Letter to Prisons Chief about infected activists

  • FSP complains about Covid-positive activists
  • Demands Justice Ministry, Prisons Dept. action

By Pamodi Waravita

With three of their arrested activists having tested positive for Covid-19, the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) has written to the Prisons Commissioner General T.N. Upuldeniya, about the threat that arrested activists and party members are facing in prisons due to the Covid-19 outbreak.

The letter sent yesterday (1) states that FSP Administrative Secretary Chameera Koswatta, Inter University Student Federation (IUSF) Convenor Wasantha Mudalige, and the Sri Jayewardenepura University General Student Association President Amila Sandeepa have tested positive for the virus while being held at the Badulla Taldena Covid-19 quarantine centre, run by the Prisons Department, following their arrest. They have since been transferred to the Kilinochchi District General Hospital for treatment.

“The Taldena Covid-19 centre, which has a capacity for only about 80 inmates, had held about 160 inmates. The prisons are not following even the basic health guidelines or sanitation requirements, and overcrowding is rampant. The Taldena centre has become a Covid-19 nursery,” the letter said.

The FSP has pointed out that the unrest at the Mahara Prison in November 2020 was also due to the weak implementation of Covid-19-prevention regulations.

Although the FSP Organising Secretary Senadeera Gunathilaka had sought a meeting with Upuldeniya yesterday, he had been informed that the latter was unavailable.

Addressing the media, Gunathilaka said that the Justice Ministry and the Prisons Department are responsible for the well-being of all inmates, including the arrested activists, in addition to the officials at the prisons.

The letter has further brought attention to the welfare of activists Koshila Hansamali Perera and Heshan Harshana, who are currently in remand custody at the Welikada Prison.

“In a cell which can only hold 10 inmates, there are about 40 inmates. Although Covid-19 regulations state that all those who are arrested must undergo quarantine prior to being sent to a prison, Harshana had not been sent to a quarantine centre,” the letter stated.

According to the FSP, the arrested activists are also being denied their basic right to legal consultation, as lawyers are not allowed to meet them due to the ongoing pandemic. The FSP has questioned the Prisons Commissioner General as to why lawyers cannot meet their clients under strict health guidelines.

Earlier this week, the Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) also raised concerns about the arrested student activists contracting Covid-19 while in remand custody and stated that the Government is responsible for their safety.

Education sector unions and activists who had participated in protests during the first week of August have been arrested over the past few weeks. Activists Perera and Koswatta were arrested on 3 August, while Mudalige was arrested on 5 August. Sandeepa was arrested on 5 August while IUSF representative Udara Sandaruwan and former IUSF Convener Ven.  Rathkarawwe Jinarathana Thera were allegedly threatened on a number of occasions over the past two weeks.

A range of demonstrations took place throughout Colombo and around the country over the course of last month in protest over the General Sir John Kotelawala National Defence University (KNDU) Bill and in demand of salary increments for school teachers.

Over 31 arrests of activists, trade unionists, and students were made in July at the protests condemning the KDNU Bill. Although bail was later granted to these arrestees, approximately 16 of them, including the Ceylon Teachers Union (CTU) General Secretary Joseph Stalin, were then forcibly sent to quarantine centres for 14 days. At the time, it received widespread condemnation from many parties, including the country’s main Parliamentary Opposition Party, the Samagi Jana Balawegeya (SJB), the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), the Lawyers for Social Justice organisation, and the United Nations Resident Co-ordinator in Sri Lanka Hanaa Singer-Hamdy.