A call to action against the detention of Hejaaz Hizbullah and Ahnaf Jazeem, anti-Muslim violence, and attacks on democracy

Decades of majoritarian politics, and the more recent descent towards authoritarianism and militarisation, have eroded the foundations of our democracy. They have numbed us to the violence in our daily lives and desensitised us to how sections of our citizenry are targeted. Over a year has passed since Hejaaz Hizbullah and Ahnaf Jazeem were arrested, and they remain imprisoned to date.  

On April 14, 2020, human rights and constitutional lawyer Hizbullah was arrested by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and detained under Section 9 of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) for over 10 months. At the time of arrest, his alleged crimes were “aiding and abetting” one of the Easter Sunday bombers. It later transpired that he represented the family in two land cases.  He is now being charged with speech related offences under Section 2(1)(h) of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and Section 3(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act. These are based on statements made by minors to the CID, which the children maintain they were coerced and threatened to make.

On May 16, 2020, the Police Counter Terrorism Investigation Division (CTID) arrested Jazeem, a poet and teacher from Mannar, on allegations that his book Navarasam contained “extremist ideas” and that he taught “extremism” to students. A review of the poems by an “expert panel” of psychiatrists, some with university affiliations, makes vague claims about the potential of the book to incite violence, hatred, and suicidal thoughts. Their report fails to provide the basis or justification for these judgments and even says that there were two discrepant sets of translations (Sinhala and English from the original Tamil)  at their disposal, which fact should have called the entire operation into question.  Contrary to the allegations of the CTID, recent translations reveal that the poems were deeply critical of violence.

Hizbullah’s arrest and continued detention is an attack on the rights of lawyers and the rule of law. Jazeem’s arrest and continued detention without charge represents, in addition, an attack on the freedom of expression and pluralism, and a broader war on ideas. As can be seen from the progress of the two cases, the rights of Hizbullah and Jazeem have been clearly violated, and questionable tactics have been and continue to be used to manufacture the cases against them. In custody, their basic needs for health and safety have been neglected.

The incarceration of Hizbullah and Jazeem occurs in the backdrop of highly organised anti-Muslim mobilisations designed to stigmatise and isolate Muslim communities. Violence and intimidation continue, bolstered by the government’s complicity in these acts in the name of “national security”. In March 2021, the Minister of Public Security announced plans to shut down 1,000 madrasa schools and ban the burqa. A month later, the Cabinet approved the ban on all forms of face veils in public spaces, and, in May, the Deputy Director of Customs announced that any Islamic religious texts brought to the country must be cleared by the Ministry of Defence. These actions further criminalise one for being Muslim and are an assault on our democratic freedoms.  

Anti-Muslim sentiments guide the state COVID-19 response as well. Last year, at the height of the pandemic, the Ministry of Health adopted a mandatory cremation policy for the COVID dead, despite WHO guidelines to the contrary. The policy was backed by “experts”, including those from universities, citing unsubstantiated public health concerns, with crass disregard for the strongly followed religious tradition among Muslims of burying their dead. Today, burials are permitted, but restricted to a Muslim-populated area – Ottamavadi, Batticaloa – signalling that only Muslims must contend with the albeit unlikely threat from their dead. The burial issue was only one of the more flagrant of attempts to weaponise the pandemic against Muslims. The state machinery, through statements and actions of doctors, PHIs, politicians, military personnel, and state-controlled media pushed a narrative of Muslims as super-spreaders.

These trends are not new. They are a continuation of heightened violence against Muslims that spans a decade. Starting in 2012, organised attacks on mosques and demonstrations against Muslims, including an anti-Halal campaign, culminated in horrific acts of violence, including the Aluthgama and Digana riots. In parallel, highly politicised campaigns have targeted Muslim individuals; for instance, Dr. Shafi Shihabdeen was arrested on false allegations of forced sterilisation, and activist Ramzy Razeek was detained for condemning the anti-Muslim witch-hunt post Easter Sunday bombings. Unlike the zeal with which these cases are pursued, state institutions responsible for ensuring public safety have failed to prevent anti-Muslim violence, and no one has been held accountable so far.

