The Minister in charge of Prison Reforms, Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Hindu Religious Affairs, D.M. Swaminathan yesterday called for an urgent status report on the of 992 prisoners condemned to death and to the provisions regarding the accessibility of media to prisons.
Currently the 992 persons condemned to death are provided only an hour of sunlight each day, divided into the two halves a day. According to authorities, six inmates are housed in each cell, whereas it is designed to
house a single prisoner.
“We cannot be living in the 1940’s when these rules were devised. In this day and age we must adhere to international norms and standards when treating the prisoners. The condemned prisoners by custom or otherwise are facing harsh conditions, and I have called for a report on them immediately,” the Minister said. At a high level discussion held at the ministry yesterday, the Minister said that unless if provided specifically
for in the ordinance.
“ I want to know under what laws these conditions are imposed. If they are imposed by any other means, we will take necessary action to minimize such harsh conditions” he said.
The decision to call for the report was made at a meeting attended by the Commissioner General of Prisons H. M. N. Danasinghe and other top officials of the Prisons Department held at the
Ministry last afternoon.
The report specifying the reasons for the imposition of such conditions is to be submitted to the Minister by Wednesday by order of the Commissioner General of Prisons.
When queried by the Daily Mirror, the Commissioner General of Prisons said that although stipulation provides for the housing of condemned prisoners in Welikada and Bogambara, the prisoners are housed across the country due to lack of room. “In the 29 cells we have in Welikada and Bogambara, each cell houses around six inmates. The rest are being housed at different prisons across the country and face the same harsh conditions” an official told the Daily Mirror.
Among other conditions imposed on condemned prisoners are the prohibition to engage in work parties, and vocational training, which are provided to other convicts.
The last execution of a convicted prisoner in Sri Lanka was in 1976. However, those condemned to death thereafter continue to suffer the same harsh conditions imposed on prisoners condemned to death, despite the death penalty not being in operation. In a landmark decision in Pratt V AG of Jamaica, the then House of Lords held that holding a prisoner in ambiguity for such prolonged period amounted to inhumane and degrading treatment, and commuted the sentence of prisons.
The prison system is currently holding a total of 868 prisoners in 28 prisons across the island. Welikada which houses the largest number of female prisoners amounting to 311, is rife with massive issues of sanitary conditions and congestion. According to Prison officials, three inmates are housed in each cell which were built to accommodate a single prisoner. The conditions in which convicted females, who are mothers of children who are around five years are also considered below the basic standards set for prisoners.
However, Minister Swaminathan said the new prison complex planned to be built in Horana will be of international standards in accordance with the ‘Bangkok Rules’. The United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (‘The Bangkok Rules’) were adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2010. The rules comprise a list of comprehensive guidelines to legislators, policy makers and officials to adhere to, in the treatment of female prisoners.
No accessibility of media to prisons
Sri Lanka seems to be the only country in the world which does not provide access to media to visit prisons. The world renowned documentary series ‘banged up abroad’ among many others have visited and portray the conditions of imprisonment to the public in prisons including in countries such as Nepal, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Colombia, Kuwait, Pakistan and Australia among others.
When questioned regarding the blanket cover, the Prisons Commissioner pointed out that the Prisons Ordinance specifies that no such communication would be permitted in Lankan prisons and that such barring was an international norm. However, upon further clarification, the Daily Mirror could not find a single paragraph barring such access in the Ordinance. The Daily Mirror also pointed out that many world renowned documentaries are provided access to prisons and inmates. The documentary titled ‘Hot house’ shot in Israeli prison that houses Hamas prisoners and numerous other documentaries such as ‘solitary confinement’ in American, British and Indian prisons were cited as examples.
“If there is a blanket cover against access, it needs to be based in the law, and if it isn’t, we must make the system more open.” The minister asserted. The report is due within this week.
On November 9, 2012, the Welikada Prisons experienced one of the bloodiest riots to have taken place in recent history at Sri Lankan Prisons. 27 prisoners were eventually killed, who according to eyewitnesses and prisoners, were singled out and murdered. Reports said that the Special Task Force (STF) who stormed into the prison at around 10.00 pm, picked out inmates from a list they had and shot them at point blank range. A Commission appointed by the then Minister of Prisons, Chandrasiri Gajadheera submitted a report to the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa in January 2014. The report was never made public. Thereafter, following the assumption of duties, Justice Minister Wijeydasa Rajapakshe appointed a new Committee headed by Former High Court Judge Wimal Nambuwasam to probe into the riots. The report by the Committee was submitted by the Minister to the Prime Minister on June 9, which is yet to see the light of day.
Journalist and activist Kasun Pussawella said exposing of the massacre is paramount. “The report was hidden for two years by the previous government and even this government which came with the promise of Human Rights have shelved it. What are they trying to hide? Whom are they trying to protect? This was one of the most brutal massacres in modern prison history, for which there are hundred of eyewitnesses. Hitherto no one has been held responsible for this carnage” he said. When Minister Swaminathan was questioned, he said he was not aware of the contents of the report and directed us to the Justice Minister.
New Prison: a light at the end of the tunnel?
The Prisons Department is currently in the process of relocating prisons from central townships to rural areas. According to the Minister, the prisons will be relocated at eight different locations such as in the Galle, Matara, Badulla, Tangalle and Batticaloa Districts. The Welikada Prison is to be relocated in Horana while the remand prison that is functioning in Welikada, is set to be relocated to Hulftsdorfp. “All the prisons structures that are being designed currently would be built in consultation with the Red Cross and will be on par with international standards” the Minister said.
However, many of the planned relocations are at its infancy. “Currently some of the prisons are in the initial (design) stage and others in the planning stage. Two of the scheduled relocations are yet to get underway, as the land has to be reclaimed,” Prisons officials said.
Prisoners held under PTA
The Prisons currently house 44 prisoners convicted under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). A total of 109 prisoners who have not been convicted and whose trials are pending or in the process of being heard are housed within the prisons system of the country. “We have spoken to the Attorney General and approximately 50 prisoners have been released on the advice of the AG. Charge sheets are currently being prepared or the cases are being heard for the rest of the inmates” the Minister said.