Finally, justice for Hejaaz

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The Court of Appeal yesterday ordered the granting of bail to prominent lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah, after detaining him for nearly two years under the draconian anti-terrorism laws. He was arrested on 14 April 2020 and was held without access to a lawyer for over 10 months. He was later produced by the CID before a magistrate and remanded under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). 

Initially arrested in connection with alleged involvement in the April 2019 Easter Sunday bombings, the Attorney General finally filed charges against Hizbullah nearly a year into his detention for hate speech and incitement under the PTA and the ICCPR Act. The State’s case against Hizbullah has deteriorated into a near farce. It now rests on a single child witness who claimed the lawyer made extremist statements at a school owned by the Save The Pearls Trust associated with the accused.  

Tragically, Hejaaz Hizbullah is one of many thousands whose lives have been destroyed through the PTA. Even though the purported objective of the PTA was to give investigating authorities some reasonable time to present a case against a terror suspect, it had throughout the years become a means for torture, arbitrary arrest and detention and a tool for intimidation of political opponents, activists and minorities.

Even those who are arrested for suspicion of terrorism have a right to be tried before a competent court. It is a travesty of justice that individuals have been held under the PTA, sometimes for over a decade, even without being produced before a court of law. The basic tenet of law that prescribes the presumption of innocence until being proven otherwise has been denied to so many. It is for this reason that there has been a great clamour for the repeal and replacement of the PTA for many years.

Unfortunately these local agitations throughout the years have fallen on deaf ears. 

The Government has only shown some susceptibility towards international demands for the same. There should be no doubt that even the discussion on the reform of the PTA and the release of Hejaaz and others are a result of international pressure. The European Union which will soon decide on the continuation of GSP plus trade concessions for Sri Lanka, had earlier made it conditional to the reform the PTA and release of several PTA detainees, including Hejaaz, former CID Director Shani Abeysekera and poet and journalist Ahnaf Jazeem. It is no coincidence that the Attorney General’s Department consented to the granting of bail to Hejaaz, after refusing to do so for nearly two years, just days before the convening of the Sri Lanka-EU Joint Commission meeting in Brussels and the UN Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva.

In the absence of its own elected Government working to ensure the rights of its citizens and adhering to the international commitments itself has made through the signature to numerous human rights conventions, Sri Lankans should welcome the international interventions towards reform. PTA detainees such as Hejaaz Hizbullah and Shani Abeysekera have gained their basic right for bail due to the pressure exerted by the international community, particularly the EU. In its desperate attempt to retain the GSP+ concessions the Government has even proposed some reforms to the PTA. While ideally a government should be motivated by the needs, demands, rights and interest of its own people, in the absence of such the citizens are well-entitled to welcome international interventions that reap results.

Hejaaz Hizbullah’s ordeal is far from over. He has lost two years of his life and precious time with his infant daughter he will never get back. No righting of wrongs in this complete travesty of justice will restore that time to the Hizbullah family. While rejoicing in this judicial decision to grant the lawyer bail, this is also a moment that should strengthen resolve to hold all those responsible for his unjust incarceration accountable.

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Disclaimer: Finally, justice for Hejaaz - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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