Arrest Ratwatte under Firearms/Prisons Ordinances: Committee for Protecting the Rights of Prisoners

  • Prisoners’ rights group files CID complaint 
  • Calls on Prez to ensure unbiased probe 
  • FR to be filed for prisoner with gun to head 

BY Ruwan Laknath Jayakody and Dinitha Rathnayake 

The Committee for Protecting the Rights of Prisoners (CPRP) will lodge a complaint with the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) today (16), calling for the immediate arrest of the recently resigned Prison Management and Prisoners Rehabilitation State Minister Lohan Ratwatte, citing provisions under the Firearms Ordinance and Prisons Ordinance.

The provisions which will be cited are with regard to taking a firearm into the premises of prisons and engaging in criminal intimidation using it, The Morning learnt.

Ratwatte resigned from the post yesterday (15) following The Morning’s revelations of the latter’s recent engagement in both illegal acts and acts of misconduct within the Welikada and Anuradhapura Prisons. 

The CPRP also called on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to appoint an independent, non-partisan entity, without representation from the Prisons Department and the Police Department in its membership, to probe the matter, and for the Government to give a guarantee regarding the protection, safety and security of all prisoners. 

Sources who spoke to The Morning, on 6 September, alleged that Ratwatte and a group of friends that reportedly included a beauty pageant winner (who had driven the vehicle in which the group had arrived at the prison), who were all inebriated and inappropriately dressed, forcibly entered the Welikada Prison premises after 6 p.m. and proceeded to view the gallows. 

As per Section 39 of the Prisons Ordinance, a Parliamentarian who wishes to pay a visit to a prison can only do so between the hours of 5.30 a.m. and 5.30 p.m. However when Prison officials had, according to the sources, requested that the female accompanying the group not go past the cells where male prisoners are housed – which is en route to the gallows, where the group was headed – owing to her being female, Ratwatte and his inebriated friends had verbally abused the Prison officers, stating that they should not stop her entry and subsequent passage. 

While the CPRP alleged that the female in question was Mrs. Sri Lanka 2021 Pushpika De Silva, speaking to The Morning, De Silva has vehemently denied her involvement in this incident. 

On 12 September, a similarly inebriated and pistol brandishing Ratwatte had, according to sources, flown in a helicopter to the Anuradhapura Prison where he had summoned a group of Tamil prisoners detained under the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act, No. 48 of 1979 as amended (reports state between eight to 16 such prisoners), and ordered them to kneel, and had proceeded to threaten two of them including Sulakshana (Prisoner Number 141 whose case is being heard at the Vavuniya High Court) at point blank range, telling them to accept their offence/s and to submit to authority. 

The CPRP also informed that they intended to file a Fundamental Rights (FR) petition in the Supreme Court on behalf of Sulakshana. 

Article 11 of the Constitution guarantees freedom from inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment while Article 13(4) holds that no person can be punished except by an order made in accordance with the procedure established by the law, by a competent court, whilst following the due process safeguards. Prisoners are entitled to all the Constitutionally guaranteed Fundamental Rights. 

However, when contacted, Prisons Department Media Spokesman and Commissioner Chandana Ekanayake claimed that he knows nothing regarding these incidents. Despite attempts by The Morning, Ratwatte and the Prisons Commissioner General Thushara Upuldeniya were unavailable for comment. When contacted by The Morning, the former Prison Management and Prisoners Rehabilitation State Minister’s Media Secretary said that there is no need to give a comment on these incidents since no such incidents as claimed by the media had occurred. 

Ratwatte, who hails from a powerful political family, has since resigned after claiming to have, as per a tweet by the President’s Spokesman, accepted responsibility for the incidents at the Welikada and Anuradhapura Prisons. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the same tweet mentions, has accepted the said resignation.

Convening a media briefing yesterday, CPRP Chairman, Attorney-at-Law Senaka Perera noted that Ratwatte’s threats to prisoners who are within the custody of prisons as per judicial orders, constituted acts of contempt of court.

Perera also accused Prisons Department officials including Commissioner General Upuldeniya and Commissioner Ekanayake of dereliction of duty as public officers of the State by both aiding and abetting in Ratwatte’s actions and cowardice by attempting to cover up the matter through the suppression and destruction of evidence by way of seeking to delete closed circuit television (CCTV) camera footage at the two Prisons. Also addressing the same press conference, CPRP Secretary Sudesh Nandimal Silva however noted the obstruction of duty on the part of Ratwatte. Citing their alleged kowtowing to the whims and fancies of the political authority, Perera called on both Upuldeniya and Ekanayake to resign or for them to be removed from their posts by the relevant authorities.

Speaking further regarding the firearm related offence, Perera pointed out that not even the Prisons Commissioner General could not carry a firearm during a visit to a prison. “There is no need to carry and take a pistol if one is going to show the gallows. Therefore, we have a suspicion as to whether Ratwatte was attempting to hunt a political opponent.”      

Perera also noted that the selection and targeting of a particular ethnic group from among the prisoners, in this case Tamils, was proscribed under the law including the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights Act, No. 56 of 2007 as amended. Silva described the said selection and targeting of these prisoners from a national minority, which also violates Article 12 of the Constitution which enshrines the right to equality before the law and equal protection of the law, as a great blow to national reconciliation that was racially motivated and racist in nature. He queried the inopportune timing of Ratwatte’s actions, coming at a time when Sri Lanka’s human rights situation is under international scrutiny including at the United Nations Human Rights Council. He observed further that such incidents would only prove the international community’s view of Sri Lanka’s dire human rights condition.

“What destruction is Ratwatte attempting to wreak? Is bloodshed what he wants? What is the President doing while all this goes on? We would like to ask the Viyath Maga (Professionals for a Better Future) organisation which is an influential force within the Government which talked of assigning Ministries on the basis of science, as to whether giving such an important portfolio to someone like Ratwatte, is scientific. Prisons are correctional institutions to rehabilitate prisoners, and similarly, Ratwatte should be rehabilitated,” Silva opined.

“Ratwatte has kicked the rule of law aside and abused and misused his State Ministerial portfolio. Since when did Ratwatte get judicial powers? He is playing with the lives and rights of the people and the law. This is a dangerous situation. This is the law of the jungle. Under the law, Ratwatte has no immunity. Therefore, the criminal law should be enforced against Ratwatte,” Perera emphasised.

The CPRP informed that the relatives of the affected prisoners who brought the injustice faced by the prisoners to the Committee’s notice and discussed with the Committee in this regard, had pledged to take all necessary legal action concerning such. “Together with the victims’ relatives including parents, we are prepared to take this struggle for justice to the streets if we have to,” Silva noted in conclusion, while Perera added that they would also raise the matter at the international level.