Sri Lanka's president Thursday pardoned 16 minority Tamils imprisoned for over a decade, as the country faces renewed United Nations pressure over detentions without charge under draconian anti-terrorism laws.
The amnesty is a first for people linked to the Tamil Tigers since Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a member of the majority Sinhalese community, came to power in 2019 on a nationalist agenda.
The men were convicted under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) that gives security forces sweeping powers to arrest and detain suspects.
A total of 78 other convicts, including a murderer closely linked to Sri Lanka's ruling Rajapaksa family, were also released under an amnesty to mark a Buddhist holiday.
The UN rights body as well as the US ambassador to Sri Lanka, Alaina Teplitz, criticised the release of Duminda Silva, a former ruling party legislator facing a death sentence for a 2011 murder.
"Presidential pardon... is another example of selective, arbitrary granting of pardons that weakens rule of law and undermines accountability," the UN Human Rights Council said on Twitter.
Ambassador Teplitz said the US welcomed the early release of PTA prisoners, but "the pardon of Silva, whose conviction the Supreme Court upheld in 2018, undermines rule of law."
Silva worked for the defence ministry when current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was president from 2005 to 2015.
The Bar Association of Sri Lanka and the main opposition party SJB also slammed his release.
- Protecting criminals -
"Today, those found guilty of the most serious crimes in our law enjoy presidential protection while the judges and police officers who brought them to justice have targets on their backs," SJB legislator Thalatha Athukorale, a former justice minister, said.
The US has been pressing Sri Lanka to ensure accountability for war-time atrocities by both government forces and Tamil rebels during a 37-year separatist war that ended in 2009.
A prison official said the 16 Tamil prisoners freed Thursday were due to complete their sentences soon.
"The 16 Tamil detainees are among 94 prisoners who received a presidential pardon," prison superintendent Chandana Ekanayake said.
Government officials said the release was the first phase of a plan to free all those held or charged under the PTA.
Another 78 people arrested under the law on suspicion of supporting the separatist Tamil Tigers have been in custody for decades, political sources from the Tamil community told AFP.
Lawmaker Namal Rajapaksa, the president's nephew and son of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, told parliament this week that some of those detained had been in jail since before he was born in 1986.
He added that his government is working to free them.
The Human Rights Council last week urged the government to either charge or release those detained under the PTA, including human rights activists who were recently arrested.
Critics warn the law is being used as a weapon targeting dissidents and minorities in the fractured country.