By Mimi Alphonsus
In April 2020, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) arrested Mohamed Razeek Mohamed Ramzy at his home in Katugastota for violating the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), among other charges.
His crime was to have written a Facebook post urging Muslims to counter alleged racist attacks against their community through an “ideological jihad” (struggle) using the “pen and keyboard.”
Today, free and exonerated by the Supreme Court (SC), Mr. Ramzy, a poet and social media activist, reflects on that painful period and the permanent scars it left on him, his wife, and their two teenage children. “I suffered so much,” he said in an interview with the Sunday Times. “And my family suffered a lot, too.”
Asked if he regrets using the word ‘Jihad’ in his post, which became contentious–and whether he would have phrased the post differently–he said, “I don’t think it’s necessary to change anything about the post. I only need to change something if it’s wrong.”
“I used the word ‘Jihad’ because I wrote that post for the Muslim community,” he maintained. “So, when I address them I should allude to things understood by Muslims, not writing like a plain report. We use poetic words and language from our literature.”
On November 14, this year, the SC held that the fundamental rights of Mr. Ramzy had been infringed. It also determined that by posting the impugned message on the social media site, he had not committed any offence under the ICCPR Act, the Penal Code or the Computer Crime Act—the three laws under which the arrest and detention were carried out.
By then, indelible damage had already been inflicted. In the days following the controversial post, Mr. Ramzy received anti-Muslim hate messages and threats to his life. He complained to the police. It elicited neither a response nor protection. The same evening, he was arrested. He spent the next five months and
eight days in remand. In September 2020, he was granted bail.
Following his arrest, Mr. Ramzy was brought to Colombo and kept overnight at the CID headquarters, where he claims he was beaten by assailants who insulted Allah and shouted, “You tried to declare war on us.” He was produced before a magistrate the next day and placed on remand, where his health deteriorated.
Mr. Ramzy has rheumatoid arthritis, a condition that forced his early retirement as an interpreter for the Agriculture Department. “Because of my ailment, sleeping on the cement floor with no pillows was very painful,” he said. “It was so crowded that some prisoners slept in the toilets, and others even stood.”
Even using the restroom became a hurdle, as the prison only had squatting pans. Within two months, Mr. Ramzy was treated at the prison hospital for ulcers on his legs. “They only gave me painkillers and dressed my wounds,” he said. “The staff claimed they didn’t have the medicine I needed, and since it was Corona time, my family could not continue sending my arthritis medication.”
Another time, while being rushed by prison guards to attend an online meeting with the magistrate, Mr. Ramzy slipped and injured his arm. “My arthritis makes me slow to get ready, but I was forced to hurry,” he said. “I just put up with the pain through the meeting.”
The doctors did not take x-rays until a week later, he claims. They discovered that his arm was fractured: “Still, they did not treat it properly, and it remains deformed to this day.”
COVID-19 was particularly harsh for remand prisoners. Regulations restricted visits. Mr. Ramzy met his family occasionally but maintains that, for the duration of his detention, he didn’t see his lawyers even once. While he did speak with the magistrate via the Internet, watchful prison guards prevented him from speaking freely about the conditions he experienced in custody. The experience has left him with depression, he says.
“Everyone is treated badly in remand,” he related. “But the guards targeted me psychologically, calling me ‘ISIS karaya’ and treating me like a terrorist.” Outside prison, his family, too, were treated like terrorists.
Mr. Ramzy’s daughter was 16 when he was detained. She did her o/levels while her father was in remand prison. She was fearful of getting attacked, so she avoided travelling or attending tuition classes.
“Even after being granted bail by the High Court, friends feared speaking to us, and some neighbours looked at us like we were terrorists,” said Mr. Ramzy. “My reputation was tarnished.”
In addition to the psychological toll, his family suffered financial hardship. His early retirement and consequent small pension meant that, without his supplementary freelance work, daily expenses were hard to meet. To this day, they have not recovered.
“Nowadays, I get less work,” Mr. Ramzy explained. “And typing is difficult because of the arm and the worsening arthritis.”
He maintains that his arrest was targeted harassment, not based on any genuine belief that he had broken the law. (The SC observed in its judgment that there was now a greater trend of people being incorrectly arrested and detained).
“They knew the magistrate would not be able to grant me bail under ICCPR,” Mr. Ramzy said. “That way, they could keep me inside for at least six months.” Even after receiving bail, the case stretched on for three more years.
The SC judgment held that, in arresting and detaining him, CID officers had used sections of the ICCPR, the Penal Code and the Computer Crimes Act as “weapons” and “taken action that amounts to punishment”.
Mr. Ramzy had petitioned the court for Rs. 10 million in compensation. The judgment ordered the State to pay him Rs. 1 million in compensation. The Officer-in-Charge of the Computer and Forensic Training Unit and the CID Director were instructed to each pay him Rs. 30,000 out of their personal funds.
The relatively small compensation is primarily symbolic, he reflects: “Nevertheless, I am very pleased. The judgment will be useful for everyone. Police will hesitate before arbitrarily detaining people.”
Today, Mr. Ramzy continues working as a freelance interpreter, social media activist and civil society member. He works for organisations like the Action Committee for Freedom, Art and Expression and writes on topics close to his heart.
Have his experiences made him afraid to be vocal? “I will keep doing my part,” he responded. “At least for the next generation, we must bring about change in our country and society.”