The death toll has been increased to 11 inmates. Autopsies of the bodies will be conducted in due course after the magisterial inquest.
- Inmates accused of fighting among themselves, in drug-induced frenzy
- Over 21,000 hypnotic drug tablets stored at prison hospital
- Investigation into conduct of medical officer attached to prison hospital
- 26 inmates believed to have suffered gunshot injuries
- DIG Ajith Rohana seeks release from Committee, cites conflict of interest
- International rights group condemns repeated use of lethal force in prisons
- Prison coronavirus cluster crosses 1,000 mark
- Prison overcrowding raises serious concerns
A violent protest erupted in one of the country’s largest high security prisons on Sunday, as gunfire rang out and some parts of the prison set ablaze. The Mahara prison housing more than 2,000 convicts jailed and suspects remanded for various offences became the nation’s hotbed of violence, with the gunfight between security personnel and inmates resulting in the death of eleven inmates.
By Tuesday, the number of persons admitted to the Colombo North Teaching Hospital as a result of the Mahara Prison riots rose to 109. DIG Rohana said 80 of the inmates were injured following clashes among themselves. Twenty six of the inmates are believed to have suffered gunshot injuries, though the number has not been confirmed by Judicial Medical Examinations. Nine inmates were reportedly killed while two prison officers were among those injured in the incident. Authorities have denied reports of inmates breaking out of the prison, following the incident.
At a joint media briefing on the Mahara Prison unrest, Prison Department and Police spokespersons condemned the conduct of the inmates, saying it was the first time an incident of this nature had been reported in the country.
Prisons Department Commissioner (Administration) and Spokesperson Chandana Ekanayake said there had been fighting among the prisoners. “They fought and inflicted wounds on each other with weapons and sharp objects. They entered the main building of the prison, the kitchen, the stores and the prison hospital and set them on fire,” he told the media, while giving details on the extent of the property damaged at the site.
“They have demanded in the past and continue to demand bail. This is what they are demanding as of now while their concerns about Covid-19 seem to have taken a backseat,”
Mr. Ekanayake said.
He said two prison officers were taken hostage and one of them brutally assaulted. “We negotiated their release with the greatest difficulty. The officers were admitted to the Ragama Teaching Hospital. Meanwhile, the inmates had attempted escape by digging through the prison walls and they continued to do so even on Monday night,”
Mr. Ekanayake said.
Initial theories paint drug conspiracy
Prison officials said the inmates involved in drug-related crimes have been identified as those responsible for this incident. Responding to a question asked by a journalist as to why the intelligence agencies in the country had failed to indicate the possibility of such an event at the Mahara Prison, Mr. Ekanayake said intelligence reports had indicated the possibility of a riot, but in other prisons. “What happened here was described as something that cropped up unexpectedly. It is the first time where inmates were found fighting with each other, especially as they were in a drugged state,” he said.
At the time of the riot, Mahara prison statistics indicate there were 2,782 inmates at the premises, out of which 585 were convicted prisoners while 2,197 suspects were in remand custody over various offences. According to the authorities, the fighting had initially broken out among the remand prisoners, demanded that they be granted access to PCR testing facilities.
“Their initial request was to conduct PCR tests. This developed into a riot and then they attempted to breakout of the prison,” Police Media Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana said the preliminary investigations had revealed that the prison hospital had been severely damaged.
"More than 21,000 pills including drugs prescribed to mental patients, along with hypnotic drugs, had been in the prison hospital store. These are often used by addicts and consumers as substitutes for drugs."
“More than 21,000 pills including drugs prescribed to mental patients, along with hypnotic drugs, had been in the prison hospital store. These are often used by addicts and consumers as substitutes for drugs. Investigators are probing into this, especially into the conduct of a certain medical officer attached to the prison hospital,” he said. “Initial investigations looked into why such a large quantity of hypnotic drugs was available at the premises.”
The DIG said the Investigators would also probe into how these inmates had access to these drugs and also how a Covid-19 protest escalated into a drug-induced riot.
When asked by journalists as to why authorities were unable to prevent the unrest, he said the inmates at this prison, who were mainly convicted of grievous crimes, were responsible for situations such as this and accused the inmates of using Covid-19 as a pretext to break away from the prison.
The overcrowded and poorly ventilated environment in the prison makes it difficult to observe the general hygienic rules. During a pandemic like Coronavirus, unsolved problems inherent to the prison system could get aggravated.
Underworld plan or longstanding crisis in Mahara?
Minister Wimal Weerawansa told Parliament the Mahara Prison riot was not the result of congestion or overcrowding. He said according to an intelligence report, an underworld figure known as Chathuranga, a close associate of the slain underworld king-pin Samayan, held at the Welikada Prison and several other prisons had smuggled a drug known as ‘Sarath’ or ‘Reverse’ and carried out a trial run using several prisoners.
“On the receipt of the intelligence report, ‘Chathuranga’ was transferred to another prison and several other prisoners were moved around. But unfortunately, the back-up plan of the Welikada Master Plan was orchestrated at the Mahara Prison,” the minister said. He said the riot was a pre-planned event to cause murder inside a prison during the term of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and discredit him internationally.
Meanwhile, Anura Kumara Dissanayake disputing these claims said over-crowding of remand prisoners due to the non-functioning of courts and the fear of contracting COVID-19 had precipitated the riots.
Speaking to the Daily Mirror, prisoners’ rights activist Senaka Perera said the prisoners at Mahara had been facing several issues, which he himself and other rights groups had been voicing. However, he said until several lives of inmates were lost, the government paid no attention to the issues at Mahara.
