Convicted killer Shramantha Jude Anthony Jayamaha—who in 2005 rammed the head of his victim, Yvonne Jonsson, against her apartment stairs so many times that her face was left unrecognisable—won an early release from prison on a special Presidential pardon. Why him? Why now? The total number of prisoners sentenced to death, according to the Department [...]


A presidential pardon under heavy public fire

Bar Association questions lack of due process - Outrage reflects deep distrust in the Executive prerogative

Convicted killer Shramantha Jude Anthony Jayamaha—who in 2005 rammed the head of his victim, Yvonne Jonsson, against her apartment stairs so many times that her face was left unrecognisable—won an early release from prison on a special Presidential pardon. Why him? Why now?

Shramantha Jude Anthony Jayamaha

The total number of prisoners sentenced to death, according to the Department of Prisons, is 1178. Of these, 720 have appealed their punishment leaving 458 on death row. Such inmates by law must be kept isolated from each other and often do not receive adequate daylight exercise. The prospect of never leaving incarceration is so wretched that some of them feel execution is a better prospect than spending the rest of their lives inside.

Shramantha was initially sentenced to 12 years for culpable homicide not amounting to murder. He challenged this, only to have the Court of Appeal overturn the Colombo High Court verdict and sentence him to death for murder. The Supreme Court upheld the verdict when he took it there. These legal proceedings continued from 2005 to 2014.

Both sides have issued public statements. In her second social media post addressed to President Sirisena, Yvonne’s sister, Caroline, says they deserve to know “the true reasons you involved yourself in this case”.

“There are countless Sri Lankans in custody for lesser crimes, yet you have chosen to pardon a prisoner convicted of premeditated murder and in doing so undermined the highest level of judiciary in the country,” she states.

Herein lies the problem. The outrage at Shramantha’s Presidential pardon is a reflection of the deep distrust the public has of the system of justice. It has not been denied that he is a distant relative of Mr Sirisena. And this is often reason enough in Sri Lanka to grant such favours, even without the speculation that other inducements were given or political influence exercised.

In his statement, Shramantha argues that there was nothing arbitrary or untoward about his release. The process started three years ago, he says, with continual sequences of reviews and approvals. In 2013, a prison review board started looking into the cases of all death row prisoners including him. Three years later, he was among 250 prisoners out of 600 whose sentences were commuted to life imprisonment.

Between 2018 and 2019, Shramantha claims, a judge’s report, Prisons Department and Attorney General’s reports as well as a Justice Ministry recommendation citing a fair release for him were studied by the President’s legal review board. No evidence of these documents has still been provided.

What was proffered, however, is an explanation by President Sirisena that he considered the interventions of religious leaders, primarily Parliamentarian Ven Aturaliye Ratana Thera, in choosing to pardon Shramantha.

One of them, the Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Galle Rev Raymond Wickremasinghe, has already denied that he directly sought pardon for Shramantha and that he only called for more focus on helping prisoners, particularly young ones, to study and be rehabilitated.

The President also reportedly received representations from retired Supreme Court Judge Rohini Marasinghe and several lawyers. And he took into consideration the report of the committee that recommended a commutation of Shramantha’s death sentence to life imprisonment. There is no mention in the President’s statement of Prison’s Department, Attorney General’s or Ministry of Justice input.

Menaka Lecamwasam is a legal researcher with in-depth knowledge of the Sri Lankan prisons system. From a humanitarian perspective, she saw nothing wrong with Shramantha’s release. With conditions being what they are, fourteen years in prison is far worse, she said, than the death penalty.

Yvonne Jonsson

But she sees the public polarised on the matter—and rightly so—because it is deeply tainted with the question of political motivation. And with no independent evidence to suggest that every step related to the granting of Presidential pardons enshrined in the Constitution was followed, it would seem that Mr Sirisena took the call on freeing Shramantha.

This is a cause for concern. While Presidential pardons are in the constitution as an Executive prerogative for a reason, it is not unfettered with regards to death row prisoners, Ms Lecamwasam pointed out.

“In any constitution anywhere in the world, a pardon is granted either to remedy a miscarriage of justice or to bring down the severity of a penalty,” she said. “And there is a process by which a Presidential pardon is given. Especially in relation to death row prisoners, it cannot be done arbitrarily. The President must be advised by the Minister of Justice.”

But, as far as could be immediately determined—and there has been minimal transparency—there was no Justice Ministry recommendation to grant Shramantha a pardon. And a letter from a Buddhist monk, even when he is a Parliamentarian, is not part of the accepted, mandatory criteria.

Ven Ratana Thera’s letter to the President is specific to Shramantha, whom he claims to have counselled while in prison. It is clear that he applied considerable pressure on Mr Sirisena, even arranging a meeting for him with the convict’s parents.

Shramantha confirmed that he met Ven Ratana Thera five years ago when he was “at a particularly low point” in his life. While teaching meditation to prisoners, he motivated him the start studying again.

It is not clear whether the prelate made similar appeals on behalf of other prisoners who are on death row or serving life sentences. He was not available for comment despite several attempts to reach him on his mobile phone this week.

