Tissainayagam and colleagues in Sri Lankan jail for one year

New York, March 6, 2009–The Sri Lankan government should release a journalist and his two colleagues who have spent a year behind bars on terrorism charges for publishing magazine articles, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Terrorist Investigation Division forces arrested Vettivel Jasikaran, manager of the news Web site OutreachSL, and his companion, Vadivel Valamathy, both ethnic Tamils, on March 6, 2008, according to local and international news reports and press freedom groups. Their colleague, Tamil columnist and OutreachSL editor J.S. Tissainayagam, was detained when he visited them the next day.

“J.S.Tissainayagam is being targeted for his journalism, and his colleagues have been swept up alongside him in the government’s transparent effort to label their critics as terrorists,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia Program Coordinator.

Tissainayagam, a well-known journalist who frequently addressed displacement of civilians and other humanitarian issues stemming from Sri Lanka’s war in weekly columns for the Sunday Times, was charged more than five months after he was detained. The Colombo High Court indicted him on August 25 under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for writing articles in 2006 and 2007 that the court said incited communal disharmony. He faced a second charge for publishing the articles in North Eastern Monthly, a Tamil-viewpoint magazine that he had once edited, and a third for raising money for the magazine. Jasikaran and Valamathy were charged with aiding and abetting Tissainayagam; the Monthly, which folded in 2007, was published by Jasikaran’s printing business. All three face up to 20 years each if convicted on all counts, according to Tissainayagam’s lawyer, M.A. Sumanthiran.

“The prosecution’s case against Tissainayagam has been deeply flawed from the outset and has made a mockery of the rule of law in Sri Lanka,” Dietz said. “He, Vettivel Jasikaran, and Vadivel Valamathy should be immediately and unconditionally released.”

Sumanthiran told CPJ in an interview in November 2008 that his client’s detention raised several procedural questions. Tissainayagam was arrested under emergency regulations and should have been charged within 90 days of his arrest. Tissainayagam’s defense team also challenged both the content and the legality of an alleged confession which the journalist says he made under threat of torture. In December, the High Court ruled to allow that confession, according to news reports. Bail requests have been denied and his trial is ongoing.

Local news reports said Valamathy held an administrative post with the independent Sri Lankan TV network MTV. Her only connection to the case appeared to be her relationship with Jasikaran. The couple is awaiting trial.

Tissainayagam’s supporters have frequently raised concerns about his health and the mistreatment of all three of the accused in prison. CPJ joined with international media rights groups today to call for Tissainayagam’s release.

CPJ highlighted Sri Lankan government complicity in the country’s deteriorating media environment in recent special report,Failure to investigate.”