ucanews.com reporter, ColomboUpdated: May 24, 2019 09:06 AM GMT
Buddhists monks and supporters wait to welcome Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera upon his release from Welikada prison in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on May 23. The senior monk leads the hard-line group Bodu Bala Sena. (ucanews.com photo)
A hard-line nationalist Buddhist monk has received a presidential pardon after serving only a few months of his six-year term for contempt of court.
Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera, general secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), or Buddhist Power Force, was found guilty of contempt of court last year after shouting at a judge who had found him guilty of accosting the wife of missing journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda outside the court.
The Court of Appeal initially sentenced him to 19 years behind bars but later commuted this to six years.
President Maithripala Sirisena pardoned the monk on May 23, a week after hard-line Buddhist mobs attacked Muslim-owned businesses, mosques and houses in Colombo and other cities. One person was killed, and hundreds of shops damaged.
The anti-Muslim violence occurred in the wake of the deadly Easter Sunday bombings that killed 253 people. The bombing of churches and hotels was carried out by local terrorists linked to the so-called Islamic State.
Speaking to the media following his release, Ven. Gnanasara Thera said he was often verbally attacked when attempting to speak about what he believed was a looming crisis in the country.
"We highlighted the danger long ago, and finally it came true," he said.
"I’m tired now and I plan on leading a religious life in the future."
He thanked Buddhists monks and the president for securing his release.
Some Buddhists celebrated his early release by distributing milk rice in several cities.
Lakshman Pathiraja, a Buddhist businessman, said there was a movement to undermine Buddhism in the country.
"Many non-Buddhists have tried to put Ven. Gnanasara Thera in jail," he said.
Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera holds a press conference. (ucanews.com photo)
J.C. Weliamuna, a human rights lawyer and former executive director of Transparency International Sri Lanka, said via Twitter that pardoning Ven. Gnanasara was a slap in the face to the independence of the judiciary.
“No civilised nation will lightly pardon such a convict,” Weliamuna tweeted.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) condemned the presidential pardon as an abuse of power.
"We call upon all right-thinking people to unreservedly condemn this act by the president and work toward reversing this dangerous trend," said M.A. Sumanthiran, an attorney-at-law and parliamentarian.
"When the call of the hour was to crackdown severely on all purveyors of hate with equal measure, the president's act of showing extreme leniency to a Buddhist monk sends the wrong message," said Sumanthiran in his capacity as TNA spokesman.
"The message it sends is that it’s acceptable for violence to be instigated against minorities, while even innocuous acts against the majority will be dealt with severely," he said.
Supporters of Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera wait for his release from Welikada prison on May 23. (ucanews.com photo)
Ven. Gnanasara Thera and the BBS have long been accused of fueling ethnic and religious tensions in Sri Lanka.
Critics of the BBS say it has played a key role in a rising tide of attacks against minority Muslims and Christians over the past five years, notably the anti-Muslim riots in Digana, a suburb of Kandy in 2018. The government announced a nationwide state of emergency after two people were killed, nearly 450 Muslim owned homes and shops damaged, and more than 20 mosques attacked.
In 2014, four people were killed in clashes in the coastal town of Aluthgama. More than 2,000 people were displaced, and 17 mosques attacked. The BBS was blamed for instigating the attacks, but the group denied the charges.
Muneer, a Muslim activist in Kandy, said Ven. Gnanasara Thera and the BBS have engaged in various anti-Muslim campaigns in the country.
"Buddhist mobs are responsible for a series of anti-Muslim riots even though the BBS denies responsibility," he said.
The BBS also formed an alliance with the 969 movement, a radical Buddhist group known for fomenting hatred against Muslims in Myanmar in 2014.