‘Vyshinsky’ type 20 year sentence for Tissanayagam condemned – Becomes first winner of the ‘Peter Mackler Prize’

A senior Sri Lankan journalist J.S. Tissanayagam who was held under detention for over 150 days before he was indicted on 03 charges under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and Emergency Regulations for his editorial notes written 03 years ago under a totally different socio political context, was sentenced to 20 years RI by the Colombo High Court, delivering judgment on him.

TissanayagamThere was immediate responses condemning the sentence as politically motivated and below are 03 such statements from 03 internationally accepted human rights and media organisations.

August 31, 2009

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission

SRI LANKA: J.S. Tisssainayagam sentenced to 20 years and justice is dead in Sri Lanka

The Asian Human Rights Commission is saddened, disappointed and shocked but not surprised at the judgment of the High Court of Colombo in sentencing J.S. Tisssainayagam to 20 years of rigorous imprisonment for a simple piece of writing which he had done and which was interpreted as aiding and abetting terrorism. The AHRC is not surprised by this judgment because at the very inception of this case the AHRC pointed out that this is purely a political case, the first of its kind in which the accused, Mr. Tisssainayagam’s guilt or innocence was not an issue but an opportunity to send a message to society on the changed circumstances of the country where freedom of expression does not matter at all. That was the real aim of this case. It is the sort of prosecution that could have happened under the regime of Joseph Stalin through the prosecutor, Andrei Vyshinsky.

In Vyshinsky’s trials the outcome was predetermined. The trials of the 1930s were known worldwide as show trials. Those actually accused were not really the targets of the proceedings. The accused were mere exhibits to be advertised before the rest of Russia in order to pass a message to the people about the fundamental beliefs that Stalin wanted to impose on society. Vyshinsky’s biographer Arkady Vaksberg writes that the “purpose of the trial had not been to disgrace or, indeed, to annihilate some of the accused but to create a precedent and pave the way for a psychological attack on the population.”

Tisssainayagam has been selected for a show trial where there was not even any evidence to base a charge on. The particular passages which were arbitrarily selected from his writings did not represent any attempt to raise feelings of racism or to instigate people to violence on the basis of race. The text was selected as the pretext and there was no genuine thought in this prosecution at all.

What the case points to is the illusions of the liberals both in Sri Lanka and abroad who fail to see a persecution staged as a show trial. The illusion that somehow things may turn out and that there would be a fair trial was the comfort zone in which many people were resting, unwilling to accept that justice is dead in Sri Lanka and that the executive can manipulate and get whatever verdict it wants.

The greatest loser in this case is not J.S. Tisssainayagam it is the justice system and the judiciary in Sri Lanka that has suffered the greatest loss which would be hard for it to overcome. Even this is not a huge surprise for most people in Sri Lanka. They know that justice has been dead for a long time in their country.

The Tisssainayagam case will also remain the most glaring proof of the absence of freedom of expression in Sri Lanka. The memory of this case will shame so many journalists and media men in the country who have found it possible to lick the very feet of the executive which has completely destroyed the freedom of expression in the country. Some have fought back and lost their lives and some finally fled for their own safety. But this has also created a paradise for those who live by their contribution to misinformation and suppression of freedoms.

We urge the local and international community to condemn the judgment and the sentence in Tisssainayagam’s case and to call for his unconditional release. We also urge the local and international community to grasp the reality that justice is dead in Sri Lanka and the freedom of expression and the media which has also been killed.

Justice and media freedom in Sri Lanka is like the phantom limb; a dream of an amputee who still believes that his limbs are intact. The reminder of the Tisssainayagam case should always be associated with the image of the phantom limb.


PRESS RELEASE / 31 August 2009

Tissainayagam sentenced to 20 years: Democracy in chains in Sri Lanka

Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka condemns the sentencing of journalist J.S. Tissainayagam to twenty years rigorous imprisonment under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) on August 31, 2009.

Tissainayagam’s sentence is based on a ‘confession’ that he has refuted and two articles written and published by him in 2006. The judgment also states that the two articles written by Tissainayagam that are the subject of this investigation contain material that causes ‘communal disharmony’, and this too is considered a basis for his sentence. Tissainayagam has never engaged in, or promoted, violence of any kind, and we have always known him to be committed to co-existence and inter-ethnic justice.

Since Tissainayagam was first taken into custody in March 2008, we have continuously appealed for his release on the basis that the allegations against him were unfounded. In addition, we protested against his conditions of detention and the failure to comply with minimum humanitarian standards including providing Tissainayagam with the medical treatment that he needs.

As a community of Sri Lankan journalists and media persons in exile, we express our solidarity with our colleague Tissa on this occasion and commit ourselves to appeal against this sentence and draw the attention of the world to this flagrant violation of the freedom of thought, opinion and expression in Sri Lanka.

