News

Prisoner abuse claims: Many inquires; slow progress

  • Activists want criminal investigations and prison reforms

By Uwin Lugoda

Inquiries into the controversial Anuradhapura Prison and Welikada Prison incidents, which took place in September, are still underway, The Sunday Morning learnt. However, prisoner rights groups said they lacked faith in such investigations and that such abuse of prisoners in the care of the state happens frequently.

The slow progress on inquiries into the alleged actions of former State Minister of Prison Management and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation Lohan Ratwatte was highlighted at a time two prisoners were reportedly assaulted in the Angunakolapelessa Prison and hospitalised for treatment last week.

Speaking to The Sunday Morning, the Department of Prisons and the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) confirmed that inquiries into both incidents were ongoing.

An official from the HRCSL, who did not want to be named, stated that they completed the primary inquiries and site visits with regard to the two incidents.

The HRCSL official said the site visits were conducted swiftly and that they took time to question all the relevant officials within the prisons. 

“This is still an ongoing process. However, we managed to conduct our site visits and took statements from the relevant authorities in a very short time. But we still need to speak to the Commissioner General of Prisons, the Justice Minister, and a few more officers,” the official said.

The HRCSL official stated that this was still a developing inquiry, as the HRCSL had received more complaints in connection to the earlier incident. A new complaint was made by a civil society organisation and needed to be taken into consideration, the HRCSL source added.

The Department of Prisons stated they were continuing their own inquiries into the two incidents, while they were yet to receive an update from the former High Court Judge assigned to probe the incident.

Department of Prisons Media Spokesperson Chandana Ekanayake stated that once the inquiries were completed, they would hand over their findings to Commissioner General of Prisons Thushara Upuldeniya and Minister of Justice Ali Sabry.

When contacted by The Sunday Morning, Committee for Protecting Rights of Prisoners (CPRP) President Senaka Perera alleged that past inquiries into prisoner abuses were biased, with many authority figures denying the allegations.

He claimed: “We’ve seen, in past inquiries, officers being forced to withdraw their statements, and we can see that the Commissioner himself is a biased man, having initially denied the incidents. The statements made by the current authorities are biased as well, and according to them, the prisoners need to lodge a perfect complaint about this to be taken seriously.”

However, Perera argued that this wasn’t a civil matter and explained that it should be treated as a criminal matter to be investigated under the Criminal Procedure Code Section 109, Subsection 1, according to which, just information is enough to initiate the criminal investigation.

Subsection 1 states: “Every information relating to the commission of an offence may be given orally or in writing to a police officer or inquirer.”

Senaka opined that the perpetrator/s of prisoner abuse and those accused of the incidents in Spetember could even be charged under the Offensive Weapons Act or Penal Code Section 300: Attempt to Murder. He went on to add that those involved can also be prosecuted under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) since the prisoners were Tamil, and as being in violation of the fundamental rights of the Constitution.

“Unfortunately, there is no ongoing criminal investigation; it’s only an inquiry, which isn’t enough to hold anyone liable. The HRCSL is just a commission, and they can only recommend that the parties involved be arrested or punished,” he added.

In this situation, Perera stated that the CPRP had sought a writ of mandamus from the Court of Appeal in order to initiate a criminal investigation. He stated that once a criminal investigation starts, the Police are liable to initiate the investigation, while also involving the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and other relevant authorities.

“If we look at the prison logo, we see three Cs. These stand for Custody, Care, and Correction, which is our prison system’s motto. But over the years, the system has become contradictory to this motto,” he claimed.

Perera stated that the progress of the current inquiry was very slow and explained that this was not a surprise, considering how often similar incidents occur. He drew focus to the recent abuse of two prisoners at the Angunakolapelessa Prison and stated that a similar incident had also previously occurred at the Kuruwita Prison.

In late September, eight Tamil prisoners from the Anuradhapura Prison filed a fundamental rights (FR) petition with the Supreme Court seeking relief. In it, the prisoners asked to be transferred to a prison in the Tamil-majority Northern Province, out of fear for their lives.

The Welikada Prison and Anuradhapura Prison incidents took place on 6 September and 12 September, respectively. The incident in the Anuradhapura Prison, in particular, grabbed media attention, as Ratwatte allegedly ordered, at gunpoint, a group of ex-Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) prisoners to kneel before him.

Following these allegations, Ratwatte resigned from the portfolio of Prison Management and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation, one of two he holds, on 15 September. Ratwatte still holds onto another state ministerial portfolio.

Commissioner General of Prisons –Supplies Sunil Kodithuwakku was appointed on 15 September to conduct a comprehensive investigation into the incident.

Following this, the Department of Prisons stated that nearly 40 persons including officials and prisoners of the Anuradhapura and Welikada Prisons were questioned. The final report is set to include a summary of these statements and be handed over to the Ministry of Justice by Upuldeniya.

On 21 September, the Cabinet also made the decision to appoint a retired High Court Judge to independently inquire into the incident and submit a report.