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Friday, April 19, 2024

Gnanasara Thera sentenced to 4 years in prison for defaming Islam; The Karma of hate

 Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) General Secretary Ven. Galaboda Atte Gnanasara Thera was today sentenced to four-year-rigorous imprisonment for making a hate speech against the Islamic religion on Kuragala Temple.Colombo High Court Judge Adithya Patabendige further ordered Gnanasara Thera to pay a fine of Rs.100,000.

The Attorney General had filed the case against the BBS General Secretary on charges of causing religious and racial disunity in Sri Lanka over remarks made by him on Kuragala Temple during a media briefing held on 30 March 2016.


The Karma of hate

Editorial The morning 

The politics of hate has a long history in Sri Lanka. It has been used as a tool to mobilise communities against others, spread fear and push divisive narratives to meet the political aims of many politicians and political parties. The use of hate speech has been around for millennia, and will likely be around for a long time across the world despite strong efforts to reign it in.

Yesterday (28), the Colombo High Court sentenced controversial monk Galagodaaththe Gnanasara to four years of rigorous imprisonment for making defamatory comments against Islam in 2016. While many welcome the move, this is not the first time the monk has been jailed, with him being convicted of contempt of court. The case had been filed based on a complaint filed by former Parliamentarians Mujibur Rahman and Azath Salley. Gnanasara was accused of making defamatory comments against Islam during a 2016 media briefing convened on the Kuragala ancient Buddhist monastery, causing damage to national and religious harmony.

The Judge found the monk guilty of the two indictments filed by the Attorney General under the Penal Code. Accordingly, the accused was sentenced to two years of RI for each indictment and was imposed two fines of Rs. 50,000 each. He also ordered that the two sentences be served separately. Gnanasara Thera’s prison sentence will be extended by two more years in the event of his failure to pay the fine. Presenting submissions before the Court during yesterday’s proceedings, the defence attorney argued that his client’s remarks were based on the situation that prevailed in the country at the time. However, the Judge, delivering the verdict, ruled that the allegations levelled against Gnanasara Thera by the prosecution have been proved beyond a reasonable doubt, adding that it became evident during the trial that the statement in question was not ‘accidental’ but ‘deliberate’. Pointing out that such statements disrupt the religious harmony and unity in the country, the Judge emphasised that the accused failed to fulfil his responsibility as a religious leader who is entrusted with maintaining inter-faith harmony.

It is indeed ironic that Gnanasara was tried for making defamatory remarks under the penal code and not the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which has been the law enforcements and Attorney General favourite legislation to arrest, detain and prosecute other suspects who engage in alleged hate speech, or for making defamatory comments. The Civil society, local and international watch dogs and legal professional bodies such as the Bar Association of Sri Lanka have long pointed out that the manner the ICCPR legislation is used, is problematic, some have alleged that the laws are being misused deliberately to persecute dissidents. It will be interesting to see if the Attorney General’s Department and the Police will change its habits in the employment of the controversial piece of legislation.

Gnanasara, a firebrand monk, known for his hard-line views, was serving a six-year jail term for Contempt of Court in 2019, when then President Maithripala Sirisena pardoned him. During the 2019 brush with the law, the monk was accused of inciting violence against the Muslim community in the country, and subsequently convicted and given a six-month jail term over intimidating Sandya Ekneligoda, the wife of missing journalist Pradeep Ekneligoda. At the time, the pardon comes shortly week after anti-Muslim violence erupted in some parts of the country, resulting in serious damage to Muslim-owned homes and commercial establishments. One person was killed during the violent riots, which lasted two days before it was brought under control.

Once pardoned, and Gnanasara’s political allegiances were once again highlighted when then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in an utterly insensitive move appointed the convicted monk to head the ‘Presidential Task Force for One Country, One Law’ via gazette notification (2251/30) in October of 2021. Given his history of his political association, the court of public opinion has placed Gnanasara as a tool in the Rajapaksa political clan’s tool kit. Some commentators and the many on Sri Lanka’s social media landscape have called the sentencing a ‘pre-election’ stunt. However, one must give the judiciary its due, over the last few years, it has delivered a number of unprecedented judgments.

However, it remains to be seen if the Rajapaksa led SLPP powerbloc in politics will seek a second pardon for, what essentially was, one of the sharpest tools in their arsenal to spread discord and set the stage for divisive politics to rule the island. While President Ranil Wickremesinghe has to work with the SLPP, it is likely that he will avoid the prospects of issuing a pardon to the firebrand monk.

The lesson for Galagodaaththe Gnanasara is one from the words of Buddha, one’s ill deeds will follow one for eternity.  Gnanasara has four years, if he does not win on appeal, to read the tripiṭaka, and learn to live a more productive life.


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