In addition, having followed the developments in this case with grave concern, we wish to highlight the following issues with regard to the Prevention of Terrorism Act which defies principles of natural justice and is in violation of established human rights norms.

According to the judgment, writing or publishing any article that can be defined as being against the Prevention of Terrorism Act can merit a sentence of twenty years rigorous imprisonment under the terms of this Act. No journalist in Sri Lanka has ever received this type of sentence, which is a flagrant violation of media freedom. Thus, this judgment once again highlights the need to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act which violates human rights including the rights of the freedom of expression and opinion.

Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka consider this judgment to represent a critical turning point in terms of restriction of media freedom through the law in Sri Lanka. We call on all democratic forces in Sri Lanka and outside to take all possible steps to ensure a reversal of this decision.

We feel that initiating a campaign for the repeal of the PTA in Sri Lanka must be a first step in this direction. We call on all democratic nations that enter into bilateral agreements with the government of Sri Lanka and on all donors to ensure that the repeal of the PTA is placed high on their list of critical concerns in negotiations with the government.

We wish to point out that every political party that has been involved in the reation and perpetuation of the PTA is complicit in the judgment against Tissainayagam. We appeal to all political parties and organizations committed to democratic principles to come forward to build the broadest possible platform to challenge the PTA. The repeal of the PTA is essential if we are to move towards disarmament in Sri Lanka.

We commit ourselves to work for the release of Tissainayagam and his colleagues V.Jesiharan and Valarmathy in the interests of justice and peace in Sri Lanka.

Executive Committee

Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

C/O INSD, Kremmener Strasse 2, 10435 Berlin, Germany / journalistsfordemocracy@gmail.com


Reporters Without Borders/Reporters sans frontières
Press release
31 August 2009

Tamil journalist gets “shameful” 20-year sentence on terrorism charges


Reporters Without Borders is appalled by the “shameful” 20-year jail sentence which a Colombo high court passed today on journalist J.S. Tissainayagam on charges of supporting terrorism and inciting racial hatred in his articles.

“The imposition of this extremely severe sentence on Tissainayagam suggests that some Sri Lanka judges confuse justice with revenge,” Reporters Without Borders said. “With the help of confessions extracted by force and information that was false or distorted, the court has used an anti-terrorism law that was intended for terrorists, not for journalists and human rights activists.”

The press freedom organisation added: “We strongly hope that the appeal process adheres to the facts of the case and the spirit of the law. Meanwhile, until the appeal is heard, we urge the authorities to guarantee this journalist’s physical safety and health, which has deteriorated greatly while in detention.”

Global Media Forum and Reporters Without Borders have chosen to announce today that Tissainayagam will be the first winner of the Peter Mackler Prize, a newly-created award for journalists who display great courage and professional integrity in countries where press freedom is not respected.

The prize will be awarded at a ceremony presided over by Washington Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli at the National Press Club in Washington on 2 October. The award honours the memory of veteran Agence France-Presse reporter and editor Peter Mackler, who died last year.

When a Reporters Without Borders representative met Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse last October in Colombo, the president pledged to examine the Tissainayagam case.

Aged 45, Tissainayagam, wrote for the Colombo-based Sunday Times newspaper and edited Outreachsl.com, a website targeted at Sri Lanka’s Tamil population. The charges on which he was convicted include taking money from the Tamil Tiger rebels to fund the website. In fact, Reporters Without Borders established that the site was funded by a German aid project.

Tissainayagam has been detained since 7 March 2008, when he was arrested by the Terrorism Investigation Division. He spent his first five months in detention without any charges being brought against him. Judge repeatedly extended detention orders and rejected requests for his release on bail.

After five months in detention, during which many national and international press freedom organisations appealed for his release, he was suddenly transferred to Colombo’s Magazine prison, which is notorious for the physical mistreatment of Tamil detainees. It was reported at the time that he had been beaten.

During his initial period in detention, Tissainayagam was allowed only sporadic visits by his family and his lawyer and was denied the medicine he needs for tuberculosis and infections linked to the scabies that he contracted in prison.

Tissainayagam is the first Sri Lankan journalist to be convicted under the anti-terrorism law. In fact, he is one of the few journalists anywhere in the world to be accused of terrorism because of their reporting.

The origin of the charges against him boils down to two articles published in 2006 in North-Eastern, a magazine he edited that no longer exists. The magazine’s printer, Jasiharan, and his wife are also charged in connection with the case.

Tissainayagam’s family and lawyers have said he will appeal against his conviction.

Vincent Brossel

Asia-Pacific Desk
Reporters Without Borders
33 1 44 83 84 70


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