Tissa's pardon – we're still waiting

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On May 4, I wrote on this site about the Sri Lankan government’s announced pardon of the journalist J.S. Tissainayagam (often referred to as “Tissa”), who’d been unjustly convicted and sentenced to 20 years’ hard labor just for criticizing the government’s conduct of the war against the Tamil Tiger rebels.  Amnesty International has adopted Tissa as a “prisoner of conscience” since we believe that he was imprisoned solely for his journalistic activities.  I was reluctant to start celebrating until details of the pardon had been clarified.

Well, it’s now been 37 days since the announcement of the pardon, and the government still hasn’t issued it!  The Sri Lankan Attorney General said in mid-May that Tissa’s lawyers had to withdraw his appeal against his conviction, and then the pardon could be issued in a “couple of days.”  His lawyers reportedly withdrew his appeal on May 31 but the pardon has still not been issued.

Why all the delay?  Please write the Sri Lankan government and ask that the granting of the pardon be expedited.  Let the  government know that the world is still watching and that we won’t rest until Tissa’s rights are fully restored.  Thanks.

20-year sentence for Sri Lankan journalist

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I was shocked this morning when I heard the news that J.S. Tissainayagam, the detained Sri Lankan journalist, was sentenced to 20 years rigorous imprisonment by the Sri Lankan High Court.  Tissainayagam has been detained for the last 18 months and was tried under Sri Lanka’s draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act for writing two magazine articles in 2006 critical of the government’s conduct of the war against the opposition Tamil Tigers.  Amnesty International considers Tissainayagam to be a prisoner of conscience, detained and prosecuted solely for his legitimate work as a journalist, and has been calling for his immediate, unconditional release.

Tissainayagam was one of the journalists singled out for praise by President Obama this past May in his statement in honor of World Press Freedom Day.

Organizations working in defense of press freedom reacted strongly to today’s sentence.  The International Federation of Journalists condemned the sentence, calling it “brutal and inhumane.”  The Committee to Protect Journalists announced today that it will honor Tissainayagam with a 2009 International Press Freedom Award.  The group Reporters Without Borders said it was “appalled” by the “shameful” sentence; the group also announced today that Tissainayagam had been selected as the first winner of the newly created Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism.

Please write to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and ask that J.S. Tissainayagam be released immediately and unconditionally. Thanks for any help you can give.

The course of justice in Sri Lanka

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The Sri Lankan Supreme Court yesterday acquitted five soldiers for the murder of 10 Muslim youths in Udathalawinna on December 5, 2001, during a general election.  The five had been security guards of Anuruddha Ratwatte, the then deputy minister of defence.  Ratwatte and his two sons had earlier been charged for the murders as well but were acquitted in 2006.  Ten young men are dead and no one, to my knowledge, has been convicted for their murder.  Is this how Sri Lanka punishes the guilty?

I couldn’t help thinking of this case when I heard that a verdict is expected on August 31 in the trial of J.S. Tissainayagam, a Sri Lankan journalist.  Tissainayagam is being tried for allegedly violating the country’s emergency regulations and Prevention of Terrorism Act.  The only evidence against him are two articles he wrote in 2006 in a monthly magazine criticizing the government’s conduct of the war against the Tamil Tigers and a confession that his lawyer says was obtained under duress.  Amnesty International has adopted him as a prisoner of conscience and calls for his immediate, unconditional release and for all charges against him to be dropped.  Will we see an acquittal for him on August 31?  Or do acquittals only apply for the powerful and those connected to them?

Obama salutes Tissainayagam

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In his May 1 statement in honor of World Press Freedom Day, President Obama singled out for recognition a few journalists unjustly imprisoned for their work:

In every corner of the globe, there are journalists in jail or being actively harassed:  from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, Burma to Uzbekistan, Cuba to Eritrea.  Emblematic examples of this distressing reality are figures like J.S. Tissainayagam in Sri Lanka, or Shi Tao and Hu Jia in China.

Tissainayagam remains in prison today, solely for the “crime”  of being a journalist.  Please write to the Sri Lankan government today and ask that he be released immediately and all charges against him dropped.

Sri Lanka: a question of credibility

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If we’re to believe the Sri Lankan military, they’ve killed no civilians during their offensive against the opposition Tamil Tigers in recent months.  They claim that the security forces have only killed Tiger fighters.  However, the military itself admitted that it’s become harder to distinguish between civilians and the Tigers, since the Tigers have, according to the military, shed their uniforms for civilian clothes.  AI has reported that the military has used heavy artillery in indiscriminate attacks causing civilian casualties.  The Sri Lankan government doesn’t help its credibility in making these kinds of claims.

The Tigers can’t exactly lay claim to great credibility either, though.  They announced a unilateral ceasefire a week ago but last Thursday, said that their gunboats had attacked the Sri Lankan navy.  What happened to their ceasefire?  The Tigers yesterday said today that they were ready to engage in a process to bring about a ceasefire; if that happened, would the Tigers observe it anymore than the one they announced themselves?

I’m grateful that the Sri Lankan military hasn’t yet launched an all-out offensive to reconquer the remaining Tiger-held territory, since I can’t see how they could do that without causing massive casualties among the estimated 50,000 civilians trapped by the Tigers in the war zone.  There are a number of steps each side should take immediately, if we’re to avoid these casualties.  The steps are laid out in an urgent action appeal issued by AI last Friday.  Please read that appeal to see what AI is calling for from both sides.  Please also consider writing to the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE as the appeal requests.

One final note:  today is World Press Freedom Day and J.S. Tissainayagam remains unjustly imprisoned in a Sri Lankan prison simply for his journalistic activities.  Please visit the AIUSA website and write to the Sri Lankan government on his behalf.  He should be released immediately and unconditionally.