News

‘Freeing’ the freedom of expression and Ahnaf Jazeem 

By Nethmi Rajawasam 

 

The date of 16 May marked a year since the Mannar-based Muslim poet Ahnaf Jazeem had been arrested by the Counter Terrorism and Investigation Division (TID) – on allegations which have remained unfounded to date – alleging the poet of spreading extremism with an anthology of poems of his own, called Navarasam (Nine Emotions); alongside teaching Islamist extremism at a Puttalam-based school where the poet had worked as a Tamil literature teacher. 

A year has passed during which the poet has been in the custody of the TID – the TID who have not presented any corroborating evidence and has subsequently, allegedly been coercing and threatening both the poet and his father, into giving self-incriminating statements to support their bogus allegations upon which the TID carried out his arrest, and which to date, are used to justify his continued, arbitrary detention. 

A hearing regarding the Fundamental Rights (FR) case filed on behalf of Ahnaf’s detention and safety, which was supposed to be taken up by the Supreme Court on 6 May was postponed, along with all other cases that were scheduled between 6 May and 14 May – owing to the rising number of Coronavirus cases recorded – which has resulted in no rescheduled date for the hearing being provided, as of yet. 

On 16 May, a joint statement of 13 rights watch and freedom of speech advocacy groups was released by Amnesty International alongside PEN International, vehemently condemning the draconian procedure and ongoing “squalid conditions” in which the poet is being forced to live in. 

The statement highlighted that the anthology, Navarasam, is in fact currently listed in the public library and further reinforced their sentiment by including statements of the poet’s legal representative, Sanjaya Wilson Jayasekera, in which he calls the arrest a directive to “entrench anti Muslim racism” and Tamil language Professor, Macbool Alimmohamed Nuhman’s, in which he notes that the anthology has, “…several poems against extremism, violence, and war.” 

According to Attorney-at-Law Jayasekera, another affidavit has been given by Prof. Godwin Constantine in support of Ahnaf’s FR case, in which the Prof. has stated that he was, “unable to find a single provocative line, or a line which advocates violence or extremism”, and that “many poems in this collection condemn violence”, and that the anthology of poems “condemns violence carried out in the name of “Islam”. 

The said joint statement of Amnesty International and the 12 other rights groups further highlights the ominous nature of the arrest, addressing the use of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act (PTA) – under which Ahnaf was arrested – and its nebulous nature which legitimises individuals detained thereof, not being presented before a court for up to 18 months by the authorities, and, further, foregrounding the concern of the recorded history of the TID which uses, “torture and other forms of ill treatment to obtain forced confessions”. 

The 13 rights watch and freedom of expression advocacy groups who signed the aforementioned joint statement included: PEN International, Amnesty International, the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, the International Working Group on Sri Lanka, the International Truth and Justice Project – Sri Lanka, the Centre for Justice and Accountability, the Australian Centre for International Justice, Article 19, Human Rights Watch, the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism, PEARL and Freemuse. 

In the meantime, separate campaigns were launched by the Sri Lanka Campaign and Amnesty International. The Sri Lanka Campaign, in its 14 May statement, called for the immediate release of the poet and the repeal of the PTA, and further referenced Amnesty International’s statement which called for the public to appeal to the Government, demanding the poet’s release. 

It was further indicated in the statement that, “the arrest of Ahnaf comes amidst the background of increased marginalisation, discrimination and targeting of Sri Lanka’s Muslim community”. 

A public petition launched on 15 May by the Action Committee for the Defence of the Freedom of Art and Expression (ACDAE) in defence of the poet, which demanded the poet’s immediate release, dropping of all criminal investigations and proceedings against him and the payment of compensation, had garnered over 450 signatures within a day of it being launched. The petition was addressed to the Secretary of Defence, the Inspector General of Police and the Attorney General. 

The petition stated that the signatories, “understand that the poet Ahnaf is a victim of the Government’s racist campaign against the Muslim community in Sri Lanka, waged in an attempt to divide the working class on communal lines, suppress its struggles against the Government’s austerity and anti-democratic measures.” It was further mentioned in the statement that the signatories identify that, “poet Ahnaf is a political prisoner and that his unlawful detention is a blatant violation of the freedom of expression and of art of the poet, and of the masses in the country.” 

(The writer is a freelance journalist)