Friday, December 11, 2020

Conduct postmortem and reveal the causes of deaths of detainees in Mahara prison

Mahara prison riots

By Anthony Vinoth, Coordinator - Sri Lankan Collective Against Torture 

Sri Lankan Collective Against Torture is highly concerned about the killing of 11 detainees of Mahara prison and injuring 107 detainees, in an incident claimed to be taken place amidst steps to control the chaos in prison on November 29. We express our deepest condolences to the families of the deceased and wish speedy recovery of all the injured detainees and the two prison officials.

We highlight that the security of the prisoners in state custody lie on the government and expect the authorities will provide a credible explanation to the society about the incident.

We want to remind that local and international civil organizations have focused the attention of the government many times to the elongated issue of congestion in prisons of Sri Lanka. We believe that COVID-19 would not make the prisons so vulnerable if the government had taken steps to provide sustainable solutions to minimize prison congestion. Several civil organizations, including the Committee to Protect the Rights of the Prisoners informed the authorities several times that spread of the epidemic in the prisons might cause panic among detainees. We stress that the cause for the unfortunate situation in prison is the failure of the authorities to take timely action. As a result, chaos has been reported from several prisoners by now.  

Two detainees lost lives in Anuradhapura prison amidst the first corona wave as a result of using live rounds to control the chaos. On November 18, one detainee of Bogambara prison died due to gunshot injuries. We focus the attention to the section 13 (4) of the constitution of Sri Lanka which highlights “No person shall be punished with death or imprisonment except by order of a competent court, made in accordance with the procedure established by law.”

The killings that took place in prisons within a brief period degrade  Sri Lanka in the human rights indices while affecting the dignity of the state internationally.

Even before the postmortem, the new Minister of Prison Management Hon. Lohan Ratwatta said in the parliament that no prisoner had died of gunshot injuries in the Mahara incident. This statement by the Hon. Minister was contradicted when the state counsel representing the Attorney General reported to the Magistrate of Welisara on December 8 that Criminal Investigation Department probes had revealed the use of firearms. The Sri Lankan Collective Against Torture protests the Minister’s statement in this context. We further demand the Department of Prisons to immediately hand over the unedited copies of the videos shown on media together with the equipment used to record them to the Magistrate Court of Welisara for further investigations. 

Also, we demand the government not to cremate the dead bodies of these detainees as per the quarantine regulations. We respect the interim order issued by Hon. Magistrate of Wattala on December 4 preventing the cremations. 

Hon. Magistrate of Welisara has directed the government to provide expert opinion regarding the postmortems, and we urge the authorities to take immediate actions in terms of this direction. In the context of the investigations after the exhumation of the bodies of the murdered persons had changed the initial postmortem reports, we emphasize that the government should conduct fair and independent inquests in terms of these nine killings. The cremation of the dead bodies considering the victims of killings as COVID-19 patients may hide evidence of murder, we stress. Therefore, we urge the government to use suitable techniques such as X-ray and conduct investigations without causing injustice to the victims of a crime and the families of the victims. The responsibility of a democratic government is to conduct murder investigations transparently and independently.

Sri Lanka is lagging regarding delivering justice to the victims of similar crimes that occur in the prisons quite often. The case regarding the killing of 27 prisoners in Welikada prison on November 9, 2012, is yet to be examined. However, accelerating the process of justice concerning exceptional circumstances is unalienable responsibility of the government.

Sri Lankan Collective Against Torture extends its fullest corporation unconditionally to its member organization, Committee to Protect the Prisoners’ Rights, in their struggle to seek justice for the victims of this incident and also to increase the security and facilities in the prisons.

(Translated by Creative Content Consultants)

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