COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka's president on Wednesday pardoned five Indian fishermen who had been sentenced to death for drug trafficking, a move likely to reduce tensions with India.
The death penalty triggered a diplomatic row between the island nation and its huge neighbor, as the fishermen had denied the charges and the case was seen as an outgrowth of friction over alleged illegal poaching in Sri Lankan waters.
A Sri Lankan court sentenced the five south Indian fishermen on Oct. 30, almost three years after they were detained by the Sri Lankan navy.
"These five fishermen have been pardoned by the president and ordered to be transferred to emigration (to India)," said Mohan Samaranayake, spokesman for President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Sri Lankan-Indian ties have been strained by what New Delhi deems to be a heightened Chinese presence in Sri Lanka, citing a recent visit of a Chinese warship and submarine to Colombo port.
India is also concerned about Sri Lanka's treatment of minority Tamils, whose separatist insurgency was crushed in 2009 amid allegations of widespread atrocities against civilians by Colombo's armed forces. Tamils share India's main Hindu faith.
For its part, Sri Lanka has long fumed over poaching and illegal fishing by Indian fishermen that it says deplete the catches of its own fishermen.
Arrests of Indian fishermen have angered India's nearby southern state of Tamil Nadu and became a regional issue in campaigning for the Indian general election last April.
"Rajapaksa has done a favor to India (in releasing the fishermen). He will expect the favor to be returned at the polls and also at the next U.N. Human Rights Council meeting," said retired Colonel R. Hariharan, an intelligence specialist who served with Indian peacekeepers in Sri Lanka.
Analysts say India will exert important influence on the way Sri Lankan Tamils vote in the island country's snap presidential election expected to be held as soon as January.
In March, Rajapaksa freed 98 Indian fishermen detained for poaching as a "goodwill gesture" after New Delhi abstained in a vote on a U.N. resolution that approved an international inquiry into alleged war crimes in the defeat of the Tamil insurgency.
Reporting by Ranga Sirilal and Shihar Aneez; Editing by Mark Heinrich