Sri Lanka pardons suspected Tamil Tigers convicted under terrorism law

Sri Lanka’s president pardoned 16 men linked to the Tamil Tiger rebels who were behind bars for more than a decade on Thursday, as the country faces renewed pressure from the UN over detentions without charge under an anti-terrorism law.

The pardon is a first for people linked to the Tigers since Gotabaya Rajapaksa came to power in 2019 on a nationalist agenda, which included a promise that troops who crushed the rebels would not be prosecuted.

The men were convicted under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) that gives security forces sweeping powers to arrest and detain suspects. 

The UN Human Rights Council and other international rights groups have called for it to be repealed. 

“The 16 Tamil detainees are among 94 prisoners who received a presidential pardon,” prison superintendent Chandana Ekanayake said about the release, which came on the Buddhist festival of Poson. 

The prisons department said most of the 16 were due to complete their sentences soon.

Government officials said the release was the first phase of a plan to free all those held or charged under the PTA.

Another 78 people arrested under the law on suspicion of supporting the separatist Tamil Tigers have been in custody for decades, political sources from the Tamil community told AFP. 

The Tigers were crushed in a no-holds-barred military campaign that ended in May 2009.

Lawmaker Namal Rajapaksa, the president’s nephew and son of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, told parliament this week that some of those detained had been in jail since before he was born in 1986.

He added that his government is working to free them. The law allows suspects to be held without charge for long periods of time.

The UN Human Rights Council last week urged the government to either charge or release those detained under the PTA, including human rights activists who were recently arrested. 

Critics warn the law is being used as a weapon targeting dissidents and minorities in the fractured country.

– ‘Release welcomed’ –

The American ambassador to Sri Lanka, Alaina Teplitz, tweeted that “we welcome the early release of PTA prisoners”.

But at the same time she criticised the pardon of Duminda Silva, a former legislator sentenced to death for the 2011 murder of a rival lawmaker from his own party, tweeting that it “undermines rule of law”.

Silva, a close ally of the powerful ruling family and a member of their political party, worked for the defence ministry when current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was president from 2005 to 2015.

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka and the main opposition party SJB also slammed his release.

“Today, those found guilty of the most serious crimes in our law enjoy presidential protection while the judges and police officers who brought them to justice have targets on their backs,” SJB legislator Thalatha Athukorale, a former justice minister, said.

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