South Asia

Sri Lankan death row prisoners go on hunger strike

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Hundreds of prisoners on death row or serving life in jail in Sri Lanka are staging a hunger strike.

They are trying to try to persuade the government to set them free or commute their sentences.

Around 600 prisoners at Columbo's Welikada jail refused food on Monday, and there are reports of similar protests in two other prisons.

Despite the large number of prisoners on death row, Sri Lanka has not carried out capital punishment since 1977.

However, in the late 1990s it suspended a process whereby sentences used to be regularly commuted, so many inmates have no idea what the future holds.

The head of the prisons service, Maj-Gen V.R. de Silva, told the BBC that more than 600 of the 4,000 prisoners at the high-security Welikada prison had refused food on Monday morning.

Twenty were demonstrating on the prison roof. There are reports of similar protests, also involving large numbers, in two jails outside Colombo.

The number involved has grown since last Thursday, when more than 100 prisoners started a demonstration demanding that the authorities rescind their death sentences.

Maj-Gen de Silva said the protesting prisoners are convicted of crimes including murder, rape and drug-trafficking.

They are said to be unhappy that they were not included in a general amnesty implemented for more than 800 more minor offenders a week ago.

The wheels of justice move notoriously slowly in Sri Lanka and the jails are said to be severely overcrowded, with poor conditions.

A committee has been set up to go through individuals' files, but the head of the prison service warned that a solution could not be found overnight.

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