Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Travails of an "Ordinary" Tamil Detained as a Terrorist Suspect

by Kath Noble, TamilWeek, April 6, 2010

Jeyaratnam was taken into custody along with a whole lot of people associated with him, from family members to employees. He told her that they had bribed the Police to be released. He claims officers then offered not to oppose his bail in exchange for cash. Later, they offered to expedite his paperwork. When he could, he paid up. If what Jeyaratnam says is true, he has parted with over Rs. 300,000 already, and he is still behind bars.

This month marks a year since the arrest of a man I am going to call Jeyaratnam. It isn't his real name, but that hardly matters. He is a small person. Nobody has organised a demonstration outside Fort Station for him. There is no petition.

All readers need to know is that he is accused of having been involved in a terrorist plot.

According to the Police, he handed over money and weapons he had received from the LTTE to a third party, who was supposed to use them. As it happens, he didn't. Either it is all lies, or they changed their minds or were stopped before they could execute their plan.

I don't know. Maybe he is guilty.

The point is that Jeyaratnam is still waiting for a chance to prove otherwise.
It's not that he hasn't been to court. He goes every 14 days. I saw for myself a while back, as I accompanied a mutual friend to Hulftsdorp. He is brought to the holding cells first thing in the morning and hangs about there until a judge calls his case. It can be hours.

But the action is over in minutes. My contact says Jeyaratnam sometimes doesn't make it into the room before the judge hands down another 14 days. He doesn't seem to mind. It makes a change from staring through the bars at Welikada prison, I suppose.

On each occasion, the Police say they need more time. And they get it.

This sounds quite reasonable. We are talking about terrorism, after all.

Jeyaratnam is said to have conspired to kill. It isn't a speeding fine. If he is released, he may act. He could be a fanatic. Who knows how many people would die.

However, there has to be a limit. The State can't detain people indefinitely without presenting the evidence against them and giving a jury the opportunity to decide their fate. That is common sense as well as law in pretty much every country I know. Precautions have to be taken to protect the citizenry, but they can't involve violation of rights on a massive scale, especially outside wartime. It is about finding a balance.

Under the Emergency Regulations, the limit is a year. After that, detainees can file a Fundamental Rights case and they must be heard.

Jeyaratnam has instructed a lawyer to draw up a petition on his behalf. He is lucky. He has our mutual friend to help, to raise money, make calls and do whatever else she can think of to try to ensure that Jeyaratnam isn't forgotten. It is a comfort. He claims during his detention to have come across many people who have been on remand for up to a decade.

The legal system is full of holes through which it is only too easy to slip, often never to be recovered. They are reserved, of course, for the poorest and least well connected in society.

Things could be much worse for Jeyaratnam

Our mutual friend got involved quite by accident. If I relate a little of the story, readers will understand.

This case involves a Tamil who was living and conducting his business in Colombo, but my contact, who I am going to call Anoma for the purpose of this article, stumbled into it from a very different direction. She had made a video about organic farming in a village somewhere in the Kurunegala district, which she had uploaded to the internet. Months later, she received an email from a foreign couple looking for the birth parents of a daughter they had adopted some 20 years ago from the same place.

After locating the birth mother, Anoma arranged for the foreign couple to visit. The daughter was eager to get to know her relatives and learn more about their home area.

During the stay, it emerged that they had also adopted a son from Sri Lanka around 25 years ago. He wasn't interested in tracing his roots, but the foreign couple thought it worthwhile making contact, seeing as they had come all the way.

The son had been taken from a convent in the Mullaitivu district. His birth parents had given him up because of opposition to their marriage from one of their families, on the basis of caste.

Anoma went to the house of the birth father, to be told by neighbours that he had been gone for a number of months. When she returned with the foreign couple, they found out that he was being held by the Police.

It was Jeyaratnam.

This came as rather a shock. The foreign couple hadn't known what to expect from their search, but they certainly hadn't anticipated getting caught up in terrorism. They were cautious. When the time came for them to return home, they asked Anoma to keep an eye on the case and let them know if there was anything they could do in support.

What she found out exposes another of the well known and yet so persistent flaws in the legal system.

The Police had located the third party and recovered the weapons and money Jeyaratnam is supposed to have passed on within 30 days of his arrest. They had even identified the cadre who they claim instructed him. They completed their interrogations and wrote up their report. After that, there was little chance of uncovering any more information. They had given up trying, in fact. Before 60 days had passed, they had finished the investigation.

They didn't need a year. Of course not, because the Emergency Regulations were designed with other circumstances in mind. The country is at peace now.

Readers will be curious to find out what has been going on in the intervening period. A combination of overwork and bureaucratic inertia probably explains the delay in sending the case for prosecution. It is impossible to be sure. Even if there were no more sinister reason, this would still be a cause for concern. The authorities don't consider what the time they spend in shuffling papers means for people who are not granted bail or who cannot afford to pay.

Jeyaratnam may serve what many people would consider an appropriate sentence for the crimes of which he is accused before he even gets to trial, whether he deserves it or not.

Meanwhile, this situation is exploited by the unscrupulous.

Our mutual friend tells me that money has changed hands several times.

Jeyaratnam was taken into custody along with a whole lot of people associated with him, from family members to employees. He told her that they had bribed the Police to be released. He claims officers then offered not to oppose his bail in exchange for cash. Later, they offered to expedite his paperwork. When he could, he paid up. If what Jeyaratnam says is true, he has parted with over Rs. 300,000 already, and he is still behind bars.

Readers may not be inclined to believe a person accused of having been involved in a terrorist plot, especially when he will not speak about it on the record. That is fair enough.

But there is definitely some kind of cheating going on. The day I went to the court, the lawyer told my contact that a particular official had requested Rs. 200,000 to complete the next step in the process. She doesn't know whether to believe him. Maybe he wants it for himself. Somebody is certainly being dishonest. She doesn't know what to do. There is no guarantee that the work will be done if she manages to pull together the funds.

It is a sorry tale.

What is most disturbing is that there is probably very little of the unusual about it. Things like this happen all the time to people like Jeyaratnam. Nobody cares. A year of their lives can be lost, just like that.