Washington, D.C. – The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has found the Government of Sri Lanka violated international human rights law by imprisoning poet Ahnaf Jazeem. Responding to a legal petition filed by Freedom Now, the UN concluded that Jazeem was prosecuted under a law that “is so broad that it could…result in charges being brought against individuals who merely exercised their rights under international law.”
“We welcome the decision by the Working Group,” said Freedom Now Legal Officer Adam Lhedmat. “Although Ahnaf Jazeem is no longer imprisoned, he spent nearly two years in pre-trial detention, a clear violation of his right to freedom of expression. Moreover, he still faces a lengthy prison term for his poetry. We call on the Sri Lankan government to comply with the decision and ensure Ahnaf faces no further judicial harassment.”
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.
Jazeem was released on bail in December 2021 after 19 months in pre-trial detention. However, the charges against him remain pending.