Death row inmates in Sri Lanka protest pardon granted to ex-MP

Inmates go on hunger strike in a prison in Colombo, demanding equal treatment after president’s controversial pardon.

Inmates on the roof of Welikada Prison in Colombo hold banners saying 'Treat all inmates equally' and 'Grant pardon to us like you did to terrorists and notorious politicians' [Eranga Jayawardena/AP]

About 150 death row inmates in Sri Lanka have gone on a hunger strike to demand their sentences be commuted after the island nation’s president pardoned a former legislator who had been condemned to death for an election-related killing.

Several inmates protested on the roof of a prison in the capital, Colombo, holding up banners demanding equal treatment and bail consideration, the Associated Press reported on Friday.

“Grant pardon to us like you did to terrorists and notorious politicians,” one banner said in local script.

The former legislator’s surprise release on Thursday after he was pardoned by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has drawn widespread criticism, including from the United Nations’ human rights office and the United States ambassador in Sri Lanka.

Duminda Silva is widely seen as a favourite of Sri Lanka’s ruling Rajapaksa family and had been sentenced to death over the murder of a rival politician from his own party in an election-related attack about 10 years ago.

The hunger strike involved about 150 inmates sentenced to death who were demanding their sentences be commuted to life terms, prison spokesman Chandana Ekanayake said.

He said the prison officials were holding talks with the justice ministry and other government officials to resolve the issue but declined to give further details.

Sri Lankan prisons are highly congested with more than 26,000 inmates crowded into facilities with a capacity of 10,000.

Unrest related to COVID-19 erupted in one of the prisons last year, and at least 11 inmates were killed and more than 100 wounded when guards opened fire to control the unrest.

Silva’s surprise release appeared to have set off the protest.

The UN human rights office said Silva’s case “is another example of selective, arbitrary granting of pardons that weakens rule of law and undermines accountability”.

US Ambassador Alaina B Teplitz in a tweet on Thursday said the pardon of Silva “undermines rule of law”.

Sri Lanka has not hanged a prisoner since 1976 even though courts routinely pass death sentences.

Rajapaksa’s predecessor, Maithripala Sirisena, had promised to end the moratorium on capital punishment and to use it against those convicted of drug crimes.

Prison officials hired two executioners to carry out the hangings, but none took place during Sirisena’s tenure.

Source: AP