CHENNAI: Strongly condemning the death penalty awarded to five Tamil Nadu fishermen by a Sri Lankan court, the AIADMK government today said it has 'incensed' all sections of the society and sought Prime Minister Narendra Modi's intervention for their release.
In a letter to Modi, Chief Minister O Panneerselvam described the verdict as "unjust" and raised apprehension whether the fishermen received a fair trial.
"On behalf the people of Tamil Nadu, I strongly condemn the unjust conviction meted out to the five Indian fishermen from Rameswaram Emerson, Agastas, Wilson, Prasath and Langlet," he said.
He said "the state government had insisted these fishermen were innocent and the case had been foisted on them and also that the evidence against them in the court is a fabrication".
He said his predecessor J Jayalalithaa had repeatedly taken up the matter both with then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and also Modi, following which the case had been been taken up in several Inter-Ministerial and Joint Working Group meetings. It had also figured prominently in the fishermen level talks.
Based on the state government's insistence, the Ministry of External Affairs and the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka had taken up this issue with Lankan officials and consistently argued that they were bona fide fishermen with no record of involvement in drug related activities, Panneerselvam said.
"There was considerable hope that the fishermen would be released based on the records submitted by the Indian side... in these circumstances, the conviction of these fishermen and the award of death penalty is particularly shocking and unexpected.
The manner in which the entire trial was conducted and the orders delayed, gives rise to serious doubts as to whether the fishermen received a fair trial," he said. In earlier cases of drug trafficking, the accused found guilty were only levied fine, he said.
"The present case of five fishermen was under hearing in Jaffna when Sri Lankan police filed the charge sheet in the Colombo Court and transferred the case abruptly. Thereafter, the trial was held in the Fourth Bench of the Colombo High Court," the Chief Minister said.
"Given all these circumstances, the death sentence against the five fishermen has greatly incensed not only the fishermen community in Tamil Nadu but all sections of society. It is quite apparent that these bona fide and innocent fishermen have not received a fair trial and have become the victims of a hidden agenda," he charged.
Stating that it was New Delhi's 'paramount duty' to protect the fishermen, Panneerselvam urged Modi to immediately take up the matter with the highest authorities in Sri Lanka to ensure that they were saved and released to return home.
He also sought a direction from Modi to the Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka to set in motion the appeal process within the stipulated time and ensure the best legal counsel.
"Failure to take immediate decisive action in this case and secure justice for the five fishermen will greatly inflame the already bruised emotions amongst the people of Tamil Nadu," he cautioned.