The arrest and ongoing detention of award-winning author and poet Shakthika Sathkumara on spurious charges are a clear violation of his right to freedom of expression, CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance and the Asian Human Right Commission (AHRC), said today ahead of his next court hearing on 18 June.
Shakthika Sathkumara was arrested on 1 April 2019 by the Polgahawela Police in response to a complaint alleging that Sathkumara’s short story ‘Ardha’ (Half) was derogatory and defamatory to Buddhism. The story is allegedly about homosexuality and child abuse in a Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka, and there is no evidence that the content contains anything that amounts to hate speech or defamation. He was initially remanded by the Polgahawela Magistrate’s Court until 9 April and has remained detained since his arrest. The Attorney General has twice rejected his bail request.
Sathkumara faces charges under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act of 2007, which criminalises the advocacy of “national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”. If convicted, he faces a maximum of up to ten years’ imprisonment. No credible evidence has been presented to substantiate any of these charges.
This is a clear misuse of the law, which was enacted to protect human rights recognised by the international community including fundamental freedoms such as freedom of speech.
Shakthika Sathkumar’s arrest and ongoing detention are inconsistent with Sri Lanka’s constitutional and international human rights obligations, as well as the country’s ICCPR Act. The right to freedom of expression which includes artistic expression and creativity is guaranteed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Sri Lanka is a party, as well as Article 14(1)(a) of the Constitution of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is also bound by international human rights law to protect artists and all persons participating in artistic activities.
Further, under the law he can only be granted bail by a high court judge. Systemic delays inherent in the Sri Lankan justice system means that it could be months before he even appears before a high court. That he has been remanded only on the basis of a police report, without a magistrate ruling that there is basis for detention, is also a violation of fair trial rights and has worrying implications for due process rights in the country. The Inspector General of Police and the Attorney General of Sri Lanka must investigate these concerns immediately.
The World Alliance for Citizen Participation (CIVICUS) and the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) call on the authorities to release Shakthika Sathkumara immediately and unconditionally, and to drop the spurious charges brought against him. We also call on the authorities to ensure that writers and artists may work freely and without fear of retribution for expression critical opinions or covering topics that the government or others may find sensitive or offensive.
Shakthika Sathkumar’s arrest comes in the context of attacks on civic space more broadly in the country. Over the last year, CIVICUS has documented multiple attacks, threats and intimidation against journalists and human rights activists in Sri Lanka and the failure to bring the perpetrators of these abuses to account.