Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sri Lanka: Islamic convert’s detention sparks debate on tolerance

By Feizal Samath - Issues of religious tolerance, the rule of law and freedom of expression in this mainly Buddhist country are being thrown into debate by the detention of a Sri Lankan Buddhist woman who converted to Islam and was writing a book on her conversion.

Sarah Malathi Perera, a 38-year old migrant worker who has lived in Bahrain for 20 years, was detained by police in Colombo under emergency regulations on Mar. 20, ostensibly over a book she had written and published on her conversion to Islam.

But police have since given different versions of the reasons for her detention, saying that the book was offensive to Buddhism or that she was being probed for links to Tamil militants and Musim extremist groups.

On Tuesday, police spokesman Prishantha Jayakody was even more vague. "She has been detained under emergency regulations but I don’t have details as to why she is in detention. Let me check and let you know," he told IPS. He was the same official who earlier gave different reasons for Perera’s detention.

The incident reflects a cultural and social intolerance that Sri Lankan society has never previously experienced, argues Dayan Jayatillaka, former vice president of the U.N. Human Rights Council and former chairman of the intergovernmental working group on the implementation of the Durban declaration against racism.

"How (else) should we begin to define a country in which an unarmed young woman, a woman who has not harmed anyone, is detained in a police station under emergency laws or anti-terrorism laws, for writing a book, and a book which does not call for violence against anyone?" Jayatillaka said in an interview.

Lakshman Gunasekera, president of the Sri Lanka chapter of the South Asia Free Media Association, says that as journalists, they are concerned that Perera has been arrested under emergency regulations. "Although I have not read her book, this is an issue that concerns freedom of expression," he said.

He added that this kind of reaction is more often seen in situations of serious religious fundamentalism and extremism like Pakistan, Iran or Afghanistan, where writers have been accused of blasphemy against Islam and subjected to verbal and physical attacks.

"This is a country where all religions are respected and tolerated. So why this intolerance?" said a women’s rights activist who declined to be named. Perera returned to Sri Lanka three months back to settle a land dispute concerning her elderly mother in Colombo. She has said she has analysed the spiritual substance of Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism and Christianity, and published a book entitled ‘From Darkness to Light: Questions and Answer’.

Sri Lanka’s 20 million people comprises 73.7 percent Buddhists, 10.9 percent Hindus, 7.6 percent Muslims and 6.2 percent Christians, and the rest from smaller ethnic groups. Non-Buddhists have the constitutional right to freely practise their religion.

But in recent years, the Jathika Hela Urumaya or JHU (National Heritage Party), a extreme racist party with little support in the country but with huge influence on President Mahinda Rajapaksa, has along with allied or similar groups been suspected of being behind attacks against largely Christian places of worship.

Perera, who wears a ‘hijab’ (dress that covers the body from head to toe), alleges that her arrest came after the courier company she was planning to use to send her books to Bahrain, tipped off the JHU, which in turn informed the police. JHU officials were not immediately available for comment.

Lakshan Dias, Perera’s lawyer, says his client has been informed that she is being detained on charges of offending Buddhism and possible links to Tamil militants and overseas Muslim militant groups. "She has been told that she has been detained under a 30-day detention order under emergency regulations. She has not been informed when she would be produced before a magistrate," he said.

Perera’s case points to a breakdown in law and order more than religious intolerance, some say. "People get arrested over some ideosyncratic issue and then once that happens, the system takes over and you can’t get out," said Jehan Perera, a columnist in the ‘Daily Mirror’ newspaper.

Under the Sri Lankan Penal Code, offences relating to religion include acts such as damaging or defiling a place of worship, uttering words or sounds or making gestures with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings and trespassing in places of worship.

Jayatillake said the response to Perera’s book could have been a critical review of it, not an arrest. "Isn't this against both Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on freedom of expression as well as the rights and freedoms recognised by the Sri Lankan Constitution? Who decides on arrests like this and what is the law transgressed?" Equally worrisome to some is the government’s use of emergency laws almost a year after its defeat of the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels.

"The Sri Lankan emergency means that people enjoy any personal or legal rights solely at executive convenience and discretion," said an activist who requested anonymity. "Accordingly, Ms Perera has been detained without trial, charge, bail or much access to family or lawyers and any legal or procedural safeguards."

© Inter Press Service

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