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If prisoners are human beings, treat them so 

2 years ago

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On the outer wall of the Welikada Prison is the famous inscription, ‘Prisoners are human beings’, which shows that Sri Lanka is a country which believes, at least officially, that prisoners deserve to be treated as human beings. This notion, in every sense of the word, should be the basis on which laws and policies affecting prisoners are formulated.  However, how Sri Lanka treats its prisoners, be it suspects, accused parties or convicts, has not been so great in recent memory, and there are countless incidents that display a certain lacuna that needs to be filled, if Sri Lanka is to actually ensure human rights for prisoners. Custodial deaths and torture and reprehensible treatment of prisoners are not realities Sri Lanka’s legal system, prison system or the society are unfamiliar with.  Law reforms in this regard became a topic of discussion recently, after the authorities announced that a Cabinet Sub-Committee has been appointed to look into reforming the infamous Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act (PTA), and amendments to the Code of Criminal Procedure Act and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) Act were presented to the Parliament by the Justice Minister on Tuesday (6). As per what has been announced with regard to the latter two legal amendments so far, the authorities are planning to make it obligatory for Magistrates to visit Police stations and other detention centres in order to inspect whether the detainees are treated properly. However, Opposition Parliamentarians, who welcomed this move, claimed that the Government has no genuine interest in making tangible law reforms, and that requests to allow a Magistrate to inspect the Colombo Crimes Division (CCD), the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) and the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) under these amendments were rejected at the committee stage. The immediate question is, if the aim of these amendments is to create a mechanism to ensure proper treatment for detainees, why is it less of a priority, or not at all a priority, to inspect the state of detainees at the CCD, the TID and the CID, in a context where they have a reputation as being institutions that deal with grave crimes and notorious criminals? In Sri Lanka, detentions are usually based on a Judge’s orders, exceptions being the Defence Minister’s powers to order a detention under the PTA. In this context, amending laws to allow Magistrates to inspect the state of detainees only at selected places falls short of meaningful reforms that would ensure that detainees are treated humanely.  Sri Lanka’s prisons and detention centres including at various Police stations, have a reputation for being overcrowded, not having the most basic facilities, and being centres of custodial deaths and torture, and the discourse on making prisons a more pleasant place has been a demand of many domestic and international human rights organisations. These issues being more in the discussion level than in the implementation level, has, in fact, led to accusations of human rights violations against the Government, reinforcing the notion that most of these incidents occur with the backing of certain authorities, especially the law enforcement authorities. Does this mean that detainees at only selected places deserve proper treatment?  While the nature of these law reforms, or what is expected of them, appear to be progressive, Sri Lanka is at a juncture where discerning the true motives behind human rights related law reforms is not as simple as before, due to the precarious state of the Generalised Scheme/System of Preferences Plus (GSP+) trade concession that Sri Lanka is trying to protect.  Unlike before, the GSP+ concession - or the fear of losing it, to be precise - has become a decisive factor that shapes how Sri Lanka handles its human rights. The authorities seem to have started paying more attention to law reforms, especially those concerning human rights, after the European Parliament adopted a Resolution concerning Sri Lanka’s human rights commitments, among others, and consequently decided to reconsider continuing the GSP+ concession for Sri Lanka. If what triggered an urgency and a necessity to go for these law reforms was in fact the fear of losing the GSP+ concession, that begs the questions as to why Sri Lanka needs external pressure to resolve prolonged internal issues and how sustainable these fear driven law reforms would actually be and whether they would benefit the people.  When it comes to the state of facilities granted to prisoners, like many Asian countries, Sri Lanka too has a long way to go. It is true that the country is not in a position to provide prison facilities similar to facilities available in Europe. However, Sri Lanka is more than capable of ensuring the most basic facilities such as those outlined in the Nelson Mandela Rules on the minimum standards of treatment for prisoners.  
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