Prison Protest Ends : Demands Remain Unanswered

(Nethmi Rajawasam)
The protesting inmates serving long-term prison sentences in the Welikada prison on 28th ended their month-long rooftop protest demanding the due reductions and remissions to their sentences, out of concerns for their weakened health, from being declined meals and water by prison officials while protesting.
The Prisons Media Spokesman Chandana Ekanayake promptly released a statement accusing the protestors of damaging the Chapel Ward roof with a damage worth Rs. 10 million, hours after the news of the protest having ended spread.
The Committee for Protecting Rights of Prisoners (CPRP) Chairman Attorney At Law (AAL) Senaka Perera stated that those who had been protesting were declined food and water by the prison officials from 23rd onwards, and that 8 prisoners were physically unwell when ending their protest, as they had been living on “collected rain water”, in those five days.
“With the actions taken by the prison officials in response to the protest, they were stealthily enervated from continuing the protest. They thought of all the things that concern them and climbed down with hopes of staging another protest,” he revealed to MediaLK.
Commenting on incriminations made by the police in light of the growing concerns from activists and lawyers aware of the actions taken by the prison officials to discourage the protest, former Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka Ambika Satkunanathan alluded that sentence commutations may be a far cry in the present reality, especially for those who are currently serving long-term sentences– whom essentially have been at the fore of the protest.
“The State and criminal justice system place these people in an untenable position and when they resort to desperate measures, they are punished for it,” she commented to MediaLK.
The protest was one of the series of protests that were held in prisons in the last three months, demanding that the process of sentence commutations the Prison Ordinance No. 47 of 1877 permits each prisoner to every four years be reinstated – and more specifically, in light of the presidential pardons given to prisoners associated with those of the existing government.
The CPRP fears that more violent reprisals at the hands of the State may be imminent as demonstrated during the Mahara prison protest last year and at the very premises of the Welikada prison in 2012– as the demands made by prisoners continue to go unheeded. Known sources to MediaLK say that certain prisoners protesting have been physically harassed when joining in the rooftop protest from below.
In an official letter concerning the surmounting tensions sent by the Committee to the Human Rights Council of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) on the 24th, the Committee had stated that a four-year review of each prisoners sentences is provided for in the Prison Ordinance. However much, the Chairman further commented on the arbitrary nature of the remissions of sentences in his statement made to MediaLK.
Earlier this year on the 24th of June, ex-Member of Parliament Duminda Silva was released with a presidential pardon for the death sentence he received in 2016 for the involvement in the murder of parliamentarian Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra and three of his bodyguards at a junction close to Mulleriyawa town in 2011. The now released ex-MP belonged to the current ruling party which was in power at the time of the murder. His release incited a hunger strike at the Welikada Prison the following day (25), which lasted for more than 2 days, to no avail.
According to former inmate and Welikada prison massacre witness Sudesh Nandimal, the release of convicted murderers Sunil Ratnayake and Duminda Silva has fortified the need for those inside to keep demanding that the President show them the same favor too. Since they were each, “…released in five years, the President must believe that the within five years of imprisonment, an individual is wholly rehabilitated and suited to re-enter society. The same way Duminda was pardoned, give us that right too, that is their request to the President,” he asserted.
On 8th December last year, the now resigned Minister of Prison Management and prisoner’s Rehabilitation Lohan Ratwatte, appearing before the Ministerial Consultative Committee on Justice, stated that the four-year pardon would be granted. According to what was stated, all prisoners serving time under death sentences would have by now had their sentences reduced to 20 years, and those who have served a sentence for more than 20 years would have now been released.
A few months later on the 27th of June, in a statement made to the Sunday Times in light of the hunger strikes that were held at the Welikada and Mahara prisons with regards to the commutations of sentences, the Minister claimed that, “President Rajapaksa has already been sent a list containing the names of 260 prisoners on death row with a recommendation to commute their sentences to life imprisonment.”
Ratwatte tendered his resignation on September 15th this year upon an incident involving him drunkenly visiting the Anuradhapura Prison and threatening two Tamil political prisoners held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) at gunpoint, while being forced into kneeling before him.
According to the findings of Ambika Satkunanathan who had conducted a prison study that was published by HRCSL last year, “The majority [of the inmates] are poor and are incarcerated due to their poverty, i.e. for not paying fines, for not being able to afford legal representation to file for bail etc. The penal system is not a system that “corrects”, but a system that criminalizes poverty, vulnerability and marginalization.”
