Academics urge Hizbullah, Ahnaf release

  • Allege state-sponsored Islamophobia

BY Pamodi Waravita

A group of 96 academics yesterday (13) called for the immediate release of Attorney-at-Law Hejaaz Hizbullah and poet Ahnaf Jazeem, claiming their arrests took place in a context of unrelenting anti-Muslim mobilisations that have severely affected the social fabric of the country.

“Hizbullah’s arrest and continued detention is an attack on the rights of lawyers and the rule of law. Jazeem’s arrest and continued detention without charge represents an attack on the freedom of expression and pluralism, and a broader war on ideas. As can be seen from the progress of the two cases, the rights of Hizbullah and Jazeem have been clearly violated, and questionable tactics have been and continue to be used to manufacture the cases against them. In custody, their basic needs for health and safety have been neglected,” the statement by the group of academics read.

Both Hizbullah and Jazeem have been detained under the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act (PTA) over their alleged involvement in the Easter Sunday terror attacks.

The academics claimed that the arrests have occurred against a backdrop of highly organised anti-Muslim mobilisations to stigmatise and isolate the Muslim community. They highlighted Minister of Public Security Sarath Weerasekera’s plans to shut down 1,000 madrasa schools (schools of Islamic teaching and learning), the proposed ban on the burqa (full-face cover), and the previous and since rescinded mandatory cremation policy for the Covid-19 dead adopted by the Ministry of Health.

“These trends are not new. They are a continuation of heightened violence against Muslims that span a decade. Starting in 2012, organised attacks on mosques and demonstrations against Muslims, including an anti-Halal campaign, culminated in horrific acts of violence, including the Aluthgama and Digana riots. In parallel, highly politicised campaigns have targeted Muslim individuals; for instance, Dr. Shafi Shihabdeen was arrested on false allegations of forced sterilisation, and activist Ramzy Razeek was detained for condemning the anti-Muslim witch hunt post Easter Sunday bombings. Unlike the zeal with which these cases are pursued, state institutions responsible for ensuring public safety have failed to prevent anti-Muslim violence, and no one has been held accountable so far,” said the statement.

Accordingly, the academics have alleged that the targeting of Muslims is occurring while authoritarianism and militarisation are increasing in the country, which is also weakening the country’s democratic institutions.

Jazeem was arrested in connection to his Tamil language poetry anthology, Navarasam (Nine Emotions), which the authorities have alleged promotes “extremist” ideology. However, various parties have since questioned this allegation, pointing out that translations of his work show the exact opposite, where his poems are explicitly against war and violence. A number of local and international organisations, including Amnesty International, have condemned this arbitrary arrest and called for the poet’s immediate release.

Hizbullah was arrested on 14 April 2020 under the PTA for allegedly being involved in the 2019 Easter Sunday terror attacks, although he was only charged a year later in March. At the time of his arrest, his alleged crimes were “aiding and abetting” one of the Easter Sunday bombers, although it later emerged that he had only represented one of the bombers’ family in two land-related cases. He is now being charged with speech-related offences under the PTA and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act. However, these charges are based on statements made by minors to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), which the children maintain they were coerced and threatened to make.

The academics who signed the letter include Prof. Liyanage Amarakeerthi (University of Peradeniya),  Dr. Visakesa Chandrasekaram (University of Colombo),  Ruwanthie de Chickera (visiting lecturer at the Open University of Sri Lanka), Prof. Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri (University of Colombo), Tracy Holsinger (visiting lecturer at the the Open University of Sri Lanka), Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda (University of Colombo), Prof. Saumya Liyanage (University of the Visual and Performing Arts), and Dr. Ahilan Kadirgamar (University of Jaffna), among others.