“The detainees constitute a group particularly vulnerable to the spread of an infectious disease because they have an average level of health lower than that of the general population. They have higher rates of underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19 infections. On November 23, an 82-year-old inmate of the Mahara prison died from Covid-19. The patient is reported to have received treatment for cancer at the Welikada prisons hospital. Other inmates are scared about their lives which is totally understandable,” Mr. Perera said.
He also said oovercrowding has worsened the safety and health risks of prisoners during the pandemic.
“Despite the Colombo Welikada Prison having facilities for 800 inmates, the current number of inmates has gone beyond 5,000. The Prison Hospital too has so many problems when considering its facilities to treat COVID patients or any other patients for that matter. In a letter last month, we requested the government to release prisoners who have been jailed for minor offences and also initiate a review process for other prisoners. We also requested the government to release the elderly prisoners who are physically weak and unable to fight disease,” Mr. Perera said.
Is it a replay of Welikada?
The failure to bring those responsible for the killing of 27 inmates in the Welikada prison during a riot some time ago and its aftermath on November 9 and 10 of 2012 was a frequent topic on political platforms. Despite having strong evidence and testimonials from a number of witnesses to the shooting incident, no formal inquiry was held during the tenure of the then government. This is currently the government in power.
However, rights groups said they suspect the deaths of inmates at Mahara Prison to be a replay of what happened in Welikada in 2012 under the same government. “Those who died in Welikada and Mahara might have been on the wrong side of the track, when the prison riots occurred and when they committed punishable offenses. But, they too have a right to life,” President of the Committee for Protecting the Rights of Prisoners, Attorney at law Senaka Perera said.
Prison COVID cluster exceeds 1,000
The Prisons Department said several days ago, the prison coronavirus cluster had crossed the 1,000 mark. The coronavirus prison cluster consists of infected inmates from the Welikada, Bogambara, Boossa, Kuruwita, and Mahara prisons. Meanwhile, the government is struggling to set up separate facilities for prisoners, who need be treated separately from the normal patients because of security reasons. According to the Ministry of Prison Reforms and Prisoner Rehabilitation, several hospitals have been made available to provide treatment for COVID-19 infected prisoners, from prisons across the country and these hospitals are located in Gallella – Polonnaruwa, the Kandakadu Treatment Centre,
Rights groups raise concern
A large number of documents containing inmates’ registration numbers and photographs have been destroyed during the unrest.
The international human rights group, Amnesty International asked Sri Lanka to conduct an impartial investigation into the prison unrest and the use of live ammunition by guards resulting in the death of eleven inmates and injuries to 107 others. Amnesty International said authorities should examine the underlying causes of the unrest at the Mahara prison which began on Sunday evening and continued
David Griffiths, Director of the Office of the Secretary General at Amnesty International, said: “In the immediate term, there must be a thorough and impartial investigation into this incident and the use of lethal force – including firing live ammunition – by prison authorities. The investigation must also address the underlying causes. Sunday’s incident reflects the anxiety among prisoners about the threat of COVID-19 within severely overcrowded prisons and the inadequate measures in place to protect them. There are already a swelling number of inmates across the country who have tested positive for COVID-19.
“The Sri Lankan authorities must implement their commitments to release hundreds of detainees to ease overcrowding and improve prison conditions. A failure to do so could see more infections, more prisoner unrest, and a greater likelihood of further violence.”
"On November 23, an 82-year-old inmate of the Mahara prison died from Covid-19. Other inmates are scared about their lives which is totally understandable."
Amnesty International (AI) is urging the Sri Lankan authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners detained solely for the peaceful exercise of their human rights and to decongest prisons to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading, consider all alternatives to custody, such as parole or early release, especially of detainees who do not pose a significant threat to the public. The authorities should ensure that all prisoners enjoy the same standards of health care that are available in the community, including testing, prevention and treatment for COVID-19.
It said the authorities must also provide inmates with opportunities to communicate with their families since visits are restricted due to the pandemic, and provide opportunities for independent observers to monitor
“The incident at Mahara Prison Complex is the third time this year that lethal force has been used against prison inmates in Sri Lanka since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the country. In March, two prisoners were killed and several others injured in Anuradhapura prison in North Central Province, following a protest related to COVID-19. On 18 November, a prisoner was shot dead while trying to escape from Bogambara Prison in Central Province, where more than 100 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19.” AI said.
The rights group emphasized that Prison authorities must ensure an end to the use of unlawful and excessive force against prisoners agitating against their detention conditions during the outbreak of COVID-19 within prisons and ensure that force is only used against prisoners where it is strictly necessary and proportionate to a legitimate objective.
A committee appointed
Justice Minister Ali Sabry appointed a five-member committee on Monday (Nov 30) to investigate the violent riots that erupted at the Mahara prison on Sunday evening. According to a statement from the ministry, the committee is chaired by retired High Court Judge Sarojini Kusala Weerawardena and includes Chief Legal Advisor to the Ministry of Justice U R De Silva, Justice Ministry Additional Secretary Rohana Hapugaswatte, Police Media Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana and former Prisons Commissioner Gamini Jayasinghe. The committee is expected to submit an interim report within one week and another in a month with recommendations for short and long-term action, the ministry said.
DIG Ajith Rohana who has also been named as a member of this committee however, has sought his release, citing a conflict of interest, as DIG Rohana also functions as Police Spokesperson. In a letter written to Justice Minister Ali Sabry, DIG has requested that he be replaced for reasons of conflict of interest.
Earlier, Defence Secretary Rtd. Maj. Gen Kamal Gunaratne directed the Inspector General of Police (IGP) who in turn instructed the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to carry out a separate investigation into the incident. As such, a 12-member team of CID personnel have been dispatched to investigate the case.