Sri Lankan firebrand monk freed from jail

Buddhist monk Galagodaatte Gnanasara has been pardoned after serving less than two years of a six-year sentence (AFP Photo/ISHARA S. KODIKARA)

A firebrand Sri Lankan Buddhist monk serving a six-year jail term for contempt of court was freed Thursday following a presidential pardon, officials said.

Galagodaatte Gnanasara was driven out of the Welikada prison hospital where he had spent much of his sentence since his first imprisonment in June last year.

The controversial monk left through a backdoor, avoiding journalists and hundreds of supporters who gathered outside.

Gnanasara has been serving concurrent jail sentences extending up to six years over his disruptive behaviour in a lower court, and for intimidating a woman litigant in 2016.

He has long been accused of instigating hate crimes against minority Muslims in the Buddhist-majority country, but denied involvement in anti-Muslim riots in 2014 that left four people dead.

Officials said President Maithripala Sirisena pardoned Gnanasara days after releasing 762 other convicts to mark Vesak, which commemorates the birth, enlightenment and passing away of the Buddha.

Gnanasara's Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) group was not linked to anti-Muslim riots that left at least one dead after April 21 suicide bombings blamed on Islamic extremists which killed 258 people.

Gnanasara has maintained close ties with Wirathu, an extremist monk based in Myanmar, whose hate speech has stoked religious tensions in that country.

Wirathu visited Sri Lanka as a guest of Gnanasara shortly after the 2014 anti-Muslim riots in Sri Lanka's coastal town of Aluthgama, and the duo vowed to fight what they called the threat to Buddhism from Islamic jihadists.