The Conquering Hero: “Success” in Danushka Gunathilaka’s Sexual Assault Case
Photo courtesy of Daily Mail
In the 11 months just past, several media reports were busy portraying the events in the trial of Danushka Gunathilaka, the Sri Lankan cricketer charged with sexual assault and violence against a woman in Australia last November, in a very upbeat way. It was a “positive update” they say, and “a win for him” that his strict bail conditions were relaxed, in the lead up to the judge’s decision.
This is not entirely accurate. In his country of origin he would probably not even have been charged. But in Australia he had been kept under close surveillance and required to remain in the country, forbidden to travel, forced to check in with police criminal authorities several times each week, forbidden to use social media dating apps, as he had made contact with the complainant on Tinder and had to request approval from authorities before he could even travel within Australia.
The charges against him were several and also severe. And although several charges had been dropped, this does not mean that he is regarded as innocent of those acts. Rather it shows that as there were only the two individuals in the room when the alleged actions of assault took place, there is not enough objective evidence for all the charges to be proved beyond reasonable doubt. He has a history of disciplinary issues, which counts against him, although these are probably not being technically included in the judging of this specific matter.
The Australian authorities subjected him to due process of law as they would any individual charged with serious crimes involving the alleged perpetration of bodily harm. His profile as an international cricketer has brought attention to the case. And that worked in his favour. But it is not a success story for him.
He had enough support from friends and well wishers to have a substantial amount of bail paid on his behalf so that he did not have to go to prison but his freedom in the buildup to the recent trial has been effectively restricted. No matter what vilification is made of the character of the woman who accused him of assault against her, there was clearly enough legal evidence that his actions were sufficient for him to be investigated and for his mobility to be restricted.
And there was a great deal of vilification directed at the woman. Social media commenters in Sri Lanka exposed their misogyny and their racism in gross, disturbing and offensive ways, stating baseless and biased opinions that all Australian women are promiscuous, that their “brother” was entrapped by a hungry, predatory Western female, that she was morally questionable for using a dating app, ignoring the fact that he was also obviously using the same app and so on and on and on.
This is not a victory, either for him or for the country he represents. The relaxing of bail conditions and the fact that the matter was heard by a single judge, instead of involving a jury deliberation was not necessarily a guarantee of a positive result for him.
His name will be associated with this matter on Google forever. And at a time when many Sri Lankan athletes are winning acclaim all over the world for their skill and dedication to excellence in their sport, he has been in the news for the wrong reasons.
It is actually a win for activists in the area of women’s rights engaged in raising awareness of issues of sexual assault and sexual harassment and violence against women that a person has been publicly held to account for their conduct. By the time he appeared in front of the judge, his normal life had been disrupted for a year.
If this incident had occurred in Sri Lanka, the woman’s accusation may not even have been taken seriously by the police or even reached the overburdened criminal courts, where there are so many cases waiting to be heard and victims have to wait for years before justice is ever possible for them.
Many commenters on this situation fail to understand that the victim of sexual violence, the complainant, also has her life disrupted. She had to give detailed factual evidence, be subjected to extensive investigative cross examination, relive the events of that incident and have her reputation sullied, none of which she was expecting or inviting when she met a person on a dating app. In Australia her identity has been kept private to shield her from such public scrutiny. We are told only that she either owned or rented an apartment in the high value Sydney suburb of Rose Bay. This fact strongly calls into question any suggestion that she chose to accuse the Sri Lankan cricketer motivated by a desire for financial gain.
This case is about personal accountability. And in this area, it has been a win for victims of sexual assault. It has also been a clear deterrent to those celebrity athletes and people whose public recognition, status or fame make them feel that they are immune to prosecution or above the law when their actions have damaged another human being.
Many Sri Lankan citizens, both resident in Sri Lanka and those who have emigrated to other countries, may prefer to celebrate the not guilty verdict as a win at a time when we are all weary of seeing bad news stories about our country and our culture. If we refrain from buying into the “he wins/she loses” adversarial dynamic, which is fuelling a great deal of social media commentary, and if we educate ourselves about the significant difference between being found not guilty and actually being blameless of any misconduct, we can see this incident as a teaching moment.
Many Sri Lankans have commented that the presiding judge in this case was probably paid to bring in a positive result for Danushka but then others rapidly chimed in to assert that Australian judges are not corruptible. Adding, disappointingly, that this differentiated them from the local legal authorities in Sri Lanka.
