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Fishermen on death row freed

The five Indian fishermen are seen with Indian High Commissioner Y. K. Sinha in Colombo on Wednesday. —Photo: Special Arrangement

The five Indian fishermen are seen with Indian High Commissioner Y. K. Sinha in Colombo on Wednesday. —Photo: Special Arrangement  

The five Indian fishermen on death row in Sri Lanka on drug-trafficking charges, walked free on Wednesday, after President Mahinda Rajapaksa used his executive powers to commute their death penalty.

The five have been released into the care of the Indian High Commission before being sent back to India, an official said. It is learnt that they will serve no further jail term in India. President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decision on the release appears to be a commutation of the fishermen’s sentence to the term already served.

The gesture, described by the Indian High Commission here as humanitarian, ended three weeks of uncertainty over their fate, after the Colombo High Court sentenced them to death on October 30. It follows intense diplomatic activity, which saw Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking to Mr. Rajapaksa on November 9, and several behind-the-scenes talks.

The five fishermen — Emerson, P. Augustus, R. Wilson, K. Prasath and J. Langlet, all hailing from Tamil Nadu — were apprehended by the Sri Lankan Navy in November 2011. Three Sri Lankan fishermen were also sentenced to death with them.

In addition to New Delhi taking up the Indian fishermen’s case through diplomatic channels, an appeal was filed on their behalf in the Colombo High Court on November 11.

While the diplomatic negotiations were on, the President’s office announced that the withdrawal of the appeal by the Indian side was a pre-requisite for any decision on the release.

The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a party of Buddhist monks, has been consistently voicing concern over drug smuggling and the government’s inability to curb it. The JHU (National Heritage Party) on Tuesday quit President Rajapaksa’s government, protesting the reluctance to implement constitutional changes.

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