Sri Lanka's president denied issuing any such directive; the Prisons Department said the inmate remains in jail

A post shared on Facebook and WhatsApp claim that a former army staff sergeant who was sentenced to death for the murder of eight Tamil civilians was "freed a few moments ago" on the orders of  Sri Lanka's newly elected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The claim is false; the Sri Lankan president's office said they had issued no such directive; the Sri Lankan Prisons Department told AFP that the former army staff sergeant  remains in jail.

The claim was published on Facebook here on November 19, 2019, where it has been shared more than 700 times.

The misleading post’s  Sinhala-language caption says: "War hero Sunil Ratnayake was freed a few moments ago by a special order issued by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa".

"All those who joined hands with me over the years to free war hero Sunil Ratnayake who was unfairly imprisoned, I thank you for standing with me without even knowing my identity… That battle has been concluded victoriously…” 

Former army staff sergeant Sunil Ratnayake was sentenced to death in June 2015 for the murder of eight Tamil civilians in 2000 in Mirusuvil, an area outside the northern city of Jaffna.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president in Sri Lanka's December 16, 2019 vote.

Below is a screenshot of the misleading post: 

Screenshot of Facebook post.

The post contains an image with a "breaking news" banner across the top, above two images of a former Sri Lanka Army Staff Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake.

There is also Sinhala text below the images of Gunawardena saying: “War hero Sunil Ratnayake was released by a special order issued by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.” 

The court ruling on Ratnayake, which came after a 13-year trial, was a rare instance of a civilian court convicting a soldier for crimes committed during the military’s decades-long conflict with Tamil forces. Here is an AFP report on the decision.

In May 2019, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court rejected Ratnayake’s appeal, unanimously affirming the conviction and death sentence.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 70, previously has a long military career and served as Defense Secretary under his brother, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, from 2005 to 2015. Here is an AFP profile of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The claim has been shared repeatedly on Facebook, for example here and here.

Some Facebook users appeared to believe the claim, posting messages of appreciation to Rajapaksa for issuing the pardon.

One user’s post, seen here, translated from Sinhala reads: “Thank you President, for releasing Sunil Ratnayake war hero…” 

Screenshot of Facebook post

The claim is false; the president's office said he had not issued any such directive, and the country's Prisons Department said the inmate remained in jail.

The Director General of Presidential Media, Mohan Samaranayake, told AFP by phone that there was no such directive. 

"I have checked into the claim with the relevant authorities and can confirm no such decision was made and no such directive has been issued by the President," he said.

The new president tweeted a warning here on November 21, 2019, urging Sri Lankans not to believe any purported presidential statements unless they had been released through official channels.

The Sri Lankan Prisons Department told AFP they had not received any directive to release Ratnayake or been informed of any presidential pardon issued by Rajapaksa.

“No such request or instruction has been issued to free the prison Sunil Rathnayake,”  K D B Jayasinghe, the Administration Division’s Commissioner of Prisons, told AFP in a phone interview on November 25.

Jayasinghe said that Ratnayake remains imprisoned. 

"The inmate mentioned in the claims is still in prison," he said.

The Prisons Department’s refutation of the misleading claim on social media was also published here in the Daily Mirror, a Sri Lankan media outlet, on November 20.