Sri Lanka’s president has pardoned and released an army officer sentenced to death for the killing of Tamil civilians, including four children, during the island’s violent ethnic war.
Staff Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake was to be hanged for murdering eight members of the Tamil minority in 2000. The case was held up by previous Sri Lankan governments as an example of rare accountability over abuses during the conflict.
A court sentenced him for murdering eight members of the Tamil minority, including a five-year-old and three teenagers after a 13-year trial.
The civilians were killed when they returned to their bombed homes to recover what was left of their belongings. Their bodies were later found buried in a cesspit near an army camp at Mirusuvil on the Jaffna peninsula.
The Sri Lankan Supreme Court unanimously dismissed the officer’s appeal and upheld the death penalty last year.
“President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has now instructed the Ministry of Justice to release Sergeant Ratnayake from prison,” a spokeswoman for his office said.
Human Rights watchdog Amnesty International condemned the pardoning, stressing that it was reprehensible to use the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to release those found guilty of unethical crimes.
“After many long years, the victims of the Mirusuvil massacre … finally got a semblance of justice in 2015. It is despicable to have that justice reversed through an arbitrary executive decision,” Amnesty’s regional director Biraj Patnaik said in a statement.
President Rajapaksa, a retired army officer, came to power in November vowing to free military personnel jailed for offences during the previous administration.
He and his brother Mahinda, now serving as prime minister, are admired by the island’s Sinhala majority for spearheading the defeat of separatist Tamil rebels to end the country’s 37-year Tamil separatist war in 2009.
The armed forces were internationally criticized for atrocities committed during this conflict, but Sri Lankan soldiers have rarely been tried in civilian courts.
Government troops are contended to have killed at least 40,000 Tamil civilians in the final stages of the war – an allegation the Rajapaksas have denied.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), Sri Lanka’s main political party for the minority community, criticized what it described as an ‘opportunistic’ judgment to release Ratnayake.