“For instance, the number of persons imprisoned for the non-payment of fines was 20,420 in 2019, which is 70% of the total number of persons admitted to prison. At the same time, one often finds that persons who cause most harm to society are in positions of privilege and power in society…Incarcerated persons have no access to remedial mechanisms…they protest on the roof because they are desperate for the state to “see” them, hear their concerns and provide remedies.”
Apart from the demand for the reinstatement of the process of evaluating the rehabilitative progress of all prisoners every four years, the other foremost demands made by the prisoners according to the CPRP are, the commutation of the death sentences to life imprisonment and the life imprisonment sentences to be reduced to 20 years.
On the 29th of November last year, the inmates of the Mahara prison began a hunger strike protesting the lack of adequate PCR testing, the threat of contracting COVID-19 amidst the Brandix and Peliyagoda Fish Market spikes, and the removal of inmates who had contracted COVID-19 from the already overcrowded facility– primarily aggrieving the decision made by the authorities to transfer COVID-19 positive inmates from the Welikada prison to the Mahara prison.
According to official sources, 1,000 PCR tests were done on inmates at the Mahara prison on November 25th and 27th and the results that had arrived on the following two days indicated that around 180 inmates, and six prison officers had tested positive. The protest was quelled with the murder of 11 inmates– of whom 8 had contracted COVID-19 – and 117 others left injured.
Postmortems of the deceased revealed gun-shot wounds and according to Police Spokesperson DIG Ajith Rohana, the Police Officers were compelled to use force to control the situation. The tense situation between the protesting prisoners and police was subsequently called a ‘riot’ caused by the prisoners in the official statements released by the police.
However, in the interim report that was produced by Justice Minister Ali Sabry’s task force appointed to investigate the incident, it had been stated that no inmates had access to or used firearms during the showdown, and that it was only the police who had used firearms.
More notably, the report noted that the inmates who had had fever before the incident were not taken to the prison hospital for further medical assistance or quarantining. It stated that additional PCR tests and Rapid Antigen tests were done after the incident, and that those who had tested positive for COVID-19 were taken away from the prison, following the two-day struggle demanding for such.
A family member of one of the deceased inmates from the Mahara prison protest last year, Lasanthi, speaking to MediaLK on the demise of her husband stated, “We asked for bail, they did not give bail, they took time– then he died.”
According to Ambika Satkunanathan, “It has been well documented that bail has become the exception, whereas the law says it should be the norm. Therefore, many are not given bail by the judiciary for bailable offences. The main reason could be that our collective mindset is that if a person is arrested, then some form of immediate punishment must be meted out, and hence a person should not be released immediately. As many Indian commentators have recently been saying “the process becomes the punishment.”
Speaking to MediaLK, the mother of three and widow revealed, “He did not have a job, he did not have an ID (National Identification Card) or a permanent residence – we live on unregistered land. We don’t have a place to live even now. My 3 children and I live on unregistered land. That house is made with scraps of wood and the wood is deteriorating. They [the authorities] never made him an ID, they came to help us create IDs after he died. While he was alive he had tried to make an ID yet they kept refusing because they said that the municipality would tow our houses one day anyways”.
“Since he did not have an ID, he couldn’t find a job, since he couldn’t find a job aside from the little work he found in masonry, he started to sing on buses. Singing on buses must have been embarrassing for him, he did use small amounts of heroin to sing on buses. He looked for jobs in different places for a very long time. Though he looked for jobs he never found one since he did not have an ID.”
The Commissioner General of Prisons Thushara Upuldeniya last year noted that there are approximately 10,500 inmates inside the prisons across Sri Lanka detained due to drug related offences, 8,500 of the arrests relating to heroin.
“There were times when he did not use heroin at all, when he did get mason work he did not consume any at all, but whenever he was supposed to sing on buses, under the dire circumstances, he would adopt the habit of consuming enough to perform. Many who are poor are like this, this is their reality,” Lasanthi expressed.
 “Families of those who are imprisoned get caught in the cycle of poverty, violence and imprisonment. Instead of building new prisons we must find ways to close existing prisons and prevent the society to prison pipeline. In the meantime, not only commutations but more importantly home leave and release by license board play a critical role in reducing the prison population and reducing the harm to the individual and society,” concluded Satkunanathan.
The calls that had been taken to the Prison Management and Prisoners Rehabilitation Ministry from MediaLK for a statement to be included in this article, had not been answered.
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