Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 58, 1 April 2020

Sri Lanka: The President pardons a soldier convicted of war crime
D Suba Chandran

In the news

During the last week of March, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the President of Sri Lanka, used his constitutional powers to pardon a former soldier, who was a Staff Sergeant. The latter was convicted by the judiciary.

Though the pardoning power was his constitutional right, the President’s act of releasing a convict, who was sentenced to death by the Supreme Court has invited severe international criticisms. A press release from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said: “This was one of the rare human rights cases from the decades-long conflict that had ever reached conviction. The Presidential pardon is an affront to victims and yet another example of the failure of Sri Lanka to fulfil its international human rights obligations to provide meaningful accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other gross violations of human rights. Victims of such violations and crimes have the right to a remedy.” 

Amnesty International, in a statement, 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.”

Issues at large

The primary issue is not about the power of the President to pardon a convict. In February 2020, President Rajapaksa used the same power to pardon more 500 prisoners, on the eve of Sri Lanka’s independence day. In 2019, the former President Sirisena used this power, to pardon a killer of a Swedish girl. Facing criticism for his act of releasing a single prisoner belonging to a wealthy family, President Sirisena, also released 260 plus prisoners, citing they were above 65 years old.

The issue at the core is the release of a former soldier, who was sentenced by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka following a ten years old trial, for killing eight Tamils near Jaffna. The victims were internally displaced, who returned to check their property. The soldier, a former Sergeant, was amongst the five, who were accused of torturing, and murdering eight innocent civilians, including a five-year-old child. While the others were not found guilty, the Sergeant was; the Supreme Courted sentenced him to death in May 2019.

The primary fear both amongst the minority community in Sri Lanka and the rest of the international community is the larger message that the President is seen as sending, with his latest act. During his Presidential campaign, Gotabaya Rajapaksa referred to releasing the “war heroes” who were languishing in the jails on baseless charges. While a section thought it was a mere political campaign, his latest action is seen as giving shape to what he said. 

Internally, the minority community is apprehensive about, what would he do further, when the society is yet to heal from the decades' long civil war. Externally, the international community is upset and angry with the Sri Lankan state not following up with war crimes during the last phase of the civil war.

In perspective

The Tamil minorities and the international community has been expecting the Sri Lankan state to investigate abuses during the last phases of the civil war. Human rights activists within Sri Lanka and the organizations outside the country have been pressurizing the State to do more. The President’s latest act sends a wrong signal to both.

While the minorities and the rest of the international community may find it unacceptable, perhaps, a section within Sri Lanka within the majority community has been looking forward to it. This would pose a more substantial threat to the future of political harmony in Sri Lanka. 

In a conflict environment, perceptions are important. The State has to address their perceptions. Even if they are not true. And it should avoid sending wrong signals.

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