The Silenced Poet
“We will grit our teeth and with submission to god, wait,
even if the adversary aims at us the stone in the catapult sling,
and aims the arrow at us, with his bow.
Even if we have to walk through fire, Languish without food, Be struck with disease,
We will follow the path of Ahimsa (non violence)”
– Thaneer (Water), Poem by Ahnaf Jazeem, from the collection Navarasam (Nine Emotions), translated by Prof. Sumathy Sivamohan and Dr. Mahendran Thiruvarangan
The author of the above poem is a 26-year-old Muslim poet from the remote village of Chilawathurai in the Mannar District. In another poem in the same book – “Navarasam”, published in June 2017, Ahnaf had said that he will only celebrate Eid al-Fitr (the end of the Ramadan fast) when there is a new world free of war as Muslims all over the world are suffering due to the hate and fire spread by the black-clad Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Today (14), on Eid, Ahnaf has been suffering in prison for 363 days without charge, with no courts examining his detention, no meaningful access to lawyers, and under harsh conditions including torture, cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment.
Other poems by Ahnaf in the book critique the US and the UN, discuss violent acts committed by the ISIS, and repudiate its attempts to speak on behalf of Islam. The work ends with a question about how the obstacles to peace can be overcome and when truth will see the light of the day. A day after the Easter Sunday terror attacks on 21 April 2019, Ahnaf published a poem on his blog, titled “Not a Day of Resurrection, but a Day of Life Lost”, sympathising with the innocents killed, condemning the attackers, and disassociating the terrorists from the Islamic religion.
Accusations against Ahnaf
Ahnaf was arrested on 16 May 2020 by the Counter Terrorism Investigation Division (CTID) of the Police. The CTID, in a report submitted to the Colombo Chief Magistrate’s Court on 11 December 2020, alleged that Ahnaf’s book “Navarasam” contained “extremist ideas”. However, no specific poetry that is alleged to contain extremist ideas has been presented to the courts for one year. Many others and I have read the originals or the translations of these poems, and our feelings are aptly expressed by eminent scholar and University of Peradeniya retired Professor of Tamil M.A. Nuhman, who stated: “I find nothing on extremism in these poems. On the contrary, there are several poems against extremism, violence and war in this collection. The poet seems to be most concerned about religious morality, humanism, love and a peaceful life”. According to Prof. Nuhman, authorities who cannot read and understand Tamil may have thought that there might be some extremism since there are a few pictures of persons with arms in the book. Media reports indicated that the Police had seen and checked the book during a raid on Ahnaf’s house in 2019, and Ahnaf’s Fundamental Rights (FR) petition before the Supreme Court (SC) says that the Police had custody of the book 13 days before the arrest of Ahnaf. These would have given the Police ample opportunity to verify and obtain accurate translations of the contents before arresting him.
The CTID report to the Chief Magistrate also alleged that Ahnaf had shown videos containing “extremist ideas” to some students and tried to inspire extremist thinking. Ahnaf has spent a year in detention, and yet there is no evidence that has been produced to courts that can substantiate any of these allegations. According to the petition before the SC, in July 2019, Ahnaf took up an appointment as a Tamil language and literature teacher at a private international school in Puttalam. He had once shown students an Al Jazeera (television news channel) video containing footage of a leader of ISIS in order to denounce their violence and to teach the students not to be carried away by his false preaching which had nothing to do with the Islamic religion. This is consistent with his poetry, and the comments of those who had known him in Mannar and Puttalam.
Lack of due process
Throughout the 363 days of detention, Ahnaf has been denied meaningful access to lawyers. After many requests and nearly 10 months after the arrest, two lawyers were permitted to meet Ahnaf once for 19 minutes, but despite objections from the lawyers, CTID officers listened in on and recorded the privileged lawyer – client conversation. The lawyers made official written complaints to the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) on 9 March 2021 and to the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) on 16 March 2021, but have not received any formal written responses. Ahnaf’s father made a complaint to the HRCSL within a week of the arrest in May 2020, but this also has not received a response.
The lawyers letter to the HRCSL on 16 March 2021 and the FR petition filed before the SC in April 2021 pointed out that Ahnaf was being subjected to torture, cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, by being handcuffed to a chair, handcuffed while sleeping, as well as being detained in unhygienic and suffocating conditions. The petitions had also stated that Ahnaf had been bitten by a rat and suffered from ureteral stones, a skin rash, and psychological breakdowns. He was also exposed to the dangers of contracting Covid-19. Ahnaf also had very limited opportunities to be visited by his family and to make phone calls to his family.
