The Presidential pardon, how prudent is it? | Sunday Observer

The Presidential pardon, how prudent is it?

The presidential pardon granted to Galagoda-aththey Gnanasara thera last week has generated a storm of controversy. The firebrand monk who heads the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) organisation has always been a divisive figure and remains so, wading right into the current debate about the prevalence of Muslim fundamentalist terrorism in the country, soon after his release from prison.

Gnanasara thera was jailed for a period of nineteen years rigorous imprisonment with the sentences to run concurrently for six years for committing the offence of contempt of court. The prudence of releasing him at this critical point in time has been questioned.

It is no secret that, in the wake of the Easter Sunday bombings that shattered ten years of peaceful co-existence between communities, there has been an increasing scrutiny of the activities the Muslim community engages in- and it should be so, if only for purposes of ensuring our safety and security.

However, this heightened sense of vigilance has also been accompanied by an irrational discourse that borders on paranoia and outright racism. There have been calls to boycott Muslim businesses- and now there is even a call to check the ethnicity of your doctor before seeking medical treatment! A glance at social media reveals a high degree of ‘hate’ posts, racism and a ‘them against us’ mentality.

Sadly, Sri Lanka as a nation appears not to have learnt the lessons of 1983 and the events that followed. A single incident- the killing of thirteen soldiers- triggered a week of carnage in the South of the country which in turn spawned a war that lasted twenty five years and gave the country and its majority community an image of being a violent and barbaric people- an image it is still fighting to get rid of in the various fora of the United Nations.

It is fair to say that the current situation in the country is not dissimilar. Already, mobs have taken to the streets in several areas in the North Western Province and at Minuwangoda and only timely intervention by the armed forces prevented the riots from spreading elsewhere. It doesn’t take a genius to conclude that there are unscrupulous politicians lying in wait for precisely that to happen.

The blame for this lies not only with the majority community, for being blindly led by racists and bigots. It falls equally on the leaders of the Muslim community for not openly condemning the extremists, opposing stringent security measures and adopting a gung-ho and oppositional attitude towards security measures resorted to in the current crisis.

It is into such a volatile climate that Gnanasara thera is being released. Since his release, the monk has kept true to form. Though sounding slightly more moderate in his terminology, tone and tenor, he made some startling assertions which certainly merit investigation. The underlying theme was “I told you so a long time ago but you called me a racist and sent me to jail instead’.

A troubling aspect of the pardon granted to Gnanasara thera is ‘why now?’. In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks, there was a school of thought that at least some of what the monk had previously claimed was true, that he foresaw the rise of Islamic extremism- but was ignored. As such, a ‘pardon’ somehow became an acceptable measure to atone for these lapses.

There are other important factors that need to be considered here. If Gnanasara thera was ignored, it was because of his frankly militant, intimidatory and inflammatory style that made him appear a maverick advocating mayhem against the Muslim community. Also, as the monk himself noted after his release his warnings have been falling on deaf years for decades- not just the past few years.

However, the overarching issue in all of this is not whether Gnanasara thera’s prophesies came true and whether he should be rewarded because of that. It is also not whether it is ‘safe’ to release him when communal tensions are running high. In fact, the real issue is why he was sent to jail and given a lengthy punishment- and what message is given by pardoning such an offender.

Gnanasara thera was imprisoned because he intimidated a judge during a court hearing, challenging the judge’s decision in open court and addressing the judge in a threatening and disparaging manner. By contrast, the antics of the always garrulous S. B. Dissanayake- who was also imprisoned for contempt of court and pardoned by then President Mahinda Rajapaksa- in calling a court verdict a ‘balu theenduwa’ or a ‘dog’s verdict’ seems child’s play.

Gnanasara thera’s conviction was handed down by the Court of Appeal which declared that he was guilty of all charges of contempt of court brought against him without any doubt whatsoever. The Supreme Court later affirmed this decision. Thus, it was a conviction that stood the test of strictest scrutiny.

Even after his release, Gnanasara thera has not apologised for his conduct; nor has he indicated in any way that he is contrite about what he did. Then, is his release based on purely political considerations, an act of ‘playing to the gallery’ to score brownie points from the majority community ahead of an election?

Though it may seem distant and far removed from reality now, this Government was elected on a platform of ‘good governance’. It will be remembered that the previous regime insulted the judiciary by impeaching a Chief Justice because she delivered a verdict that was not to its liking.

It was left to this Government, when it was elected, to right that wrong by reinstating her to her office. Now though, this Government is also insulting the judiciary, pardoning offenders punished by the highest courts in the land. Haven’t we gone one step forward and two steps backwards? Surely, this is anything but good governance!

We have already seen the reinstatement of an Army officer who was allegedly involved in the abduction of journalist Keith Noyahr. The Army Commander took pains to point out that this officer’s services are ‘necessary in the current context.’ It is also emerging that the detention of a Deputy Inspector General of Police who is now under investigation could have hampered efforts to deal with Islamic terrorism. Will he be reinstated on duty next, on the basis that his services are also necessary? Where would this ‘doctrine of necessity’ take us to?

Politicians become statesmen when they take correct decisions, not the most popular decisions. What the pardoning of Galagoda-aththey Gnanasara thera demonstrates is that this country desperately needs a statesman.