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02 September, 2009

Show trials: cases of Aung San Suu Kyi and J.S. Tissainayagam

The following is a statement issued by the Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong:

The recent case against Aung San Suu Kyi by the Burmese junta is internationally well known. The case and the verdict were condemned all over the world as one more demonstration of a completely fake trial merely orchestrated to silence Burma’s opposition leader. She has already been under house arrest for two decades. Aung San Suu Kyi was charged with violating the rules relating to detention. The court sentenced her to five years of rigorous imprisonment. Within hours the Burmese junta, which was aware of the tremendous adverse impact of their decision throughout the world, reduced the sentence to 18 months of detention in her own home. The sole exercise of the trial was to give a semblance of legality and legitimacy for further imprisonment of this lady in a way so that she could not participate in any events relating to proposed elections in the country.

J.S. Tissainayagam’s case from Sri Lanka, though not as well known as Aung San Suu Kyi case, is also quite well known internationally. The arrest, detention and the trial against this man, a well known journalist and a human rights activist, received the attention of many governments. The American president, Barrack Obama himself mentioned this case as an example of the repression of journalists throughout the world. All leading media organizations worldwide condemned the arrest, detention and trial and repeatedly called on the government for Tissainayagam’s unconditional release.

Tissainayagam was charged with aiding and abetting terrorism and instigating racial violence by writing a few lines in an article which referred to the armed conflict then taking place in the north. Tissainayagam, who had been a veteran journalist and a human rights activist, had over a long period of time reported matters regarding internal conflicts in the south as well as the north and east. In the late eighties he helped the incumbent president of Sri Lanka, who was then an opposition Member of Parliament, by preparing and translating documents relating to disappearances and other atrocities in the south. There was nothing in the alleged document on which he was prosecuted, to indicate any attempt to instigate violence or promote racial hatred. There are thousands of pieces of writing of many persons who have written about the armed conflict from different perspectives and Tissainayagam’s writing was no different to any of these.

As a Tamil, it was quite natural for him to write about the problems of the Tamils in the same way as others have written about the problems of their groups. Tissainayagam was singled out for arrest, detention and prosecution solely for the purpose of intimidating other journalists and newspaper editors from publishing materials relating to the war. Several other journalists were exposed to serious dangers and some fled the country during this time.

Like the case of Aung San Suu Kyi, the case of Tissainayagam had no real grounds on which to base a criminal charge. In both cases the charges were fabricated. The charges were based on special regulations and not on the normal laws of the country. These regulations themselves were made in order to give enormous powers of harassment over dissidents and anyone who holds any form of opinion that is opposed to that of the regime in power.

Where the charges themselves are not valid there cannot be a fair trial. The issue before the court in both cases was to decide on the legality and the validity of the charges in the first instant. Both courts proceeded on the basis of these bloated charges and found the two persons guilty.

The transformation of independent courts into those that merely carry out the wishes of the executive has taken a long period of time in both countries. And now, in both countries there is the possibility of having show trials.

The Sri Lankan court sentenced Tissinaiyagam to 20 years. Previously the Sri Lankan Supreme Court has, over and over again asserted the right of citizens for freedom of expression and publication. The court has also held the rights of citizens to criticize the existing government. However, the High Court trying a case based on special regulations under anti-terrorism laws has completely altered the democratic tradition which previously existed.

Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has gone further and in a communiqué issued by it stated that criticism of the judgment in the Tissainayagam case is a slur on the independence of the judiciary in the country. However, this case, like that of Aung San Suu Kyi’s demonstrates that the independence of the judiciary in both countries has suffered serious setbacks.

It is therefore fitting that J.S. Tissainayagam has been named as the first winner of the Peter Mackler Award for Courageous and Ethical Journalism. This award should bring to global notice the manner in which courts can be manipulated for the purpose of suppressing freedom of expression and publication.

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