the first place. The entire exercise is an attempt to make this farcical arrest appear legitimate by appealing to medical authority in a context where it simply does not apply,” Chandrasekera added.

Gunaweera told Daily FT that he had obtained an electronic copy of ‘Navarasam’ and consulted reputed writers who were fluent in Tamil who told him there was no basis for the claim that the book was harmful.

“The poems in Navarasam actually emit a refreshing outlook grounded in humanism. The poet grapples with a range of themes that are of sociocultural and political significance,” he said.

Hizbullah, who was arrested one month before the poet, remains in detention under the PTA. Relentless lobbying for his release locally and internationally have had no effect on the Government. Lawyers for Hizbullah recently filed a Writ Application stating that he had not been given access to counsel since September. For Ahnaf, activists said the key was to get him a lawyer and separate his case from Hizbullah’s as soon as possible.

Activist Shreen Saroor, who founded the Women’s Action Network in Mannar, told Daily FT that the Government had convenient tools in the draconian PTA and the ICCPR Act to take issue with anything written by a Muslim as being extremist.

“Ahnaf’s writings make him appear to be an enthusiastic and excitable young man. But these laws are now routinely used mostly against minority ethnic communities, when they dare to express their frustration, anger or beliefs,” Saroor said.

Tamil National Alliance Jaffna District MP M.A. Sumanthiran told Parliament last week that the minority communities were consistently on the “butt-end of justice” in Sri Lanka. The sentiments are echoed by Muslim community leaders who complained that since the Easter Sunday attacks, law enforcement has had carte blanch to arbitrarily arrest and detain Muslims, which has terrified the community, and particularly its less privileged sections.

“No resurrection on Resurrection Sunday”, wrote Ahnaf Jazeem on 22 April 2019, one day after the Easter Sunday bomb attacks killed 269 people in near-simultaneous blasts across churches and luxury hotels in Colombo and Batticaloa.

“Killing one person is to kill all mankind, did you not learn,” he wrote, quoting from the Quran as he admonished the bombers and grieved with the victims. “My tears flare for the survivors,” the poem concludes.

None of these words reflect a sympathy with violence or terrorism.

However, Ahnaf’s writings have less to do with his detention, which is largely the consequence of a broken and incompetent system and delays and inefficiencies in the judicial process. The process quite literally, does not speak his language, and it is a deficiency for which Ahnaf will pay a heavy price, doomed to spend at least three more months in a prison cell.

But throughout history, writers and poets have been imprisoned, persecuted and killed because of their work, often for crimes such as “corrupting young minds”. The trend has continued to hold in the 21st century in general and in Sri Lanka in particular, but the peaceful expression of ideas should never lead to a jail-term or worse in a civilised society.

“This arrest and detention are a serious violation of Ahnaf’s freedom of expression and his fundamental rights. He should be freed immediately,” Gunaweera demanded.

By A Special Correspondent/ Daily FT

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