HC Judge to probe Ratwatte incidents

  • Ali Sabry calls incidents ‘disgraceful’ 
  • Witnesses Protection Authority to ensure prisoners’ safety 
  • G.G. Ponnambalam calls for Ratwatte’s removal as MP, Sumanthiran urges removal of firearm 

BY Pamodi Waravita 

Justice Minister, President’s Counsel (PC) M.U.M. Ali Sabry, whilst “unequivocally and unconditionally” condemning the incidents which had occurred at the Welikada and Anuradhapura Prisons complexes involving former Prison Management and Prisoners Rehabilitation State Minister Lohan Ratwatte, said yesterday (22) that a retired High Court (HC) Judge will be appointed to independently inquire into the incidents. 

“The State Minister in question has already stepped down from the post. There are no interferences into the ongoing investigations by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) and the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL). The High Court Judge will also tender a report. Just like everyone else, this individual too is entitled to the presumption of innocence. Based on what the investigations reveal, the political and legal authorities, and the political Party to which he belongs, will take appropriate action,” said Ali Sabry PC in the Parliament yesterday. 

Ali Sabry PC made these comments in response to an inquiry made by Ahila Ilankai Thamil Congress (AITC) Parliamentarian G.G. Ponnambalam, who questioned as to whether the Government would remove Ratwatte from his remaining Government portfolio as the Gem and Jewellery Related Industries State Minister and subsequently, from the Parliament as well. 

“On 12 September evening, the individual who was the then Prison Management and Prisoners Rehabilitation State Minister had entered the Anuradhapura Prison complex using the fact that he was the concerned subject State Minister and had insisted that the Tamil political prisoners being held under the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act, No. 48 of 1979 as amended, be brought to him. The Prison authorities had gone on to produce 10 Tamil prisoners being detained under the PTA including nine suspects held under the PTA who have pending legal action against them and one prisoner who had been convicted under the PTA. The said individual had then ordered all prisoners to kneel before him. This is degrading. Thereafter, brandishing a firearm, presumably his personal firearm meant for his personal protection, he had loudly announced that since he is the State Minister, he has the power ‘to shoot or free prisoners’. The said individual has become uncontrollably agitated and gone on to place his gun on the bodies and heads of several prisoners, saying, ‘he can shoot them all’. His security officers and the prison authorities had attempted to pacify the man, fearing the worst. One can just imagine the severe state of trauma the prisoners were in,” alleged Ponnambalam. 

Ali Sabry PC, while apologising to the victims of the incidents and their families, called the incidents a “disgrace”, but requested that a “political, racial, or ethnic flavour” not be given to the incidents.

Ali Sabry PC also said that he has already informed the National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crimes and Witnesses to ensure the safety, security, and dignity of prisoners and detainees, as they are under the custody of the Government, and therefore, their wellbeing is the responsibility of the Government.

“I know that we let them down. Investigations are being carried out by the relevant law enforcement authorities and the Attorney General can supervise and give instructions, if he deems such necessary. That process has already commenced. The Government cannot sanction criminal action. As a matter of fact, we have never interfered and never will do so in individual legal cases other than be involved in policy discussions to enhance the capabilities of the law enforcement agencies,” he added.

Ponnambalam questioned as to whether, given the severe breach of security and safety in the Anuradhapura Prison, where the Prison authorities had failed to prevent the illegal acts, the Justice Ministry will transfer the Tamil political prisoners to Vavuniya and Jaffna, in keeping with the ‘Mandela Rules (the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Protection of Prisoners)’ as a matter of urgency. He added that it is also necessary to transfer them as the Anuradhapura Prison authorities are also witnesses in the ongoing legal matter.

Furthermore, Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) MP and Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Spokesman M.A. Sumanthiran PC raised concerns over reports that certain Prisons authorities had stated that there are no closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras at the two Prisons complexes – Welikada and Anuradhapura. While claiming that it is “strange” that the Welikada Prison has no CCTV cameras, Sumanthiran PC requested for assurances that if such footage is available, they not be erased.

“As of now, the prisoners will continue to stay at Anuradhapura, as their cases are being heard at the Vavuniya High Court, which is of closer proximity to the Anuradhapura Prison. The National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crimes and Witnesses will continue to monitor them. If necessary, they will be transferred to a more secure place. Currently, all authorities, including Opposition MPs and the HRCSL have unhindered access to them,” Ali Sabry PC said.

Sumanthiran PC meanwhile, also requested the Speaker of the Parliament Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena to order the removal of Ratwatte’s firearm.