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Sri Lanka pardons soldier imprisoned over massacre of Tamils

A Sri Lankan soldier who was sentenced to death over the massacre of eight Tamil civilians, including three children, has received a presidential pardon and been released home.

Staff Sergeant Sunil Rathnayake, who a Sri Lankan court found guilty of the Mirusuvil massacre,  was reportedly released from prison earlier today. Rumours of his impending have taken place, ever since Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa came to power in November last year. Rajapaksa has made repeated pledges to release soldiers that had been convicted of rights abuses and his regime withdrew from a UN Human Rights Council resolution that mandates a hybrid accountability mechanism to prosecute those responsible for rights violations.

Rathnayake was sentenced to death in 2015 for the murder of the 8 Tamils, including 3 children, in the town of Mirusuvil. The Tamils had been arrested by Sri Lankan security forces on the10th of December 2000. The following day their bodies were found in a mass grave with their throats slashed, according to the District Medical Officer’s post-mortem report. All but two of the bodies had been stripped naked. The youngest to have been murdered was a 5-year-old child.

The killings have since been dubbed the Mirusuvil massacre. 

Ponnathurai Maheswaran, who managed to survive and escape from the army, testified in court and identified at least five of the soldiers responsible. After a lengthy court process only Ratnayake, a member of the military’s elite Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP), had been sentenced. The other men were cleared of all charges.

Talks of his release were widely praised in the south, including from opposition parliamentarians. “That is how a leader who does what they say works,” said UNP MP Ajith Perera, when talks regarding Rathnayake’s release gathered traction earlier this year. "Therefore I would like to extend my gratitude to president Gotabaya Rajapakse and Minister of Justice Nimal Siripala De Silva for taking this decision.”

At the time of the 2015 conviction, Together Against Genocide released a statement welcoming the sentencing, but added “much more” needed to be done to end impunity on the island.

“Even though the war has ended, the racial hatred is far from resolved,” TAG said.

“The open support for the convicted soldier as a ‘War Hero’ clearly shows that racial tensions are still extremely high. This racial hatred prevents justice for the Tamil victims of this and other massacres. There is a clear reluctance among the majority ethnic Sinhala population to hold SLA forces responsible for their war crimes.”

The names of those killed in the massacre are listed below.

Kathiran Gnanachandran (35)
Gnanachandran Santhan (15)
Baskar Gnanabasakaran (19)
Sellamuttu Theivakulasingham (31)
Vilvarajah Pratheepan (13)
Sinniah Vilvarajah (41)
Nadesu Jeyachandran (21)
Vilvarajah Prasath (5)