Tissanayagam, the convenient Tamil scapegoat for the State to keep journalists terrorised

(September 29, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) It was very convenient for the terrorist State of Sri Lanka with its justice system for JS Tissanayagam, the journalist who is a Tamil to be imprisoned by the Sri Lankan State for a record 20 years merely for two articles written and published in 2006. These articles could have been written by any right thinking journalist who mistakenly believed that there was free speech in Sri Lanka which is paraded to the world as the oldest democracy in Asia, for the simple reason that its voters have been enjoying universal franchise since 1931, a privilege ironically conceded by British colonialism. Tissanayagam has been imprisoned under the provisions of one of the most draconian of all legislations in the world, namely the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1979, comparable only to the most obnoxious Terrorism Act of the Apartheid South Africa of 1967.

With the passage of this Act in 1979, the Sri Lankan State came of age not only as a terrorist State but also as a racist State, with impunity legally conferred upon it, to act most callously against the Tamil people with absolutely no compunction. A glaring example of the current attitude of the State towards the Tamils, though not under this Act, is the internment of nearly 280,000 Tamils kept within the confines of razor wires, with an average a thousand people disappearing daily by various means.

A close reading of the Sri Lankan Terrorism Act, 1979 would reveal that this piece of legislation was without any question aimed principally against the Tamil people of Sri Lanka to punish them for agitating for their legitimate rights. This Act made any agitation, dissent or resistance a crime with the term terrorism nowhere defined. Effectivel, only a Tamil could either be punished legally or extra legally under this Act. Tissanayagam’s case is the first time that any Tamil has been sentenced to such a long term of imprisonment for a trivial of an offence. The Act, in actual fact, was originally not intended to be adjudicated upon but to be used as a camouflage to hunt down and destroy Tamil youth for summary punishments and executions without trial on the slightest suspicion.

Within days of its passage in July 1979, under the State of Emergency, a number of Tamil youth were killed including Inpam and Selvaratnam and their bodies thrown into the Pannai causeway in Jaffna. Four other Tamil youth, Parameswaran, Rajeswaran, Rajakili and Balendran disappeared, thus initiating the era of the culture of disappearances. These are just a few instances brought to light by the Amnesty International in their 1980 report: “…six young men, reported arrested in the days in the days after emergency declaration, died in the custody of the police after having been tortured and the bodies of three of them have still not been found…..”

Tissanayagam goes into incarceration under this very same Act. He apparently, was found guilty on charges of receiving money from the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and causing racial hatred through his writings about Tamils affected by the LTTE war for a separate homeland. If causing racial hatred in Sri Lanka is an offence warranting 20 years of hard labour and rigorous imprisonment, applied equitably to also the Sinhalese people, then by that token a substantial number of Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka, and also the Rajapakse brothers who constitute the Sri Lankan State, deserve to be imprisoned for life not only for causing racial hatred but also for genocide! But they are Sinhalese and Buddhists and therefore immune from the provisions of the Act in question.

With no judicial review of their executive acts, the defence minister with the sweeping powers under the provisions of the Act could have ordered that Tissanayagam be detained incommunicado without trial for 18 months which he effectively did. Further, with no remedy for torture or even death during incarceration, even oral confession obtained under torture while in detention was admissible in this case.

Tissanayagam could not have been imprisoned for such a long period but for the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1979 and only for the reason that he is a Tamil, purported to have had links with the LTTE.

His punishment also serves to teach a lesson to all independent journalists and the free media working within Sri Lanka. There is the sword of Damocles, however, hanging over the head of every Tamil person in Sri Lanka.

(The writer, editor of the Eelam Nation.)
-Sri Lanka Guardian