The continued detention of 25-year-old Ahnaf Jazeem, a Muslim poet from Mannar, by Sri Lankan authorities under terrorism charges has drawn widespread condemnation across the island.
Sri Lanka’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) decided his book of Tamil language poems, titled Navarasam contained extremist messaging and have held him in detention since May 2020 under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).
The PTA allows individuals to be detained for 18 months without charge, though some detainees have been in custody for decades. The act introduced in 1978 has resulted in countless arbitrary detentions and facilitated torture of detainees. Human Rights Watch, notes that entire communities have been stigmatized and targeted for harassment and arbitrary arrest and detention. In 2010, the EU withdrew Sri Lanka from its preferential trading agreement, GSP+ due to its abhorrent human rights record. The previous “good governance regime” had agreed to repeal the PTA and was considered a prerequisite to allow Sri Lanka to gain access to the GSP+ trading agreement. However, in 2017 despite failing to repeal the PTA act, Sri Lanka was reinstated to access to the GSP+ which was met with widespread international criticism.
Dr. Ahilan Kadirgamar, a lecturer at University of Jaffna said that based on his own reading of the collection of poems, there was nothing incendiary about the book of 45 poems. He noted
“These were a set of poems by a young man, working through the ideas that shape his world from religion to love. There is no justification for arresting Ahnaf Jazeem for writing this book of poems. Furthermore, such an attack on freedom of expression will only stifle future writers with a climate of fear,”
Professor Nuhman, a prominent Tamil scholar refuted the claims of “extremist” language in the poems and stated that “there are several poems against extremism, violence and war in this collection”.
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