Washington, D.C. – Freedom Now welcomes reports that Sri Lankan poet Ahnaf Jazeem has been released on bail after 19 months in pre-trial detention. Jazeem was arrested in May 2020 under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act on charges related to his poetry.
“The release of Ahnaf Jazeem is long overdue,” said Freedom Now Legal Officer Adam Lhedmat. “For more than a year and a half the Sri Lankan government kept Ahnaf in inhumane conditions, ignoring his due process rights and committing numerous human rights abuses in the process. Although Ahnaf is no longer detained, he still faces considerable prison time if convicted. We call on the Sri Lankan government to drop the baseless and politically-motivated charges against him.”
Prior to his arrest, Jazeem had been employed since July 2019 as a Tamil language and literature teacher at the School of Excellence, a private international school in Puttalam, a city on the northwest coast.
Since his enrollment in university, Jazeem has published award-winning poems and short stories under the pen name Mannaramuthu Ahnaf. In 2017, he published his first book of poetry in Tamil – Navarasm. The book touched on a wide range of issues within public and private life, such as religion, love, drugs, and Islamic history. The publication was launched at Jazeem’s university with nearly 1,000 people in attendance.
On May 16, 2020, authorities from the Counter-Terrorism and Investigations Division arrested Jazeem under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act on allegations of “teaching and the publication of books on racism and extremism to students.” The law allows suspects to be held for long periods of pre-trial detention. Jazeem has been subjected to numerous due process violations during his detention. He was denied access to lawyers for the first 10 months of his detention, authorities have attempted to use access to his family to coerce a confession from him, and a court did not order that he be held in detention until June 2021. An official indictment was not filed against him until November 2021.
As part of the investigation, the government commissioned a translation of Jazeem’s poetry as only approximately 30% of the population speaks Tamil. Despite an expert analysis, which has been criticized by Tamil language experts, the government has failed to demonstrate how the poem anthology promotes violence. To the contrary, the book includes poems condemning ISIS, declaring that the terrorist organization has nothing to do with Islam.
Freedom Now filed a petition with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on behalf of Jazeem in September 2021.