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Sri Lankan journalist Jeyaprakash Tissainayagam is freed on bail

[Times Online UK, Monday, 11 January 2010 19:19 No Comment]

A Sri Lankan journalist sentenced to 20 years in jail on terrorism charges last year after criticising the Government was freed on bail today pending his appeal, according to his lawyer and court officials.

Jeyaprakash Tissainayagam, editor of the North Eastern Monthly magazine, was among the highest profile victims of a government crackdown on the independent media during the last year of the war against the Tamil Tiger rebels.

Shortly before the Tigers were defeated in May, President Obama had singled Mr Tissainayagam out in a speech as one of the “emblematic examples” of persecuted journalists worldwide.

The European Union had also condemned his sentence, and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists awarded him a 2009 International Press Freedom Award. Amnesty International called him a “prisoner of conscience”.

His sudden release comes as Sri Lanka’s President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, tries to woo ethnic Tamil voters ahead of a presidential election on January 26 which pits him against his former army chief, General Sarath Fonseka.

The two men appear to have split the vote of the Sinhalese ethnic majority, which backed the campaign against the Tigers, and are each relying on the Indian Ocean island’s Tamil minority to give them the edge.

Mr Tissainayagam, a Tamil, was arrested in 2008 after he wrote articles accusing the Government of deliberately cutting off ethnic Tamil areas from food and other essential supplies during the latter stages of the war.

He was convicted in August under Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act on charges of raising money for terrorism and fanning racial hatred, and sentenced to 20 years in prison with hard labour.

Today, however, a Sri Lankan court told him to surrender his passport and to post 50,000 rupees (£300) in bail pending a full appeal hearing.

M.A. Sumanthiran, his lawyer, said he was likely to be released today.

The move follows the acquittal in October of S. Jaseeharan, the North Eastern Monthly’s publisher, and his wife, on the charges of supporting terrorism. They had also been detained in March for articles published in the magazine.

Sri Lanka is one of Asia’s oldest democracies and used to have one of its most vibrant media, but is now rated among the most dangerous places for dissenting journalists.

Official figures show nine journalists have been killed and another 27 assaulted in the past three years in Sri Lanka, while activists say more than a dozen journalists have been killed since the beginning of 2006, and many more have fled the country.

[Full Coverage]

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