This week Amnesty International declared attorney Hejaaz Hisbullah as a Prisoner of Conscience. The designation comes 15 months into Hizbullah’s incarceration under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act.
The term was coined by Amnesty International founder Peter Benenson in 1961, and refers to anyone imprisoned because of their race, sexual orientation, religion, or political views. The term also refers to those who have been imprisoned or persecuted for the nonviolent expression of their conscientiously held beliefs. Amnesty International says Hizbullah has been targeted for his work as a lawyer of the Muslim faith and must be freed. The designation was accompanied by a global call on activists to write #FreeHejaaz on their arms and wrists and post the photos on social media as an awareness campaign. During his incarceration under anti-terror laws Hizbullah contracted COVID-19 and, for months, the senior lawyer was denied access to his lawyers and family. While he was detained, his wife gave birth to their daughter, a little girl who marks a first birthday in a few months, possibly never having seen her father. 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 case against Hizbullah is tenuous as best. The State’s case against Hejaaz rests on a single witness who claimed the lawyer made extremist statements at a school owned by the Save The Pearls trust. The trust was administered by Hizbullah.
Of all the political prisoners the Government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has taken, Hizbullah’s case remains the most mysterious. There is no obvious way in which Hizbullah, through his work as a lawyer or an activist, might have angered the incumbent administration. Many activists believe his detention and the flimsy charges filed against him were motivated by his role in defeating the 2018 failed coup. Hizbullah represented Elections Commissioner Ratnajeevan Hoole in the Supreme Court case challenging President Maithripala Sirisena’s unlawful dissolution of Parliament during that constitutional crisis. Appearing beside the country’s most senior legal luminaries, Hizbullah held his own, making brilliant and memorable submissions about the meaning of constitutional governance and the path to dictatorship. In reference to the somewhat junior counsel’s all-star performance, senior lawyers seated him in front of them in a group photo after the Supreme Court held in their favour, declared the dissolution unconstitutional and set the stage for the eventual defeat of the coup. Others believe Hizbullah raised the Government’s ire more recently, with his international activism against the administration’s racist forced cremation policy for victims of COVID-19. Fifteen months into his detention, the reasons for his cruel and unjustified incarceration remain speculative at best. When Hizbullah was arrested in April 2020, the new Government was barely four months into its term. In the first flush and euphoria of the presidential election, many people believed the State sponsored narrative and propaganda surrounding the lawyer’s arrest. Many doubted his innocence and cast aspersions upon his bona fides. The Government that swept to power on pledges of holding the perpetrators of the Easter Sunday attacks to account, had to be afforded the opportunity and freedom to delve into that investigation. But over a year later, the police have no evidence of Hizbullah being involved in the terror attacks. His case, similar to the cases against SSP Shani Abeysekera and the poet Ahnaf Jazeem, is falling apart at the seams. There is no longer any doubt that Hizbullah is the victim of vicious political persecution, and that powerful people are determined to keep him in jail. For months now, there has been no longer a justification to deny Hizbullah his freedom. The case against Hizbullah has made waves internationally and is reinforcing the perception that the Government is cruelly pursuing its critics in a campaign of vengeance that has gone on for nearly two years. Hejaaz Hizbullah must be released, and this ugly chapter must be brought to a close. Justice and decency demand this.