A packed meeting of the Bar Human Rights Committee on 16 June heard Mark Muller QC and Gareth Peirce describe how the provisions of the Terrorism Act 2000 forced the jailing of someone the judge said was a ‘thoroughly decent man’.
Mark Muller QC and Gareth Peirce were the legal team representing Shanthan (Arunachalam Chrishanthakumar), who was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment at the Old Bailey on June 2009 for providing support to a banned organisation. Shanthan became the UK’s representative of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) following the death of Anton Balasingam in December 2006. Balasingam hosted peace negotiations to which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Norwegian government were parties, and even following the banning of the LTTE in 2001, the police took no action against the men.
But after Balasingam’s death, in June 2008 Shanthan became one of the the first Tamils to be arrested under the Terrorism Act 2000. He was charged with providing material support to a proscribed organisation. The prosecution alleged that the material included military clothing and equipment. According to Peirce, he had sent torches, clothes, books and magazines to the LTTE, as humanitarian aid for Tamils in the zone administered by the LTTE under the cease-fire agreement with the Sri Lankan government, at a time when the LTTE was not banned in Sri Lanka. In April 2009 he was convicted by a jury at Kingston Crown Court of sending material useful for terrorism under the Terrorism Act 2000.
The sentence was handed down at the Old Bailey on 12 June 2009. Sentencing him to two years’ imprisonment, Justice Saunders praised the defendant’s humanitarian work, which he hoped would continue after he leaves jail. ‘He is a thoroughly decent man who deliberately broke the law in support of a cause he fervently believed in’, he said. But ‘the terrorist law is part of our international obligations’, support for a proscribed organisation is a ‘serious offence’ and the activity was ‘protracted’. The fact that, as the judge accepted, the LTTE was not banned in Sri Lanka at the time of the offences was irrelevant.
For Peirce, the absurdity of prosecuting and convicting someone for supporting a group which is not illegal in its home country is explained by the political manoeuvrings of a government which was hedging its bets for a time during the peace process, which broke down in early 2008, but was then anxious to do the bidding of the Sri Lankan government.