by Maneshka Borham
In many ways, last Thursday, June 14 was an extraordinary day.
Controversial Bodu Bala Sena General Secretary Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera, the firebrand monk who has been the face of fear-mongering and hate speech against minority communities living in Sri Lanka over the past six years, strolled into the Homagama Magistrate’s Court with dozens of young Buddhist monks in tow, crowing that he would continue to serve the country. He was at the suburban courtroom to be sentenced for the crime of intimidating Sandhya Ekneligoda, the wife of missing journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda within the precincts of that same court-house in January 2016.
The Homagama magistrate delivered the guilty verdict last month.
But as the sentencing concluded last Thursday, Gnanasara Thera’s bravado appeared to fail. The magistrate sentenced the BBS general secretary to six months rigorous imprisonment for each of his two convictions, to be served concurrently, meaning that the monk would complete both sentences within six months provided he behaved himself in prison. If not, the sentence would be extended by three months. The monk was also ordered to pay Rs 50,000 as compensation to Sandhya Ekneligoda subject to a further Rs 3,000 fine.
At first, the monk looked taken aback by the sentence delivered by Magistrate Udesh Ranatunge – but only for a moment.
Minutes later he was on his feet, ignoring the pleas of his lawyer as he launched into a familiar tirade that questioned both the magistrate’s integrity and his sentence.
In stark contrast, his victim, Sandhya Ekneligoda, wearing a simple white Kandyan sari at the other end of the crowded court room, stood calm and stoic, a smile lingering on her lips and a look on her face that showed she knew she had won this round.
On this day proving that not even a member of clergy could get away by intimidating a witness or victim to a crime especially within a court, Homagama Magistrate Udesh Ranatunge made an example out of the case.
In a court system which rarely convicts clergy, Thursday’s ruling was monumental, with legal experts claiming it may set precedence for similar cases in the future to ensure protection of witnesses and victims of crime.
However, prior to the monumental sentencing, Gnanasara Thera’s lawyers attempted to make a case on his behalf by pleading for a lenient sentence. Appearing for the monk, Attorney-at-Law Manjula Makumbura detailed the “services rendered to the country” by the controversial monk. While stating the monk has no previous convictions, the lawyer presented court with a plethora of newspaper articles in a bid to paint the monk in a good light.
The BBS General Secretary’s attorney added that the monk had “urged the Government to end the war” and thereby contributed to the ending of the conflict in 2009. Counsel for the convicted monk told court that the allegations of hate speech and accusations of causing racial discord levelled against Gnanasara Thera, were all false propaganda. Instead, the lawyer said, the monk had always worked towards “racial harmony”.
A stunning argument
Gnansara Thera’s lawyer told court that the monk had been moved by the troubles faced by families of army intelligence officers implicated in the disappearance of Sandhya Ekneligoda’s husband Prageeth, who has been missing since 2010.
But it was Senior State Counsel Janaka Bandara’s legal submissions that won the day, with observers and lawyers present at the Homagama Magistrate’s Court last week declaring that he had made a stunning argument to close his case and ensure the monk paid for his bad behavior in court two years ago.
Before a court house packed to the brim with monks, members of the public and supporters of both parties to the case, Bandara in a hard hitting submission sought a maximum sentence for the monk.
He drew the attention of all present to the struggles Ekneligoda and her children had to face since her husband’s disappearance eight years ago. “It was such a woman, who was facing similar pressures as the families of army officers, that this monk threatened, SSC Bandara told court.
Recalling the incident in 2016 that led to the intimidation case, Senior State Counsel Bandara said it was in the same Homagama court house that Gnanasara Thera had uttered the menacing words: “Your husband is a Tiger, go beg on the streets” (Thamusege miniha kotiya, tho gihin hinga kaapiya) to Sandhya as he was leaving the courtroom. The SSC explained that to block her efforts to seek out her missing husband, a certain perception was being created in society. In that instance in January 2016, the opposition to her was thrown right in her face in a bid to intimidate her, SSC Bandara explained.
The question before courts
The issue of protection offered to witnesses and victims of crime was the question before the courts, the SSC argued.
“People come here trusting the court system” he said adding that if the monk was not punished, the public would lose faith in the system leading to its eventual collapse. “Who is he to come to courts and shout at the magistrate and go on to intimidate a victim within the courts itself?” the counsel questioned pointing at Gnanasara Thera who was seated in the dock – who scrambled to his feet as if he had been stung.
While the monk appeared restless and agitated, SSC Bandara went on to quote Martin Niemöller.
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me”
SSC Bandara said this was what had now happened to the judicial system. “We watched as this monk went on to harass and intimidate others, thinking it will not happen to us”. Making a brilliant submission the Senior State Counsel said, in the end Gnansara Thera had tried the same antics inside a court room itself.
Therefore, SSC Bandara argued strongly for a custodial sentence to be imposed on the monk to make an example of this incident and ensure no other person would act again in a similar manner within a court room. “It is not merely about this incident but the threat to the court system at large” Bandara concluded.
At around 11.45 am after proceedings had lasted over an hour, Magistrate Udesh Ranatunge was finally ready to deliver the sentence. Taking all presented facts into consideration, Ranatunge appeared to have been most moved by the fact that a message must be sent to society that intimidation within the court could not be tolerated, as he sentenced the controversial monk to a six month jail term with hard labour.
But obviously, true to form Gnansara Thera was unwilling to go down without a fight. In spite of his precarious position – now as a convicted and sentenced criminal – the BBS General Secretary who was seething over his fate, got reckless again. He demanded to be allowed to make a statement and when the magistrate refused, the monk began to shout, even as his lawyer made futile attempts to silence him. “What have I done wrong to this country to be treated like this,” he questioned the Magistrate saying the sentence handed to him was grossly unjust.
Victory for human rights
Magistrate Ranatunge refused to be moved. The monk was severely admonished and warned not to conduct himself in a way that would result in another court case against him. Finally defeated, the notorious monk was led away by prison officials and made to board the prison bus to Welikada after years of evading justice for his sins. His stunned supporters looked on, young monks red-eyed and furious, others openly sobbing at the announcement of his imprisonment. Riot police was on standby to prevent chaos near the court house, but apart from heated exchanges between the supporters of Gnansara Thera and the activists and friends who had come to Homagama courts to show solidarity with Sandhya Ekneligoda nothing untoward occurred. The monks recited gaatha as the BBS General Secretary was led away.
“Gnanasara Thera’s action was not for personal gain but for the good of the country” National Organizer of the BBS, Vitharadeniye Nanda Thera said following the sentencing. According to him the organization would do their utmost to ensure the Thera’s release.
Meanwhile, a quietly triumphant Sandhya Ekneligoda said it was a victory for all victims who had been intimidated by the BBS monk in the past. “They could not go against him and I decided to push ahead for not only myself but for them as well,” she said, adding: “This is a landmark ruling which ensures protection for witnesses and victims of crime in the country.”
In a statement released after the sentencing, Amnesty International called it a ‘victory for human rights defenders in Sri Lanka.’ “This is an important verdict for all people who fight for human rights in Sri Lanka. A clear message has gone out to those who seek to intimidate, threaten and silence people seeking justice,” said Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for South Asia, Omar Waraich.