For over 80 days, Shakthika Sathkumara, an award-winning Sri Lankan writer and poet, has been held in police custody.
The reason for his detention? The publication of a fictional short story about life in a Buddhist temple; a story which allegedly alludes to child sexual abuse involving members of the clergy.
Shakthika’s arrest on 1 April 2019 followed a series of complaints to police by Buddhist organisations. He has been charged under the ICCPR Act – a piece of legislation that is, somewhat paradoxically, designed to give effect to the government of Sri Lanka’s obligations under international law to protect freedom of expression.
Lawyers and human rights experts have roundly condemned the arrest as a gross misapplication of the law, emphasising that the relevant section under which Shakthika has been charged is clearly aimed at tackling the incitement of violence on the grounds of religion, race or nationality – and not merely causing religious offence or insult.
While a legal challenge is now well underway, Shakthika’s freedom continues to be denied ahead of trial; a trial which he seems almost certain to win on a proper and impartial reading of the law. At his latest hearing at a magistrate court on Tuesday (18 June), he was yet again remanded, with a further hearing due to take place next week (on 25 June).
The growing suppression of free speech with free speech legislation
Unfortunately, the ongoing detention of Shakthika appears to be not an isolated injustice, but rather part of a wider coordinated assault on freedom of expression by hardline – but influential – Sinhala Buddhist groups on the island; an assault that has gained in intensity following the Easter Sunday bombings.
In May, a Muslim woman, Abdul Raheem Masaheena, was arrested under the ICCPR Act for wearing a shirt depicting a ship’s helm, an image which complainants to the police had wrongly suggested was a Buddhist symbol, the dharmachakra. Then last week – also under the Act – the authorities threatened to move an investigation against Kusal Perera, a respected journalist whose alleged wrong-doing consisted of the mere mention of growing Sinhala Buddhist extremism on the island. These recent incidents take place against the backdrop of years of sustained harassment and targeting of Tamil journalists and activists under the current regime, as recently manifested in the appalling hate campaign against Tamil Guardian editor, Thusiyan Nandikumar.
The latest crackdown on freedom of expression under the auspices of the ICCPR Act in Sri Lanka are rendered all the more outrageous and frustrating by the government’s abject failure to hold to account the perpetrators of actual recent identity-based violence, as well as those inciting it in plain sight. This week’s latest remarks from one of the seniormost figures in the Buddhist clergy in Sri Lanka suggesting some Muslims should be stoned to death – deemed “classic pre-genocidal language” by staff from the International Crisis Group – have scarcely been remarked upon by Sri Lanka’s leaders, let alone investigated by the authorities. Last month, another extremist monk, then serving a jail sentence for contempt of court having threatened a disappearances activist, received a Presidential pardon and was released.
In the wake of recent attacks against members of Sri Lanka’s Muslim community, the potential consequences of these recent developments – both for freedom of expression, and the risk of further violence against Sri Lanka’s minority communities – are deeply worrying. Of further concern, the government has signalled an intent to bring forward an unnecessary and potentially oppressive hate speech law, a move which could further embolden those currently attempting to curb free speech on religious grounds.
Please help bring an end to the ongoing injustice of Shakthika’s detention – and ensure that a line in the sand is drawn against the current surge of attacks on freedom of expression in Sri Lanka – by acting now. There are two suggested ways in which you can lend your support:
- Send an email or letter to the Sri Lankan authorities urging them to immediately release Shakthika. English PEN, a human rights organisation, have put together a handy short list of demands around which you can frame your correspondence. They have also compiled a list of key contact details – including those for the offices of the Sri Lankan President, Prime Minister and Ministry of Justice – to which you can direct it.
- Get creative. In the spirit of artistic freedom, create a banner, poster or work of art bearing the hashtag #FreeShakthika – then share it on social media and give us a heads up. If you’re in need of some inspiration, check out some of the campaign visuals deployed at the vibrant protest held in support of Shakthika in Colombo earlier this week (for example, see here, here and here). Alternatively take and share a photo snap of yourself with this campaign print-out.
 A phenomenon which has been widely reported on in recent years, including by the BBC.
9 July 2019
Shakthika’s legal representatives attend a court hearing, seeking the Attorney General’s written opinion – requested two months ago – as to whether charges would be filed against their client. Police inform the court that they have not yet received the opinion, and the court orders the hearing to be re-fixed for 23 July 2019 with Shakthika to be remanded until then.
Shakthika’s legal representatives highlight that Shakthika has now been detained for 100 days, and that his children are suffering as a result.
26 June 2019
Shakthika’s legal representatives attend a hearing for a bail application, reminding the court that Shakthika continues to be remanded despite being granted leave in a fundamental rights application to Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court. State Counsel, appearing on behalf of the Attorney General, state that they are yet to receive a complete copy of the short story, which they referred to as a “book”. Shakthika’s legal representatives later describe this as a “delaying tactic,” since the “short story in issue was never printed or published through a book … It was just a Facebook post.” Bail is again refused and the matter re-fixed for hearing on 9 July 2019.
Award-winning author and TV writer Anthony Horowitz joins the international campaign for Shakthika’s release.
I have written a letter to the Prime Minister, Mr Wickremesinghe asking for the release of Shakthika Sathkumara. I support #FreeShakthika
— Anthony Horowitz (@AnthonyHorowitz) June 26, 2019
10 July 2019
Our photo action is taking off! Thank you James and Mark for these awesome pieces. For more information about how to get involved, please check out our suggested actions above.
19 July 2019
Artist and activist Gianluca Costantini joins the campaign!
Writer Shakthika Sathkumara has been detained in Sri Lanka for more than three months after publishing a short story on Facebook. His next hearing is due to take place on 23 July. He could face up to 10 years in prison. #FreeShakthika #SriLanka https://t.co/dHInsjygJO @SLcampaign pic.twitter.com/zFQJMtn0yk
— Gianluca Costantini (@channeldraw) July 19, 2019
23 July 2019
At a hearing (and following the failure of the Attorney General to provide legal instructions) Shakthika is again refused bail and further remanded until 6 August.
30 July 2019
Amnesty International declare Shakthika a “prisoner of conscience” and launch an Urgent Action calling on the public to write to Sri Lanka’s Attorney General.
5 August 2019
Good news! Shakthika has been granted bail by a High Court judge, and could be released as early as this week. Unfortunately however, it does not yet mean he is free. A further hearing is due at the Magistrate Court on 8 August 2019 (previously reported as 6 August) at which the Attorney General will decide whether to indict Shakthika. To find out more about these recent developments – and what you can do – please read our latest blog piece.
The Sri Lankan born novelist Roma Tearne has written a hard-hitting piece in support of Shakthika, ‘Sri Lanka Unchecked’, on the English PEN website. You can read it here.
8 August 2019
Shakthika has finally been released on bail! However, the threat to Shakthika’s liberty remains, with a further hearing to determine whether he will be indicted due to take place on 10 December. Read more in our latest blog piece.