Inmates go on hunger strike in Colombo prison, demanding equal treatment after the president’s controversial pardon.
About 150 death row inmates in Sri Lanka have gone on hunger strike to demand that their sentences be commuted after the island nation’s president pardoned a former lawmaker who had been sentenced to death for an election-related murder.
Several detainees demonstrated on the roof of a prison in the capital, Colombo, waving banners demanding equal treatment and release on bail, the Associated Press reported on Friday.
“Give us forgiveness as you did to terrorists and notorious politicians,” read a banner in local writing.
The surprise release of the former lawmaker on Thursday after being pardoned by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa drew widespread criticism, including from the United Nations Human Rights Office and the United States Ambassador to Sri Lanka.
Duminda Silva is widely regarded as a favorite of Sri Lanka’s ruling Rajapaksa family and was on death row for the murder of a rival politician from his own party in an election-related attack some 10 years ago.
The hunger strike affected around 150 death row inmates demanding that their sentences be commuted to life sentences, prison spokesman Chandana Ekanayake said.
He said prison officials were in talks with the Justice Department and other government officials to resolve the issue, but declined to give further details.
Sri Lankan prisons are very crowded with over 26,000 inmates crammed into facilities with a capacity of 10,000 people.
COVID-19 unrest erupted in one of the prisons last year, and at least 11 inmates were killed and more than 100 injured when guards opened fire to control the unrest.
Silva’s surprise release appears to have sparked the protest.
The UN human rights office said Silva’s case “is another example of the selective and arbitrary granting of pardons that undermines the rule of law and undermines accountability.”
US Ambassador Alaina B Teplitz in a tweet Thursday said Silva’s forgiveness “undermines the rule of law.”
Sri Lanka has not hanged a prisoner since 1976, although courts regularly hand down death sentences.
Rajapaksa’s predecessor, Maithripala Sirisena, had promised to end the moratorium on capital punishment and use it against those convicted of drug offenses.
Prison officials hired two executioners to carry out the hangings, but neither took place during Sirisena’s tenure.