There is strong conviction on the part of the victim’s family that undue influence was exercised by Shramantha’s party, who are wealthy business people. He pleads otherwise in his letter. “…if you don’t believe anything else, at least believe that the pardon that was given to me was not a result of any coercion or influence, but purely through process…,” he states. “I am one of several hundreds of people who are fortunate enough to be afforded a second chance at life through the merit-based pardoning system.”

It is true that scores have been released through Presidential pardon over the years. The recently released 2019 statistics report of the Department of Prisons shows that 1,879 inmates were freed in 2016; 1340 in 2017; and 1007 last year. And after Shramantha’s departure, the President pardoned 267 others aged over 65.

But Shramantha’s pardon was not a regular one such as those granted on special occasions, which is what the above numbers reflect. And there were more procedures to be followed in his case.

Saliya Pieris, PC, Chairman of the Office on Missing Persons, has loudly questioned whether these were observed in several posts on social media. Like many others, he wanted to know how this convict was chosen over others.

“This is not the routine pardon where after decades in prison, prisoners are released,” he pointed out. “This is a very special pardon. This is a case where the High Court verdict convicting him of culpable homicide not amounting to murder was overturned by the Court of Appeal which convicted him of murder and imposed the death sentence. The Supreme Court dismissed his appeal at the outset by refusing Special Leave to Appeal.”

Mr Pieris warned that others may now follow this precedent to “get out by extra judicial means, bypassing the courts and the justice system”.
On Monday, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) wrote to President Sirisena pointing out that there have been, in the recent past, a few instances where pardons were granted “without any material to justify the basis on which the respective prisoners were selected…”

While the BASL did not provide examples, it issued a similar statement in May this year when President Sirisena pardoned Bodu Bala Sena General Secretary Ven Galagodaatte Gnanasara Thera who was serving a prison term for contempt of court.

The power of a Presidential pardon “should not be exercised arbitrarily or in a selective manner”, the BASL stressed again. And there must be transparency in making a decision.

The Association asked the President to convey to it the basis on which Shramantha was selected for pardon; the circumstances which were considered in granting the pardon; the reason why he stands out from others currently sentenced; whether a report was called for from the trial judge as mandated by the constitution; whether the Attorney General’s advice was sought; and whether the Justice Minister’s recommendation was called for.

The President has not replied to the BASL. And his one public statement on the matter has raised more questions than answers.

“I am sure everyone will agree it’s a bad idea to allow the Executive to decide on freeing suspects, accused and convicts from cases, now or any time in the future,” Mr Pieris said.

For the legal fraternity, the issue isn’t so much about Shramantha as it is about due process or the sheer lack of transparency. There is no argument here about the rehabilitation component of imprisonment. It has been accepted the world over.

One of the important considerations in the case is that, while Shramantha earned a full pardon, he is not exonerated of his guilt. His conviction stands. It’s his sentence that has come to an end.

But in deciding who is suitable for clemency, there has to be more stringent application of and due respect to the law. There must also be sensitivity to the families of victims who, as Caroline so heart-wrenchingly pointed out in her social media statements, are still going through hell.

Revisiting a bloody crime
Shramantha, then 19-years-old, was the boyfriend of Yvonne’s sister, Caroline. On June 30, 2005, he was invited to a party to which he took Caroline and Yvonne as guests.

The trio visited several nightclubs that night before Caroline said she wanted to get home as she had an exam the following day. An altercation also took place between the couple at one of the venues they visited over Caroline speaking to an acquaintance.

Yvonne stayed behind with a friend and Caroline left with her boyfriend, arriving at her family home on the 23rd floor of Royal Park, Rajagiriya, around 2 a.m. on July 1. She told her parents she and, falsely, her sister were back before going into her room with Shramantha.

Later, Shramantha called a taxi and told his girlfriend, “I love you forever” before leaving the flat. But it emerged that he never took that car. Instead he was picked up later by a friend who came in a different taxi.

Yvonne’s body was discovered in the morning on the stairs near the 19th floor. She was ambushed by Shramantha (20 minutes after he left Caroline) as she emerged from the elevator. There were various reports about why Yvonne was targeted. But none were substantiated in the Appeal Court judgment.

The attack was brutal. “According to the judicial medical officer, the head of the deceased had been bashed on the edge of a step more than once and this had been corroborated by the evidence of the government analyst who confirmed the said position by explaining the blood patterns at the scene,” the judgement says.

Death was caused by strangling the deceased using her own stretch pants as a ligature by bending her legs backwards.

“The subsequent conduct of the accused appellant clearly indicates that he was in full control of himself and that he was capable of carefully planning his actions like a sober man,” the judgment says, in dismissing the earlier verdict of culpable homicide.  “He had discreetly got rid of the blood he had on his clothes and on his person including the blood that was on his hands by washing or by some other means. He had also divested himself of the clothes and the shoes he was wearing at the time because the appellant ought to have had blood stains on his clothes and his friend who came to take him back would have seen if there were such blood stains on his person or on his clothes.”

Then, he was dropped home.

Share This Post


Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.