The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has issued an opinion finding the Government of Sri Lanka to be in contravention of its international human rights obligations for the four month pre-trial detention of author Shakthika Sathkumara.
Responding to a petition filed by Freedom Now, the UN concluded that Sathkumara was detained for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression.
“We welcome the Working Group’s determination that Shakthika Sathkumara spent four months wrongfully detained in violation of his fundamental rights,” said Freedom Now Legal Officer Adam Lhedmat. “However, we are deeply troubled that the legal proceedings against him are set to resume on May 19 and he faces up in 12 years in prison, if convicted. This highly disproportionate sentence raises serious concerns about Sri Lanka’s commitment to protecting the right to freedom of expression. We call on the Sri Lankan government to comply with the United Nations and drop the charges against Sathkumara.”
Sathkumara is an award-winning author and regular contributor to the literary supplements of various Sinhala-language newspapers. Prior to his arrest, he had been employed by the Sri Lankan government as an Economic Development Officer at the Polgahawela Divisional Secretariat Office.
In February 2019, Sathkumara published a post-modern short story on his Facebook page entitled Ardha. In the subsequent days, an association of Buddhist monks filed a complaint with police alleging the story insulted and defamed Buddhism and Buddhists. The complaint mentions the themes of homosexuality in Ardha and an allusion in the story to an instance of possible sexual abuse in a Buddhist temple. Sathkumara has maintained that he did not intend to insult Buddhism or any religious community by publishing Ardha.
Sathkumara was arrested on April 1, 2019 and charged under two domestic laws: Section 3(1) of Sri Lanka’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Act which prohibits advocating religious hatred; and Section 291(B) of the Penal Code, which prohibits insult to religion. If convicted under both charges, he could face up to 12 years in prison.
After his arrest, Sathkumara was held in pre-trial detention in an overcrowded prison until August 8, when he was released on bail. The conditions of his bail require him to report to the local police station several times a month.
The trial against Sathkumara has been subjected to repeated delays and has not moved past the pre-trial phase. Hearings in this case have been repeatedly delayed by the courts without reason. The next hearing at the trial-level is scheduled for May 19, 2020, when the Attorney General will determine whether to certify the indictment for the charges under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Act. (Colombo Gazette)