22 months after his arrest on charges of defamation against Buddhism, award-winning Sri Lankan writer Shakthika Sathkumara is finally a free man.
Sathkumara — author of seven short story collections, four poetry anthologies, one novel, and several works of non-fiction — faced up to a decade in prison because of a short story he wrote.
Monks at the Buddhist Information Center, led by Ven. Angulugalle Siri Jinananda Thero, filed a complaint with local police in 2019, alleging that the short story “Ardha” (“Half”) was “derogatory and defamatory” towards the Buddha and Buddhism as a whole.
The story, which has since been translated and published by the Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, described the experiences of a former Buddhist monk who chose to renounce his monastic position. Less than a thousand words long, it contained subtle references to homosexual relationships between monks. One of the characters also revealed the beginnings of a short story that suggests Siddhartha (the Buddha) “was unable to please a woman.”
Perhaps anticipating his own author’s fate, the protagonist urged his friend to burn the manuscript.
But in reality, Sathkumara posted the piece on Facebook, which led to the charge that he had violated both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act and the Sri Lankan Penal Code. In short, Sathkumara was accused of inciting hatred: a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison under the ICCPR Act.
Obviously, stories of sexual misconduct between purportedly celibate clergy are provocative, and re-imagining the lives of religious figures can be dicey territory. Not everyone will be a fan. But producing art that’s critical of religion is a long way from being a hate crime.
Last year, secular advocacy group Humanists International stood by his side:
Humanists International stands against the incitement of violence or hatreds; however, having reviewed the content of Sathkumara’s story, we do not believe that the story constitutes incitement to violence. Humanists International believes that Sathkumara is being targeted solely for peacefully exercising his rights to freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression and calls for the Sri Lankan authorities to drop the case immediately and unconditionally.
Sathkumara’s case didn’t appear to be an isolated incident, either. Activist and NGO co-ordinator Gamini Viyangoda explained that Buddhist clergy were using the Act to push law enforcement into making “uninformed, irresponsible arrests” against anybody who speaks against their dogma:
The ICCPR Act is being abused at an alarming rate by law enforcement authorities; this is becoming evident every day, so we are hopeful that Sathkumara will be released. Clearly this was only a fictional short story. However, there has been no discrimination, hostility, or any threat of violence from Sathkumara — this raises questions against the grounds on which he was arrested.
It has become a trend among the high-profile Buddhist clergy to assume that whatever they demand should be complied with.
After spending four months in prison, he was granted bail in August 2019. But his case remained in limbo since then despite the entire investigation being completed. It’s been 18 months of tortuous waiting.
Today, there’s finally some resolution: His case was dismissed by the courts.
Here’s Sathkumara’s lawyer:
Based on Attorney General's report dated 25 January 2021, writer Shakthika Sathkumara is released (discharged) from Polgahawela magistrate Court case and proceedings of the case are concluded. No indictment would be filed.
— Sanjaya Wilson Jayasekera (@sanjayawilson) February 9, 2021
Humanist International’s Humanists at Risk Coordinator Emma Wadsworth-Jones added in a statement:
Humanists International welcomes that Shakthika Sathkumara no longer faces the threat of charges — a threat that has hung over him for almost two years. However, we must remember that Sathkumara should never have faced charges in the first place. We urge the authorities to compensate Sathkumara for the hardship he has suffered over the intervening 22 months since his original detention…
She’s right to demand that, but I fear asking for more than his freedom is a longshot. I hope I’m wrong.
This entire ordeal is a harsh reminder that blasphemy isn’t a crime and that elevating religious sensibilities creates a host of problems in a free society. No one should have to go through what Sathkumara did for merely telling a story.
(Large portions of this article were published earlier)