Sri Lankan leader frees 'terror' journalist

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The Independent Online

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has pardoned a Tamil journalist who received a 20-year jail term on charges of "supporting" terrorism.

Jeyaprakash Tissainayagam was the first journalist to be convicted under new anti-terror legislation.

He had written about the effects of the separatist conflict on the ethnic Tamil minority.

Mr Tissainayagam, an experienced columnist who wrote for several publications including the now defunct North Eastern Monthly magazine, had written several articles in 2006 and 2007 in which he accused the government of withholding food and other essentials from Tamil-majority areas as a weapon of war. Last year, a court decided his articles broke the law because they were designed to create agitation between the Tamil minority and the Sinhala majority.

But yesterday, Sri Lanka's External Affairs Minister, Gamini Peiris, told reporters that President Rajapaksa had decided to mark World Press Freedom Day by pardoning the journalist. Last night, there was no immediate word from Mr Tissainayagam, who had been given bail earlier this year, though campaigners for press freedom welcomed the move. Many observers say that under the presidency of Mr Rajapaksa there has been a clamp-down on press freedom in Sri Lanka. More than a dozen journalists have been killed and many more have fled the country after receiving threats. The government has always denied being responsible for any such attacks.

Earlier this year, Mr Tissainayagam, described by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience, was honoured at the British Press Awards. Last year he was mentioned by the American President, Barack Obama, during an address in which he said: "In every corner of the globe, there are journalists in jail or being actively harassed: from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, Burma to Uzbekistan, Cuba to Eritrea.

"Emblematic examples of this distressing reality are figures like JS Tissainayagam in Sri Lanka, or Shi Tao and Hu Jia in China."

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