COLOMBO: Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) secretary-general Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero was released from prison in Colombo on a presidential pardon on Thursday.
The firebrand monk, notorious for his hardline views, was serving a six-year jail term for contempt of court.
The monk, who has been accused of inciting violence against the Muslim community in the country, was also convicted and given a six-month jail term over intimidating Sandya Ekneligoda, the wife of missing journalist Pradeep Ekneligoda.
The hardline Buddhist group had called on its supporters to gather outside Welikada Prison, where Gnanasara Thero was serving his jail term.
While a massive crowd was waiting at the prison’s main gate to welcome the monk, the yellow-robed priest was let out of the backdoor for security reasons.
BBS chief executive officer Dilantha Withanage told Arab News that all Sri Lankans are happy that the BBS leader has been released and the society is grateful to President Maithripala Sirisena for granting him a pardon.
“We feel that justice was received even at this juncture,” Withanage said.
The pardon comes just a week after anti-Muslim violence erupted in many parts of the country, resulting in serious damage to Muslim-owned homes, mosques and commercial establishments. One person was killed during the violence, which lasted two days before it was brought under control.
President Sirisena, who visited the Welikada Prison last week to pardon 762 prisoners on Vesak Day, held discussions with the monk for more than 45 minutes.
Islamic Solidarity Front Chairman Reyaaz Salih told Arab News that forgiveness is an important aspect of Islam.
“He has been pardoned by the president of the country and we all hope that his presence will help the nation to have a peaceful co-existence with all communities,” he said, adding that Thero will be able to bridge the gap between the Muslims and the Sinhalese communities, opened up by the anti-Muslim violence, by virtue of his effective communication skills.
Western Province Gov. Azath Salley, who visited the jail on Wednesday, said that he would continue to work for better communal understanding with the monk.
However, in his twitter account leading constitutional lawyer J. C. Weliamuna said: “Pardoning Ven. Gnanasara is a slap on the independence of judiciary: He was convicted of interfering with court and of contempt of court. No civilized nation will lightly pardon such a convict."
International Crisis Group Sri Lanka Project Director Alan Keenan tweeted saying that that the move will send out the wrong signals following the Easter Sunday attacks.
“A big blow to SriLanka’s already battered rule of law, sending precisely the wrong message after Easter attacks. A peaceful Lanka requires all communities to feel safe and equal.”
A majority of the Muslim community felt Gnanasara Thero responsible for inciting violence against Muslims, linking him to the Aluthgama anti-Muslim violence in 2014.