The Sri Lankan government granted presidential pardons to 94 political prisoners convicted under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), including 16 alleged "former members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)”. The pardon was issued earlier today to supposedly coincide with the Buddhist festival of Poson Poya.
Fifteen of the released alleged "former LTTE cadres” were incarcerated in the Anuradhapura prison, whilst the other man was detained in the Jaffna prison.
Sooriyakanthi Jeychandran, who was taken prisoner on May 17th 2009 and incarcerated in the Jaffna Prison, called for the release of other political prisoners who are still detained under trumped-up charges. He was amongst those released by the presidential pardon. “Many are still detained in prisons for crimes they never committed. They should also be released and allowed to live in the society,” he said.
However, the release of the political prisoners comes just days after the European Union (EU) parliament passed a resolution expressing concern at the “rapid deterioration of human rights” in the island. The body particularly singled out the PTA as “abusive and draconian” and called for its repeal.
The resolution also called on the EU to suspend favourable trading preferences with Sri Lanka under the GSP+ agreement. Speaking in parliament on Tuesday, Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) leader, Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, welcomed the release of the political prisoners but insists that it comes conveniently after Sri Lanka’s GSP+ came under question. “The government minister or [concerning officials] should not be allowed to say whether these prisoners should be freed or not. The systemic problem is the PTA. Unless you repeal the PTA and make sure no other law is brought in that even resembles the PTA, this systematic arbitrary injustice will continue,” he insisted. Ponnambalam also questioned why those were advocating for the release of Tamil political prisoners were branded as "terrorist sympathisers" but Sports and Youth Minister Namal Rajapaksa was applauded for it.
According to JDS, Sri Lankan Department of Prisons spokesperson, Chandana Ekanayake stated that the 16 Tamil detainees who were released have completed their prison sentence and were due to be released next year, further putting the true motive of the Sri Lankan government’s release of political prisoners into question.
This concern of the Tamil political prisoners still in detention was echoed by the The Voice of the Voiceless, an NGO committed to the release of political prisoners. The Voice of the Voiceless coordinator Murugiah Komakan, called for the political prisoners still in prisons to be "at least given an opportunity for rehabilitation." He added that "there are many who are rotting in prisons to this day including those who have been detained without any charges and those who have appealed the ruling given by a lower court”.
Komakan further pointed out that presidential pardons have mostly been granted to prisoners whose terms were about to end in the near future. He met Jeychandren in Jaffna and said "Mr. Jeychandren has been detained in prison for 13 years and the pardon has been granted when his term was going to end in eleven months anyway."
He also pointed out the fact that those who were recently arrested under the PTA, including the ones who were detained for allegedly "reviving" the LTTE have not been granted a pardon.
The names of the 16 Tamil political prisoners released today are as follows:
1. Simon Santhiyaku
2. Raghavan Suresh
3. Syril Rasamany
4. M M Abdul Saleem
5. Sandan Stalin Ramesh
6. Kabril Edward Julian
7. Nadraja Saravanabavan
8. Purusothman Aravinthan
9. Rasapalavan Thaboruban
10. Rasathurai Jagan
11. Nallan Sivalingam
12. Sooriyamoorthi Jevogan
13. Sivaprakasan Sivaseelan
14. Mailvaganam Madan
15. Sooriyakanthi Jeychandran
16. Vishvanathan Rameesh
Amongst those who received a pardon included former MP Duminda Silva who had been sentenced to death by the High Court in 2016, a ruling reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in 2018, for murdering another former parliamentarian Bharata Lakshman.
US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Alaina B. Teplitz welcomed the early release of the political prisoners in a tweet but pointed out that the release of Silva "undermines rule of law."
We welcome the early release of PTA prisoners, but the pardon of Duminda Silva, whose conviction the Supreme Court upheld in 2018, undermines rule of law. Accountability and equal access to justice are fundamental to the UN SDGs to which the GoSL has committed.
— Ambassador Teplitz (@USAmbSLM) June 24, 2021
The resolution which was tabled on the 8th June 2021, criticised the rehabilitation programs and described it as “vague and ill-defined”. It also highlighted that “there is routine and systemic use of torture and ill-treatment of detainees held under the PTA” and “prisoners are reported to have been killed and injured after violent outbreaks […] and high number of suicides of prisoners”.
Earlier this week, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet also raised concerns over the harassment of Muslims and Tamils in the island.
She also censured the Sri Lankan government’s recent counter-terrorism legislation including the widespread prohibition on over “300 Tamil and Muslim groups and individuals for alleged support of terrorism.”