Inmates are on hunger strike in a Colombo prison and are demanding equal treatment following the president’s controversial pardon.
Some 150 death row inmates in Sri Lanka have gone on a hunger strike to demand that sentences be commuted after the island nation’s president pardoned a former lawmaker who had been sentenced to death for an election-related assassination.
Several inmates protested on the roof of a prison in the capital, Colombo, holding banners demanding equal treatment and consideration of bail, the Associated Press reported on Friday.
“Grant us forgiveness as you did to notorious terrorists and politicians,” a banner read in a local script.
The former lawmaker’s surprise release on Thursday after being pardoned by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has sparked widespread criticism, including the UN human rights office and the US ambassador to Sri Lanka.
Duminda Silva is widely seen as the favorite of the Rajapaksa family in Sri Lanka and had been sentenced to death for the murder of a rival politician from her own party in an election-related attack about ten years ago.
The hunger strike involved about 150 death row inmates demanding the commutation of life sentences, said prison spokeswoman Chandana Ekanayake.
He said prison officials were in talks with the justice ministry and other government officials to resolve the issue, but declined to give further details.
Sri Lankan prisons are heavily congested, with more than 26,000 inmates crammed into 10,000-capacity facilities.
An unrest related to COVID-19 erupted last year and one of the prisons produced at least 11 prisoners and more than 100 injured when guards opened fire to control the riots.
Silva’s surprise release appeared to have sparked protest.
The UN human rights office said Silva’s case “is another example of selective and arbitrary granting of pardons that weakens the rule of law and undermines accountability.”
U.S. Ambassador Alaina B Teplitz, in a tweet, said Thursday that Silva’s pardon “undermines the rule of law.”
Sri Lanka has not hanged any prisoners since 1976, although the courts routinely issue death sentences.
Rajapaksa’s predecessor, Maithripala Sirisena, had promised to end the capital punishment moratorium and use it against those convicted of drug crimes.
Prison officials hired two executioners to carry out the hangings, but none took place during Sirisena’s tenure.