ucanews.com reporter, ColomboUpdated: June 20, 2018 06:55 AM GMT
Buddhist monks stage a peaceful protest in Colombo on June 18 seeking the release of Ven. Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera from prison. He was ordered to serve six months of rigorous imprisonment and pay damages for threatening the wife of a missing journalist. (Photo by Quintus Colombage/ucanews.com).
Buddhist monks have been staging demonstrations in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo and other cities demanding the release of Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera from prison.
Hundreds of Buddhist monks marched to the capital on June 19 to hold a peaceful rally, known as a satyagraha, urging he be set free.
The Homagama Magistrate Court handed the controversial monk a six-month sentence on June 14 for threatening Sandya Eknaligoda, the wife of missing journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, at a court in 2016.
He reportedly accused her of supporting Tamil extremists and tarnishing the reputations of military war heroes.
The court ordered him to pay 50,000 rupees (US$313) in compensation to Sandya and fined him a further 1,500 rupees.
The outspoken monk, who serves as general secretary of the radical Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist organization Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), or 'Buddhist Power Force,' has been blamed for a rise in attacks against minority Muslims and Christians.
On June 18, Ven. Agalakada Sirisumana Thereo, a professor at the University of Colombo, addressed a crowd of monks and laymen who were staging a sit-in protest in front of the holy Pettah Bo Tree in Colombo.
"We know there is an attempt to undermine Buddhism in the country but we all are here to give him strength and support," he said.
He suggested the authorities had an ulterior motive in sending the monk to jail and blasted it as an attempt to try and silence him.
"Many people have planned to put him behind bars over the last few years and we have all united to defeat these threats against Buddhism," Ven. Agalakada Sirisumana Thereo said.
He said the peaceful assembly in Colombo was not organized to protest the court verdict but rather was aimed at lending the jailed monk moral support.
Ven. Gnanasara Thera has appealed the court's decision but the hearing has been postponed as officials from the Attorney General's Department failed to appear on June 19.
Ven. Omare Kassapa of Pevedi Hada said Buddhist monks should boycott state functions if he is not released.
But human rights groups including Amnesty International have hailed his conviction as a victory and labeled him an "extremist monk."
A Muslim businessman whose shop was attacked during a series of anti-Muslim attacks in Kandy in March said the monk has been inciting unrest and inflaming religious tensions, seeing himself as a "a savior of the Sinhalese."
The monk has been accused of several anti-Muslim attacks and hate crimes but this is the first time he has been jailed.
In June 2017 he was arrested by the Police Organized Crimes Prevention Division for allegedly obstructing a police officer in Welikada, a suburb of Colombo, following a manhunt that lasted several weeks. He was later released on bail.
"The president, prime minister and cabinet ministers have given hundreds of assurances that the violence against Muslims will stop, but there is still no hope of that happening," said the Muslim shop owner, who declined to give his name for fear of reprisals.
"There is nothing to say Buddhist monks cannot be arrested if they commit a criminal act," he said. "Everybody should respect law and order in the country."
Sandya Eknaligoda said no one is above the law in a democratic country.
"It is duty of officials to serve and protect victims [of discrimination and crime] irrespective of religion, race and caste," she said.
She was awarded the U.S. Secretary of State's International Women Courage Award in 2017 for her efforts to seek justice for her husband, who is believed to have been abducted eight years ago.
Her husband, Prageeth, a journalist and cartoonist, disappeared without a trace in January of 2010 after reportedly going to meet someone following a mysterious telephone call.