Welikada Prison Massacre: The long wait for justice

Committee Report finds evidence of foul play and attempts to cover up  

With the residence of the sister of Sudesh Nandimal De Silva, a former inmate of Welikada Prison and a key eyewitness of the 2012 prison massacre which left 27 inmates dead, coming under attack while he was held there, eye brows are being raised as to why no concrete action has been taken yet, despite a lapse of five years, to reveal what actually transpired on those fateful days of November 09 and 10 of 2012 and bring perpetrators, were they in uniform, civvies or jumpsuit before the law. 

The intimidation of eye witnesses continue unchecked despite the Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crimes and Witnesses Act, recently enacted, being in force and a government claiming to be transparency and rule of law oriented in power.

Very few might have had any confidence in the commissions appointed by the previous regime to inquire into the matter. Yet the three member committee appointed by the Yahapalanaya Government, headed by retired High Court Justice Nambuwasamge, had handed over the report to the Prime Minister in June 2015. 

Although some of the recommendations have been made public it is believed that some highly sensitive conclusions in the report remains unexposed and the file has been lying idle in the desk of the Former Justice Minister. There were allegations that Ministry Officials were deliberately obstructing the contents being revealed and further action being taken in terms of instituting criminal action against perpetrators as clearly recommended by the Report.

The dark legacy

Welikada Prison has a bloody, sinister and a murderous history as far as lives of inmates are concerned. During the 1983 Black July, 53 Tamil political detainees at the prison were murdered in cold blood, despite the presence of military units close at hand and no subsequent credible fact finding has taken place. 

In general, the committee report expresses concern over the manner how investigations are done with regard to deaths of inmates during the best of times; in extreme situations such as these, the fate of the prisoners and the value attributed to their lives is anybody’s guess.

The official claim that the 2012 November riot deaths were due to the armed resistance by inmates, when security personnel attempted to search the premises holds little water in face of testimonies given by inmates, prison guards and impartial individuals. 

Civil rights groups, as well as relatives of inmates killed, are accusing the authorities of carrying out summary executions of prisoners after subduing them. Everything smacks of premeditated, targeted and extra judicial killing of these inmates. Eye witnesses have stated that a process of singling and targeting out and shooting of individuals according to a list, which supposedly was from a very powerful official, took place with security personnel and guards involved; that they could be identified.

True, that prisons have a culture of illegal activities with the existence of contraband -such as drugs, weapons and phones -smuggled in to the wards sometimes abetted by jailers and this should be prevented. 

Yet there are procedures to be followed in such operations given the highly inflammable nature of the same. With a legacy of gross violations of prisoner and detainee rights, extra judicial punishments including executions, inhuman conditions of custody and lack of respect to those termed prisoners and inmates and in keeping with the atmosphere of impunity and unbridled executive power, authorities seemed to have taken for granted the fate of these unfortunate men.

There seems to be more sinister objectives in the whole operation than getting rid of some prisoners who could be threats or liabilities to the powers; the allegation that dozens of prisoners have been abducted for the purpose of using them for more illegal and evil acts is also not without substance. 
The disappearance of the registers kept at the prison, it is alleged, have been done by the highest authority. 

This throws out accountability on the part of the authorities with regard to the inmates and the plight that befell them. In short, the whole episode stinks with the almost certain possibility of an evil plot of high handed and blood thirsty power wielding.

Disturbing conclusions

The Nambuwasamge Committee Report recommends criminal proceedings being initiated against perpetrators, compensation awarded to relatives of the deceased and general recommendations with regard to prison conditions etc. 

Yet, it has taken more than two years for the IGP to order a fresh probe in to the incident; that also upon a Writ Application filed by a former inmate.

The CIPI reveals some disturbing and shocking aspects of the whole episode. It clearly acknowledges wrong doing on the part of the authorities including the military, prison guards and the Police; it notes that serious Human Rights violations have taken place in firing tear gas in to closed wards of the prisoners which amount to torture; that public servants have wilfully disobeyed the legal procedures in place for dealing with prisoners; that all limits have been transcended in terms of what is meant by minimum force by the Police in countering the inmates etc. 

It notes that overwhelming evidence has surfaced before it that foul play of the most criminal nature has taken place and a cover up is being attempted.

More disturbingly the committee report expresses concern over the fear psychosis that surrounds the witnesses including lower officers of the prison, who have expressed their apprehensions of reprisals. The recent attack on an inmate’s house puts beyond any doubt that there are elements who do not want the truth to come out on this heinous crime. 

It is also clear that the CID has failed to get hold of all the weapons issued to military and Police personnel to ascertain forensic and ballistic tests to determine the amount of ammunition used in the incident, a failure which is simply unimaginable.

Interestingly the commission, headed by former High Court Judge Gamini Nambuwasam recommends that excessive and unreasonable sentences handed down to inmates by law courts, after the incident, be reviewed as they seem disproportionate to the offences and does not seem to take cognizance of the extreme ground reality that existed at the time of their commission. This is a scathing remark on the credibility of the entire Criminal Justice System and gives rise to grave concerns about the Rule of Law being implemented.

Here and now

A lot has taken place under the guise of national security in this country with members of the security apparatus acting with impunity; an unbridled manifestation of the power of the executive has deterred even the judiciary acting in vindication of citizen rights as this case suggests. 

Worse still, sentences passed on the inmates after the riot, on flimsy evidence cuts a bleak picture of the judicial process, too, being compromised. 

Any fresh probe, if it ever come to pass will have to take account of all these wrongs and make them right.

At a time charges of war crimes and grave Human Rights violations being levelled at security personnel, incidents such as these, not investigated and adjudicated, gives credence to the grievance that justice is not done to the victims of acts done by members the security apparatus, suggesting a culture of impunity. As much as one wants to deny such charges, the inferences drawn from what is known, in places known and to people known, leads in one direction with regard to the unknown. The law abiding citizen credulously waits for the criminal justice system to kick in and mete out justice and remove those suspicions, now looming darker and more sinister by the day. 

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