Responding to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decision to release Sergeant Sunil Rathnayaka, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for South Asia, Biraj Patnaik, said: Where accountability is so rare for serious human rights violations in Sri Lanka, the government’s arbitrary decision to release Sergeant Rathnayaka sends an extremely worrying message.
“Where accountability is so rare for serious human rights violations in Sri Lanka, the government’s arbitrary decision to release Sergeant Rathnayaka sends an extremely worrying message. It means that military perpetrators of horrific crimes, even if convicted through a court of law, will be pardoned and released.”
The pardon comes at a time when there are public calls to ease prison crowding by releasing prisoners held for, amongst others, petty crimes and those who are unable to meet bail conditions, to avoid the spread of COVID-19.
Amnesty International is also concerned by any further decisions along the same lines as pledged by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa during his election campaign. Sri Lanka is a party to the International Covenant on Civil Political Rights (ICCPR) and has an obligation to ensure that any person whose rights or freedoms have been violated have an effective remedy (Article 2).
“Using the pandemic as an opportunity to release those convicted for heinous crimes is reprehensible. Victims have a right to justice, and Sri Lanka has an obligation to ensure that justice is done. After many long years, the victims of the Mirusuvil massacre from 2000 finally got a semblance of justice in 2015. It is despicable to have that justice reversed through an arbitrary Executive decision,” said Biraj Patnaik.
After more than a decade of long delays and case transfers, in June 2015, the Colombo High Court sentenced army officer Sergeant. Sunil Rathnayaka to death for the murder of eight Tamil Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in December 2000 after a 13-year trial. The victims included three, children amongst who was a five- year-old whose body showed signs of torture. Sergeant Rathnayake, along with four other officers were indicted based on multiple charges, including unlawful assembly with common intention to cause injury and murder. Although Sergeant. Rathnayake was found guilty on 17 counts, the others were cleared of all charges for insufficient evidence to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
Sergeant Rathnayaka appealed the conviction, and a five-judge-bench of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka unanimously affirmed the conviction in May 2019.
In October 2019, then Presidential hopeful Gotabaya Rajapaksa pledged that once in power, he would acquit and release ‘war heroes’ being held on ‘baseless’ charges.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected President and took office in November 2019.