On the first anniversary of the arrest of poet Ahnaf Jazeem, we call on the Sri Lankan authorities to end their problematic investigation and immediately release him. We also call for the immediate repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, a draconian law which allows suspects to be detained for up to 18 months without trial or charges and denies them their basic rights under international law.
All Sri Lankan citizens are entitled to protection from arbitrary detention, access to legal counsel, and a fair trial.
Arrest and detention
Ahnaf Jazeem, a young poet and teacher from Mannar has been detained for twelve months. On 16 May 2020, Ahnaf was arrested and detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), accused of promoting Islamic extremism in his book of Tamil poetry, “நவரசம்,” Navarasam, and promoting extremism to his students.
According to his family and his lawyers, he has been subjected to physical and psychological torture over his year in detention. In a fundamental rights petition submitted in April, his lawyers say that he was constantly handcuffed to a chair for two weeks after his arrest, and since then has been frequently handcuffed to a chair or a table, even while sleeping. He is being held in unhygienic conditions and has even been bitten by a rat, all of this amounting to torture and inhumane treatment, according to his lawyers.
Detentions under the Prevention of Terrorism Act can only be approved by the Minister of Defence, yet when Ahnaf was arrested, no Minister of Defence had been appointed. The detention order was signed by President Rajapaksa, who was constitutionally barred from holding any ministerial posts at the time.
Ahnaf has been denied his due process rights, with very limited access to his lawyers and family. It took ten months and many letters to authorities to get any access to lawyers. After two months of appeals earlier this year, his lawyers were finally allowed access to Ahnaf for only 19 minutes on 8 March, during which police officers remained present and secretly recorded the whole conversation. There are reports that the Counter Terrorism Investigation Division have tried to force Ahnaf into an admission of guilt, even trying to get his father to encourage him to make an incriminating statement on the promise Ahnaf would be released.
Twelve months after his arrest, no evidence has been presented by investigators to substantiate the charges against him.
Ahnaf was allegedly arrested by officers who could not read his poetry, since they did not speak Tamil. The translation used by officers has not been made public, though reports suggest that the translation was rushed by people working for the magistrate and were overly literal and even nonsensical interpretations of the poetry.
In fact, it would require an advanced understanding of Tamil to translate the poetry, since it is written in a traditional formal poetic style, according to Ahnaf’s lawyer. A number of senior academics, including renowned Sri Lankan scholar of the Tamil language M.A. Nuhman, have said that the messages in Ahnaf’s poetry do not promote extremism.
In the meantime, volunteers have been translating Ahnaf’s poetry for an online project to support him, and another partial translation which has been submitted to the court by Ahnaf’s lawyers is now available online. The poetry is wide-ranging – condemning the actions of ISIS as well as the oppression of Muslims worldwide, and exploring religion and love.
There has been rising anti-Muslim sentiment in Sri Lanka, especially since the Easter Sunday bombings, and Ahnaf’s arrest comes as part of a surge of Islamophobia on the island. There have been a number of high profile Muslim lawyers and activists arrested and detained recently, including Hejaaz Hisbullah and Ramzy Razeek (who has joined the Navarasam translation project).
Hundreds of Muslims were arrested in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks, often under the PTA, and many are still being held without charge. A repressive piece of legislation, the PTA enables arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention with minimal legal oversight. International human rights experts have reported that those detained under the PTA are frequently subjected to torture in detention.
International actors and civil society, including the EU and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, have called for its repeal. Yet, the Rajapaksa government has extended its powers instead: in March, new PTA regulations gave officials the power to detain anyone for up to two years without trial for “rehabilitation” on vague grounds of causing “religious, racial, or communal disharmony.”
These legal measures exist in the context of increased stigmatisation of Muslims. For example, the government’s policy of forced cremation for COVID-19 victims was carried out without scientific evidence and contradicted WHO guidelines. Families said this policy was deliberately targeted at Muslims and it was widely condemned by the international community. The Sri Lankan parliament is also considering a Cabinet proposal to ban women’s face coverings, which would result in further marginalisation for Muslim women who wear niqabs or burqas.
Ahnaf’s arrest based on alleged extremism and a mistrust of his religious poetry must be seen in this context of rising hate speech and discrimination against Muslims.
Please help #FreeAhnaf now – we must bring an end to this ongoing injustice, and demonstrate to Sri Lankan authorities that they will be held accountable to release all those arbitrarily detained under the PTA.
There are three ways to take action:
- Send an email or letter to the Sri Lankan authorities urging them to immediately release Ahnaf. You can use this handy letter template from Amnesty.
- Get creative. In the spirit of artistic freedom, create a banner, poster or work of art bearing the hashtag #FreeAhnaf – then share it on social media and give us a heads up. Alternatively take and share a photo snap of yourself with this campaign print-out (black & white print-out here).
- Simply share this story and encourage others to do the same.