Interestingly, many commenters have reserved their own judgment. They believe that the cricketer’s personal conduct was unbecoming and irresponsible as well as ill advised.
One such response to Danushka’s acquittal was this:
“Technically not guilty, morally guilty. This was a man carrying the Sri Lanka Lion flag, wearing the Sri Lanka cap, attired in Sri Lankan colours that poor village boys dream of – and whose air ticket to Australia was paid with public funds. He will be a hero to some people when he returns and is presented with flowers at the airport.”
Several male commenters on Twitter have expressed scepticism that the cricketer will be able to rebuild his career and reputation. In today’s world, self inflicted damage to a celebrity’s brand and image and speculations about their integrity are not as easy to recover from as many may think. One can only spin a tale so much. Perhaps, several commenters speculate, under the good looks and the tears in the interview room, the evocation of his mother and the orchestrated campaign to repair his image, the man is a predator.
Appearances are impactful, particularly in image obsessed media culture. Every person accused of misconduct dresses his/her best to attend legal hearings. In Danushka’s case, a media savvy PR adviser recommended a specific accessory: not a lucky charm or talisman provided by his horoscope reading mother but a tall, statuesque, blonde woman, walking hand in hand with the accused into the four day trial in Sydney. They made a strikingly handsome couple and the image powerfully suggests that this is a man who is naturally attractive to all women and would therefore have no need to resort to degrading or deviant behaviour or stealthing to satisfy his personal desires.
This is important to highlight because the graphic evidence given by both parties of the actions in this incident include aggressive and violent behavior on the cricketer’s part involving pressure being applied by him to the complainant’s throat to the point of choking and forceful slapping of her body parts. The charge of stealthing, if it had been true, is an act of aggression on its own. To violate a partner’s trust by saying you were wearing protection when you are not, obtaining sexual contact under false pretenses and exposing them to the risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease is a crime. He has been cleared of this charge.
Evidence from the complainant had unfortunately been lost in the process of taking of testimony while the complainant’s victim statement was being recorded by some police officers and the judge remarked on this in the detailed reasons given for the verdict. In future processing of such matters, where personal evidence is verbally given by complainant and accused, police conduct should be more vigilantly observed to ensure beyond any doubt that the victim’s rights to be heard are fully upheld.
It is too easy to accuse anyone raising a disturbing issue or making an ugly or unwelcome complaint of making false charges. All those involved in the recording of evidence and taking of victim statements have to do their part conscientiously for justice to truly be done.
Hats off, condoms on
Many men brought up in patriarchal cultures do not consider that their “normal” behaviour is inappropriate or offensive until they come up against laws which show that others think differently. The cultural training in etiquette and protocol required by official ambassadors of a country like Sri Lanka should be extended to include sporting ambassadors like celebrity cricketers.
The pictures on the cricketer’s Instagram feed and Tinder profile show him indulging in all the recogniseable trappings of Westernised success, as celebrated in society magazines: silk shirts, brand label clothes, expensive alcohol, fine dining and showy locations. His choice of escort for his court appearances fits with that image. His text messages, released as part of evidence given in court, show him inviting the complainant to meet him interstate and offering to pay for her plane ticket. Is this generosity or an enticement? One thing the text exchange clearly shows is that this woman did not rush to take him up on his offer. Instead, she met him when he was in Sydney and in a public place. All these choices suggest that this was a person exercising some personal judgment.
He claims that the woman kissed him goodbye as he returned to his hotel in a taxi from Rose Bay after their evening ended. He did not realise that anything untoward had occurred until he was arrested. So recollections varied. But now we understand that sometimes a victim of an unexpectedly violent incident may not always respond the way or according to a timeline in the way society may expect that she should. Perhaps the language differences in this case meant that subtleties were lost, not only in his giving of evidence but in the discussion between Danushka and his unnamed accuser, who called him Danny.
A most significant aspect of the media coverage as well as the outcome of this case is that at no time did Danushka’s race or ethnicity operate as a negative factor against him. This speaks well of the Australian justice system and its reputation for equality and a fair go for everyone. In the US, with its history of race bias, as a man of colour he would have been lynched on the mere accusation of a white woman. In this case, the complainant’s accusation contained evidence which was not disputed, showing a consensual act.
If Danushka and his advisers are truly interested in rebuilding his reputation, instead of merely his brand, what he does next will be important. Instead of only indulging in the social pastime of victim blaming and celebrating with his legal team and supporters the relief of having his name cleared, he could participate in awareness raising community training exercises to help educate the younger generation who until now have looked up to him as a role model.