The petitions also highlight that Ahnaf has been compelled to sign a statement without being given the chance to read and understand the contents. In a move that the lawyers describe as an attempt to coerce Ahnaf into making a self incriminating statement, the CTID had requested the Chief Magistrate to give an opportunity for Ahnaf to make a statement to the Chief Magistrate on 11 December 2020, along the lines that he was exposed to extremist ideas while he was learning at the Naleemiah Institute of Islamic Studies and thereafter, as a teacher, taught extremism to his students. The Court records indicate that the suspect (Ahnaf) had not said anything and that the Chief Magistrate had decided to provide more time to think about this and fixed a later date. The FR petition and the lawyers letter to the HRCSL also say that the CTID pressured Ahnaf’s father to convince Ahnaf to make a similar statement, in which case he could be released soon, and that if not, he may be in detention for 10-15 years.
Illegal detention orders, and the abusive PTA and ICCPR Act
The CTID reported to the Chief Magistrate that Ahnaf had committed offences under the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act (PTA), No. 48 of 1979 as amended and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act, No. 56 of 2007 as amended and that he had been detained through detention orders under the PTA. But his lawyers have argued that the detention orders under which Ahnaf was detained are illegal and hence, his detention is illegal. They have asserted that according to the PTA, detention orders can only be issued by “the Minister” (in charge of the subject of Defence) and that the Act does not provide for the delegation of this authority. The detention orders against Ahnaf had been signed by the President, and during that time, the Constitution did not allow the President to hold any Ministerial position.
Studies have revealed that many PTA trials are based primarily on confessions, which are routinely obtained after torture or threats of torture. A study by the HRCSL reveals that PTA detainees have spent up to 15 years in detention without the commencement of trial, and I have heard of PTA detainees being acquitted by courts after as much as 15 years in detention. I still have unpleasant memories of being arrested and detained under the PTA, and facing reprisals even after my release, including the confiscation of equipment, restrictions on my freedom of expression and overseas travel. It took nearly five years for me to be discharged.
Last year, a prolific Muslim social media commentator Ramzy Razeek was detained for about five months under the ICCPR Act before being released on bail by a High Court (HC) Judge, who made strong remarks about the right to freedom of expression. The case against him still continues, and he is still suffering from ill health after the cruel, inhumane treatment to which he was subjected to during detention. In 2019, Shakthika Sathkumara, an award winning writer, was arrested and held in detention for about five months before he was released on bail by a HC Judge and eventually discharged early this year, nearly two years after the arrest.
The PTA and the ICCPR Act limit judicial supervision, including Magisterial discretion to grant bail, and grant extraordinary discretion to the Police and the Executive, which have been widely abused and used against detainees. These laws are the enemies of the freedom of expression and the right to express dissent, and perpetuate intolerance based on ethnicity and religion, and license authoritarianism. Media reports have quoted the Police Media Spokesman as saying that more than 700 have been arrested under the PTA after the Easter Sunday bombings and that more than 200 are still detained without charges. Most of them are Muslims, and in the case of long term PTA detainees, the majority are Tamils.
As citizens, we must rally against such abusive laws. We must demand justice for the survivors and all those affected by all atrocities such as the Easter Sunday attacks, whether by State or non State actors, but we must also insist on due process and justice for the suspects and accused, especially ones detained under abusive laws like the PTA and the ICCPR Act, such as Ahnaf.
“Why take on the name of the almighty, when you have taken life, yours and others?
The name of Islam is not for you who destroyed your own life, and the lives of others.
To take the life of a single being, who has not done any wrong; is tantamount to wiping out the entire universe of humanity,
So said the holy book, have you not learnt so?
Mother Lanka is convulsed in cries of grief, but you, in the hope of a life of everlasting bliss, took your own life, and worse,
set us all on the pyre of death, in a death by fire.
Why did you have to kill us all slowly, in a daily ritual of dying while living.
Islam condemns all acts of suicide.
But you, in the name of Islam, not only committed suicide, but also murder.
How can you be a follower of Islam?
And why do you call yourself a follower of Islam?
What pleasure did you derive from seeing bodies shattered apart in a bath of blood,
What means that victory?
Our prophet said that even in war one should not harm the young and the elderly!
You have thrown those words to the wind!
Do not insult the god of other religions, for if you do so, they would insult yours;
But in a single moment, you blasted places of worship.
It was a day of celebration, but you had to choose that moment to commit this heinous act;
You will reap the dire consequences of this deed, for sure; I will bear witness to that.
A mother, a daughter, a grandfather and a grandson are gone in a moment, shattered beyond recognition.
You too lost your identity, but Islam and Muslims are in the dock now,
‘cos of your lowly deed. You will daily die a death of infamy.
I heap a million curses set in fire on you,
for killing us without killing us, and for scattering apart all friendship.
With tears, I pay my respect, to those who lost their lives on this day.”
–Not a Day of Resurrection, but a Day of Life Lost, Poem by Ahnaf Jazeem, published a day after the Easter Sunday bombings, translated by Prof. Sumathy Sivamohan
(The writer is a human rights activist and an Executive Committee Member of the Free Media Movement of Sri Lanka. He acknowledges the input and support provided by Journalist Tharindu Uduwaragedara and Attorney-at-Law Sanjaya Wilson Jayasekera)