Duminda Silva, a former legislator convicted of murder, was granted a controversial pardon last year by President Rajapaksa.
Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court on Tuesday suspended a presidential pardon granted to a former legislator close to the Rajapaksa family convicted of murdering a rival politician and ordered his immediate return to jail in a landmark verdict, according to local media.
A three-judge bench asked the police to arrest Duminda Silva, a former member of parliament who was facing the death penalty for a 2011 murder but was freed last June after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa granted him an amnesty.
The pardon drew widespread criticism, including from the United Nations human rights office and the United States ambassador in Sri Lanka, who said it undermined the rule of law in the South Asian nation, which is emerging from decades of war.
“The court fixed a further hearing for September 1, but wanted the police to carry out the interim order of arresting Duminda Silva and return him to jail,” a court official said.
He said the decision was given following an unprecedented challenge to the presidential pardon.
Hirunika Premachandra, the daughter of former legislator Bharatha Lakshman – who was shot dead by Silva and his associates, filed the petition saying his release was illegal.
“This decision of the Supreme Court is historic,” Premachandra told the AFP news agency.
“No one has challenged a presidential pardon before and I am very pleased that the court has demonstrated its independence.”
The verdict announced by three Supreme Court Justices – P Padman Surasena, Yasantha Kodagoda, and Achala Wengappulli – comes as the country is going through an unprecedented economic crisis, defaulting on its $51bn external debt earlier this month.
The country’s prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the elder brother of the president, was forced to resign earlier this month after weeks of anti-government protests turned deadly. Critics have blamed the Rajapaksas’ authoritarian governance style for the economic crisis.
The judges were reportedly permitted to examine three fundamental rights applications filed by Premachandra, her mother Sumana Premachandra, and Ghazali Hussain, a former human rights commissioner who had previously challenged the presidential pardon of Silva.
The killing happened during a gun battle in the capital Colombo between rival factions of the same political party.
President Rajapaksa made Silva chairman of the National Housing Development Authority after he walked free in June last year.
Within four months of winning elections in November 2019, Rajapaksa released an army officer sentenced to death for slitting the throats of Tamil civilians, including four children, during the island’s bloody ethnic war.
Staff Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake was to be hanged for the December 2000 massacre, in a case held up by previous Sri Lankan governments as an example of accountability for abuses during the conflict.
Sri Lanka’s successive governments have denied allegations by rights groups that 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed by security forces in the final months of the war, which ended in May 2009.