In April this year, the award-winning Sri Lankan writer Shakthika Sathkumara was arrested and charged with inciting religious hatred and violating international human rights law after sharing a short story on his Facebook page. The story, ‘Ardha’ (‘Half’), is due to be published as part of a collection later this year. Certain Buddhist groups were angered by indirect references in the story to homosexuality and child abuse within the Buddhist clergy. They were also concerned about the retelling of the Buddhist story of Siddhartha by a character in Sathkumara’s story. Following its publication, a group of monks known as the Regional Sasana Defence Board filed a complaint against Sathkumara stating that the story incited religious discrimination and hatred, leading to his detention.
Sathkumara, aged thirty-three, is the author of seven short-story collections, four poetry anthologies, a novel and at least seventeen nonfiction books on literary theory, theatre, art and Buddhism. He is also a regular contributor to the literary supplements of various Sinhala-language newspapers and works as an economic development officer at the Polgahawela divisional secretariat office. He maintains that he did not write his story to insult Buddhism or to wound the feelings of any religious community.
Sathkumara remains in detention pending the conclusion of the investigation by Polgahawela police. If he is charged, he faces up to ten years in prison. Article 291B of the Sri Lankan Penal Code states that whoever ‘voluntarily causes disturbance to any assembly lawfully engaged in the performance of religious worship or religious ceremonies shall be punished with imprisonment … for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both’, while Article 3(1) of Sri Lanka’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act of 2007 states that ‘no person shall propagate war or advocate national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence’ and makes any such crime a non-bailable offence punishable by up to ten years in prison.
According to Sri Lanka’s former minister for child development and women’s affairs Tissa Karalliyadde, child abuse in religious establishments by both Buddhist and Christian clergy is widespread. Local boys are often given temporary accommodation in Sri Lanka’s Buddhist temples. In return they are expected to help in organising religious ceremonies and in the day-to-day running of the buildings. The BBC Sinhala service claims that over the last decade, nearly 110 Buddhist monks have been charged with sexually and physically assaulting minors in Sri Lanka. Most of these abuse cases have been barely reported by the Sri Lankan media and there have been few convictions. The issue of child abuse by Buddhist monks is regarded as taboo in the country, which is predominantly Buddhist. In several cases monks have been accused of failing to stop abuses rather than carrying them out directly.
The ICCPR Act is supposed to protect human rights. However, it is increasingly being used to stifle free expression. According to the Sri Lanka Campaign, the ongoing detention of Sathkumara is part of a wider coordinated assault on freedom of speech by hardline Sinhala Buddhist groups in the country. In May, a Muslim woman, Abdul Raheem Masaheena, was arrested under the act for wearing a shirt bearing an image of a ship’s helm after complainants claimed that it depicted the dharmachakra, an Indian symbol that represents, among other things, Buddha’s teaching and the universal moral order. The authorities have also used the act to persecute Kusal Perera, a respected journalist, after he expressed concern about the growing Sinhala Buddhist extremism in Sri Lanka. In a column published on 17 May 2019 in the Daily Mirror he commented on the anti-Muslim violence that erupted following the Easter Sunday terror attacks. The police’s crime unit reportedly filed a case against Perera for inciting racial hatred.
At the time of writing, Sathkumara’s legal counsel claims that the charges against him have not yet been officially outlined and no hearing has been held to consider the merits of the case. Despite this lack of judicial process, the Polgahawela Magistrate Court has repeatedly denied Sathkumara bail. His legal team have had to file a bail application at the High Court and a fundamental rights case at the Supreme Court, which is due to be heard on 30 September.
Readers can send appeals to the Sri Lankan authorities expressing concern about the arrest of Shakthika Sathkumara in violation of his right to freedom of expression, calling for his immediate and unconditional release, seeking assurances that all charges will be dropped and urging the Sri Lankan authorities to safeguard freedom of expression in line with international standards.
Send appeals to:
Prime Minister of Sri Lanka
Minister of Justice & Prison Reforms
Her Excellency Manisha Gunasekera
High Commission of Sri Lanka
13 Hyde Park Gardens, London W2 2LU
You can tweet about the case using the hashtag #FreeShakthika. Please send messages of solidarity to Shakthika Sathkumara via email@example.com. Please do not send political content.