Thursday, 24th July 2014

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Welikada riots – A black mark against prison system

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The riots at the Welikada prison that left 27 prisoners dead last week are a stinging indictment on the current state of law and order in Sri Lanka and should serve as a rude but timely wake up call for the authorities.
It is well-known that prisons in the country are among the most corrupt institutions in the land. For some time now, there have been reports that prisoners were masterminding criminal activities elsewhere in the nation through their proxies.

The raids that preceded the riots were ostensibly part of a strategy to counter this. Regardless of what was intended, the plan went horribly wrong at the cost of 27 lives, although some of them were notorious members of the underworld.
Television footage of the riots had a surreal, movie like quality. Even more chilling were the laments of the families of the victims. Some claimed that prisoners called their families after the riot was over to assure them of their safety. The next day, they were found dead.

Such complaints raise horrific questions. Is it possible that enraged personnel stormed the prison in the aftermath of the riot and summarily executed some inmates? Why were all the fatalities among prisoners? Such searching questions will require convincing answers.

Equally puzzling was how dozens of prisoners, some of them armed, gained access to the roof of the prison where they were seen brandishing their weapons for some length of time. That was embarrassing for the authorities but it also gave them time to respond sensibly.
That opportunity was either ignorantly missed or deliberately ignored and the response to this provocation was brute force and gunfire. Welikada has seen a few mutinies before this but most of them have been dealt with in a much more circumspect manner.

Force was undoubtedly required to quell the mutiny, but the degree of force used and the manner in which the incident unraveled indicates a singular lack of contingency planning. The result was the bloodbath that ensued that made a mockery of the original objective.
Since the riots, there have been calls to place the Department of Prisons under the Ministry of Defence. That would be a knee-jerk response to the issue and the problems confronting the prison system cannot be wished away by merely changing its chain of command.

Many reasons would have contributed to the riots. Among them, overcrowding in the prison system, drug trafficking, insider involvement and political influence are factors that will remain as obstacles to any reform process that is undertaken.

The government has responded to the incident by appointing a three member committee headed by retired High Court Judge Bandula Atapattu. It is hoped that the terms of reference of the committee are broad in scope and not confined to the incident itself.

It is also important that partisan politics be abandoned in any attempts that are made to reform the prison system. While the Opposition will undoubtedly - and justifiably - blame the government for this debacle, its criticisms must be constructive, not opportunistic.

The prisons system aside, the incident also provides a potent weapon for Eelam lobbyists in the Tamil Diaspora based in the West to reiterate their claim that Sri Lanka under its present government pays scant regard to human rights.
It is unfortunate that the riots erupted at a time when the country is bracing itself for yet another backlash from the international community in March next year, when its response to the March 2012 United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution would be reviewed.

Ironically, days after the riots, a leaked report from the United Nations (UN) hit the headlines, claiming that the UN failed to respond in a proper manner during the final days of the Eelam war three years ago.The report followed an internal UN inquiry into its own conduct during the war. It has no consequences for Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, it succeeded in focusing attention yet again on wild claims of “40,000 civilian deaths” during the height of the war.
It must be noted that the leaked UN report attracted worldwide attention; the prison riots did not. The global champions of human rights - the UN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other self-appointed good Samaritans - have not uttered a word about the riots.
Had the riot involved detainees of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the response may well have been different. This is a reminder of how the world media - dominated by western interests - operates and of the pitfalls that await Sri Lanka in the future.

The Welikada riots will undoubtedly leave a black mark in the annals of our prison system. The least that can be done now is to probe the incident properly, learn from its aftermath and institute the required changes efficiently to ensure that such a disaster is never repeated.

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