The General Secretary and de facto head of the radical nationalist organisation, Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), Galagoda-aththe Gnanasara thero was recently sentenced to nineteen years imprisonment by the Court of Appeal, to be completed in six years. This follows a previous six-month prison term imposed on him by the Homagama Magistrate’s Court.
While the former sentence was for charges of contempt of court, the latter was for threatening Sandya Ekneligoda, the wife of missing journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda at the Homagama Magistrate’s Court where a Habeas Corpus application for the journalist was being heard. Hot on the heels of Gnanasara thero being sentenced, reports are emerging that he may be the beneficiary of a presidential pardon.
While these reports are unconfirmed as yet, there are certainly moves to appeal to President Maithripala Sirisena for a pardon. Ministers Champika Ranawaka and Rajitha Senaratne have said so. The chief prelate of the Kotte Sri Kalyani Samagri Dharma Sangha Sabha, Iththepane Dhammalankara thero has said he would be writing to the President, requesting a pardon.
Clearly, the pressure is mounting and, it remains to be seen whether, with presidential and general elections a little over a year away, President Sirisena would yield- as he did to the railway employees- or stand his ground and uphold the rule of law.
The outcome of the moves for a presidential pardon will be watched with great interest, not because Gnanasara thero is a very important person but because the underlying principle- whether every citizen in this country is equal before the law- is being put to the test. Those with even conveniently short memories know that, despite donning a saffron robe, Gnanasara thero is no angel of mercy. He heads the BBS, a hard-line organisation that believes in the concept of Sinhalese Buddhist supremacy at the expense of other communities in this country and is not shy to say so, even at the cost of inciting racial hatred.
Gnanasara thero’s conduct in public has been anything but that becoming of a Buddhist monk. He believes in racy racial rhetoric that inflames communal passions, is rude to the point of being obscene and he acts to denigrate others with impunity, secure in the knowledge that he is above the law. It is no secret that a speech he made on June 15, 2014 at Aluthgama, claiming that this country had a ‘Sinhala Police’ and a ‘Sinhala Army’ and openly threatening the Muslim community led to racial riots in the Kalutara district that left four persons dead, dozens injured and thousands homeless. The country was reeling under the authoritarian rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa at that time and no one dared confront Gnanasara thero for his action. He got away scot-free, denying any responsibility.
That he was a danger to racial harmony was obvious but no one had the courage to punish him because he had friends in high places. Even after the change of government, perhaps intoxicated with impunity because of the immunity he enjoyed under the previous regime, he continued with his boorish behaviour. That is when he intimidated Sandya Ekneligoda first and then hurled abusive comments at the Homagama Magistrate.
The Government has acted as it should, dealing with Gnanasara thero as it would with any other citizen. He was charged with the offences he committed, he had trials where he was represented by leading lawyers and now he has been handed his sentence. He still has the right to appeal and indeed, his lawyers have indicated that they would do so. So, the wheels of justice are surely turning. To stop them in their tracks by granting Gnanasara thero a pardon, just because he is a Buddhist monk, because other Buddhist monks are requesting it and because it would be politically expedient to do so, would make a mockery of the entire justice system and the concept of the rule of law.
It would also send a completely warped and distorted message to the public and that is that if you are powerful and have friends in the corridors of power, the rule of law does not apply to you as it does to other citizens and you could get away with anything. Is that really what we want as a nation? Gnanasara thero is not the first ‘important’ person to fall foul of the law. Thalduwe Somarama thero was convicted of the assassination of Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike.No one argued for leniency for him. In fact, the law was amended to restore capital punishment, so he could be hanged!
More recently, S. B. Dissanayake was convicted of a similar offence, contempt of court. He was sentenced to two years rigorous imprisonment and he spent fourteen months in jail before he was released, again on a presidential pardon. In the coming weeks, there will of course be requests, appeals, pleas and even threats, to pardon Gnanasara thero. There will be protest marches and ‘satyagraha’ campaigns calling for his release.
There will also be organisations and political parties calling the Government traitors of Sinhalese Buddhists for allowing Gnanasara thero to languish behind bars. The Government can either cave in to those pressures, perhaps with one eye on the Sinhala Buddhist vote, or it can do the right thing and allow the law to take its course. After all, appeals are pending for both court cases and one will be before the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court.
What the Government does will be important. It will be significant for the judiciary because, after a decade of being under the thumb of Mahinda Rajapaksa, it is now acting impartially. If its decisions are not reversed by petty politicians, it will know that it can continue to dispense justice without fear or favour. On the other hand, if its decisions are altered, it may not do so again.
President Maithripala Sirisena, as he often likes to recall, displayed great moral strength and the courage of his convictions to take on the might of the Rajapaksa regime. We must hope that he has enough of those qualities left in him to ensure Gnanasara thero- and those affected by his actions- receive the justice that they deserve.