Rajapaksa pardons 16 ‘political prisoners’
Murder convict also freed on the day marking the arrival of Buddhism to Sri Lanka
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Thursday pardoned 94 persons, including 16 ‘political prisoners’ and one prominent murder convict on death row, on the occasion of the ‘Poson Poya [full moon]’ day that bears religious significance, marking the arrival of Buddhism to Sri Lanka.
While Tamil parties and human rights defenders welcomed the release of the suspects arrested under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), government critics and lawyers slammed the release of former MP Duminda Silva, who was sentenced to death in 2016 for murdering a political rival.
Significant start: TNA
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) welcomed the PTA detainees’ release before completion of their full jail terms. “This is a small yet significant start which we hope will soon be completed with the release of all political prisoners, including those against whom cases are still pending. Some cases have dragged for more than 10 years, with no end in sight,” Alliance spokesman M.A. Sumanthiran said.
Intervening in Parliament recently, Youth and Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa, son of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, said at least 35 prisoners, including terror suspects from the years of war, had been in prisons longer than their sentences had called for, and sought justice for them. “Some of them have been in there for longer than my age . No charges have been filed against them till today,” he said, highlighting what activists have, for long, cited while raising concern over arbitrary, prolonged detention enabled by the PTA.
Around 100 Tamils arrested under the controversial law have been in custody for at least over a decade. While the government accuses them of being former LTTE cadres or supporters, the TNA has insisted they are “political prisoners” on the basis they allegedly committed crimes for the political objective of a separate state, a cause that ceased to exist after the civil war ended in 2009.
In the last year alone, some 100 persons have been arrested under the PTA, including over “silly allegations” such as Facebook posts, Batticaloa MP Shanakiyan Rasamanickam recently told the Parliament. The year-long detention of lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah and poet Ahnaf Jazeem under the PTA have also drawn international condemnation, including from the UN, and more recently the European Parliament, that have called for the repeal of the PTA.
Although the release of the 16 persons on Thursday was welcome, “the positive gesture has been marred by the President’s pardon to Duminda Silva, his close political ally who was convicted for murder,” Mr. Sumanthiran said.
This is President Rajapaksa’s second pardon to a murder convict. In March 2020, he freed army man Sunil Ratnayake, who was on death row for killing eight Tamil civilians, including a five-year-old and two teenagers, during the civil war in the year 2000.
The main Opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB, or United People’s Front) has called for withdrawal of the presidential pardon to the former MP, calling it a “violation” of the independence of the judiciary.
Commenting on the development, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka asked on what basis the President took the decision to pardon Mr. Silva. While the President had the power and discretion to pardon, such discretion must always be “used judiciously”, and such power “must not be exercised arbitrarily and selectively,” the Association said in a statement.