Detained for his Words — Sri Lankan Poet Ahnaf Jazeem is an Amnesty International Banned Books Week Case

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Imagine being held in prison for months on end due solely to your poems.  That’s the case for Ahnaf Jazeem, a 26-year-old poet and teacher, who’s currently being detained in Sri Lanka.  He was arrested on May 16, 2020 under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act, which allows detention without charge or trial for up to 18 months. 

The arrest was in connection with a Tamil-language poetry anthology entitled Navarasam which he wrote and published in 2017.  The authorities reportedly found copies of Navarasam at a school being investigated for alleged links to the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings.  Although the book is currently in the national library, having never been banned, the government argues that its contents promote “extremism.”  Jazeem and his lawyer dispute this.  A renowned Tamil language professor, Macbool Alimmohamed Nuhman, has also contested this interpretation, saying that “there are several poems against extremism, violence, and war in this collection.”

You should understand the context in which Jazeem’s detention is occurring.  There are two aspects:  the government’s attacks against independent voices and the increased marginalization of the Muslim minority.  Over the past 15 years, government critics and independent journalists have received threats, harassment and arrests.  Some, like cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda, were made to disappear.  Others, like editor Lasantha Wickramatunga, were killed.  Writers who offended influential members of the Sinhalese majority community weren’t exempt.  The award-winning writer, Shakthika Sathkumara, was arrested in April 2019 because a fictional short story he wrote offended some Buddhist monks (most Sinhalese are Buddhist).  After an international campaign by Amnesty International and others on his behalf, he was released on bail on August 5, 2019 and the charges against him eventually dropped on February 9, 2021.

The other aspect behind Jazeem’s detention is the increased marginalization and discrimination against Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority.  Over the past decade, Muslim-owned houses, shops and mosques have been repeatedly attacked by Sinhalese mobs that rarely faced accountability.  In March 2020, the government began a policy of forced cremations for all confirmed or suspected COVID victims (despite guidance from WHO allowing burial or cremation); this policy ran contrary to Muslim religious practices.  The government only resumed burials after about a year, following sustained pressure from people within Sri Lanka, the UN, Amnesty International and others.  In April 2020, the government arrested Ramzy Razeek, a social media commentator, for a Facebook post in which he called for the Muslim community to use the pen and the keyboard as weapons against the forced cremations policy.  Although Ramzy was released on bail on September 17, 2020, the charges against him have not been dropped; if convicted, he could face up to 10 years in prison.

Throughout his detention, Ahnaf Jazeem has been held under squalid conditions, which have contributed to a deterioration of his health.  Further, he did not have a lawyer for the first seven months after his arrest.  Once he secured counsel, he was only permitted access to his lawyer for the first time on March 8, 2021, after two months of continuous appeals.  The authorities have recorded privileged conversations between him and his lawyer.  His lawyer has stated that Jazeem was coerced to make confessions and to sign documents in a language he does not understand.  Ahnaf Jazeem was denied access to his family for almost five months after his arrest and is still denied unrestricted and regular access to them.  His family fears for his health and safety.

Ahnaf Jazeem’s case has gotten attention in Sri Lanka and internationally.  On the anniversary of his arrest, Amnesty International and 12 other human rights organizations issued a joint statement, calling on the authorities to either release him or promptly charge him with internationally recognizable criminal offenses and give him a fair trial.  In her September 13, 2021 update on Sri Lanka to the UN Human Rights Council, Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed concern about Jazeem’s continued detention.  In Sri Lanka, 96 academics issued a statement calling for his immediate release.

As part of its 2021 Banned Books Week action, Amnesty International USA is featuring Jazeem’s case, along with five others who have been arrested or threatened due to their published work.  These cases feature journalists from Nigeria, Hong Kong and Russia, a cartoonist in Bangladesh arrested for publishing online his cartoons critical of the government’s COVID response, and an Iranian woman imprisoned for her unpublished fiction.  Each person featured in these cases faces intimidation, threats, extended detention and/or long prison terms.Please sign up for the 2021 Amnesty International Banned Books Week campaign in order to learn about global censorship and human rights while taking action to help achieve justice for Ahnaf Jazeem and all other imprisoned or threatened writers, cartoonists and publishers.

Jim McDonald, Sri Lanka Country Specialist, Amnesty International USA
Jim McDonald has served as the AIUSA Sri Lanka Country Specialist since 1990.  He has testified before Congress and at the U.N.  He spearheaded AIUSA’s work for journalist J.S. Tissainayagam’s release in 2010.  He organized and spoke at numerous screenings around the U.S. of the documentary “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields.”

-Jim McDonald, Sri Lanka Country Specialist, Amnesty International USA

Jim McDonald has served as the AIUSA Sri Lanka Country Specialist since 1990.  He has testified before Congress and at the U.N.  He spearheaded AIUSA’s work for journalist J.S. Tissainayagam’s release in 2010.  He organized and spoke at numerous screenings around the U.S. of the documentary “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields.”

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