The targeting of Muslims occurs in a context of increasing authoritarianism and militarisation which have served to weaken democratic institutions. We have witnessed the remanding of former Director, CID, Shani Abeysekera, who had investigated high-ranking officials and politicians, author Shaktika Sathkumara, for purportedly anti-Buddhist writings, and many others. The PTA is wielded as a tool of politicisation and arbitrary power, alongside the Emergency Regulations and the ICCPR Act. They are deployed in majoritarian campaigns against minorities, to attack those opposed to the regime in power, and crush dissent, casting doubt on state institutions and the judicial system.

Academics are mandated to exercise and safeguard free speech and expected to confront and question the excesses of those in power. As members of public higher educational institutions, we must support and amplify the voices of the marginalised. Having learned from the devastation caused by uneven justice, majoritarian politics, and racist rhetoric, and knowing the insecurity and fear that some of our citizens live with on a daily basis, we must resist these attacks. We believe that allowing these actions to continue with impunity implicates us all.

We, the undersigned, as members of the academic community, demand the immediate release of both Hizbullah and Jazeem, and call attention to the fact that their arrests have taken place in a context of unrelenting anti-Muslim mobilisations that are tearing our social fabric apart. We are deeply worried about the continuing deterioration of the criminal justice system and the institutional decay it more broadly signals, as these developments are also symptomatic of a gradual hollowing out of the democratic bases of society. We, therefore, call for a halt to undemocratic actions by government actors, a repeal of the PTA and other laws that are contrary to the principles of democracy, and ask that the public demand accountability. Finally, we call on the greater academic community to broaden this struggle to ensure that we fulfil our mandate and exercise our academic freedom in the pursuit of democracy and justice for all.

Signed

  1. Upul Abeyrathne, University of Peradeniya
  2. Asha Abeysekera, University of Colombo
  3. Indi Akurugoda, University of Ruhuna
  4. Arjuna Aluwihare, University of Peradeniya
  5. Liyanage Amarakeerthi, University of Peradeniya
  6. Shani Anuradha, University of Peradeniya
  7. S. Arivalzahan, University of Jaffna
  8. Fazeeha Azmi, University of Peradeniya
  9. A.S. Chandrabose, The Open University of Sri Lanka
  10. Sarath Chandrajeewa, University of the Visual & Performing Arts
  11. Visakesa Chandrasekaram, University of Colombo
  12. Kumar David, formerly University of Peradeniya
  13. Ruwanthie de Chickera, Visiting Lecturer, The Open University of Sri Lanka
  14. Erandika de Silva, University of Jaffna
  15. Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, University of Colombo
  16. Kanchuka Nayani Dharmasiri, University of Peradeniya
  17. Priyan Dias, University of Moratuwa
  18. Avanka Fernando, Department of Sociology, University of Colombo
  19. Michael Fernando, formerly at the University of Peradeniya
  20. Kasun Gajasinghe, University of Peradeniya
  21. Dileni Gunewardena, University of Peradeniya
  22. Camena Guneratne, The Open University of Sri Lanka
  23. Farzana Haniffa, University of Colombo
  24. D. Hemachandra, University of Peradeniya
  25. Siri Hettige, University of Colombo
  26. Tracy Holsinger, Visiting Lecturer, The Open University of Sri Lanka.
  27. Rajan Hoole, formerly University of Jaffna
  28. Kaushalya Jayasinghe, University of Peradeniya
  29. Prabhath Jayasinghe, University of Colombo
  30. Maleen Jayasuriya, University of Peradeniya
  31. Wijaya Jayatilaka, formerly University of Peradeniya
  32. Pavithra Jayawardena, University of Colombo
  33. Jeyaratnam Jeyadevan, University of Jaffna
  34. Ahilan Kadirgamar, University of Jaffna
  35. Pavithra Kailasapathy, University of Colombo
  36. Anuruddha Karunarathna, University of Peradeniya
  37. Chandana Kulasuriya, formally at the Open University of Sri Lanka
  38. Supoorna Kulatunga, University of Peradeniya
  39. N. Savitri Kumar, University of Peradeniya
  40. Ramya Kumar, University of Jaffna
  41. Shamala Kumar, University of Peradeniya
  42. Vijaya Kumar, University of Peradeniya
  43. Prof Amal S. Kumarage, University of Moratuwa
  44. Kaushalya Kumarasinghe, formerly the Open University of Sri Lanka.
  45. Hasini Lecamwasam, University of Peradeniya
  46. Saumya Liyanage, University of the Visual and Performing Arts, Colombo
  47. Sudesh Mantillake, University of Peradeniya
  48. Ranga Manupriya, Visiting Lecturer, UVPA & University of Moratuwa
  49. Prabha Manuratne, University of Kelaniya
  50. Kosalai Mathan, University of Jaffna
  51. Mahim Mendis, The Open University of Sri Lanka
  52. S. N. Morais, The Open University of Sri Lanka
  53. Dr Rumala Morel, University of Peradeniya
  54. M. Z. M. Nafeel, University of Peradeniya
  55. Kethakie Nagahawatte, University of Colombo
  56. F. M. Nawastheen, The Open University of Sri Lanka
  57. Sabreena Niles, University of Kelaniya
  58. F. Noordeen, University of Peradeniya
  59. M. A. Nuhman, formerly University of Peradeniya
  60. Arjuna Parakrama, University of Peradeniya
  61. Sasinindu Patabendige, University of Peradeniya
  62. Nipuni Sharada Pathirage, University of the Visual and Performing Arts
  63. Hasitha Pathirana, University of Kelaniya
  64. Pradeep Peiris, University of Colombo
  65. Asoka Perera, University of Moratuwa
  66. Kaushalya Perera, University of Colombo
  67. Sasanka Perera, formerly of University of Colombo
  68. Nicola Perera, University of Colombo
  69. Ruhanie Perera, University of Colombo
  70. Saman Pushpakumara, University of Peradeniya
  71. Rupika Rajakaruna University of Peradeniya
  72. Harshana Rambukwelle, The Open University of Sri Lanka
  73. Ramasamy Ramesh, University of Peradeniya
  74. Romola Rassool, University of Kelaniya
  75. Rizmina Rilwan, University of Peradeniya
  76. Athulasiri Samarakoon, The Open University of Sri Lanka
  77. Gameela Samarasinghe, University of Colombo
  78. T. Sanathanan, University of Jaffna
  79. R.T.M. Senanayake - University of Peradeniya
  80. Hiniduma Sunil Senevi, Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka
  81. Kalinga Tudor Silva, University of Peradeniya
  82. Navaratnam Sivakaran, University of Jaffna
  83. Anusha Sivalingam, University of Colombo
  84. N. Sivapalan, University of Jaffna
  85. Hettigamage Sriyananda, The Open University of Sri Lanka
  86. Vasanthi Thevanesam, University of Peradeniya
  87. Darshi Thoradeniya, University of Colombo
  88. Deepika Udagama, University of Peradeniya
  89. Ramila Usoof-Thowfeek, University of Peradeniya
  90. Jayadeva Uyangoda, University of Colombo
  91. Ruvan Weerasinghe, University of Colombo
  92. Thiyagaraja Waradas, University of Colombo
  93. Maithree Wickramasinghe, University of Kelaniya
  94. Shermal Wijewardene, University of Colombo
  95. Saminadan Wimal, University of Jaffna
  96. Dileepa Witharana, The Open University of Sri Lanka