Sri Lanka

Protect prison massacre witnesses

Sep 9, 2017
No efforts should be spared in apprehending those responsible for firing shots at the residence of Railway employee Sudesh Nandimal Silva, a vital witness in the November 2012 prison massacre. The shots were clearly aimed at instilling fear in the witness who was an inmate at the Welikada prison when armed police, while putting down a prison riot, is alleged to have executed 27 inmates. It was one of the blackest episodes in the country's penal history that can only be compared to the prison massacre during Black July, where over 50 LTTE detainees were butchered to death by fellow inmates, ably assisted by prison officials. If such prison massacres of the magnitude witnessed in both instances occurred in India, the Justice Ministers would have resigned pronto. However, neither the Justice Minister in 1983 or the minister in 2012 did anything of the kind and continued merrily as if nothing occurred.
Since the shots were fired close to midnight, when the witness was asleep, it was not meant to kill but warn the latter to keep mum. There had also been attempts to abduct him on three occasions after he accused the previous regime of the massacre. He says, attempts were being made to shield the culprits by this government, since no action was taken to inquire into any of these incidents. His claim cannot be dismissed lightly in the backdrop of other accusations too made by the supporters of the Yahapalanaya government, no less, of attempts being made to protect important figures of the last regime accused of murder and corruption.
The Welikada prison massacre had many features that led to the inescapable conclusion of a planned operation to silence certain inmates who knew too much, for the liking of certain VIPs. In the heat of the massacre, a senior police officer, close to the leaders of the government, lost no time in reading out from a list of the prisoners who perished, which included notorious criminals and drug dealers, as per the account of the police officer, to create the impression that this was good riddance. The chapter was closed thereafter, with little or no action taken to get to the bottom of matter, like all other investigations into incidents of a suspicious nature, such as the Thajudeen murder. Like the Black July massacre, no one was held accountable and investigations commenced in earnest only after advent of the new government. A report on the matter was compiled by former Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe wherein compensation was recommended to the next of kin of those killed. Nothing much has been heard of since, and it looks as if this is going to be yet another unsolved crime, unless concrete steps are taken to identify those who gave orders to open fire at the prisoners.
Be that as it may, our prison system needs a complete overhaul. Prison overcrowding is still a phenomenon that the authorities are grappling with, although it has to be said that Minister Swaminathan has endevoured to improve things and make prisons less inhospitable than they are. Proper rehabilitation of prisoners too should be given the utmost priority to ensure that inmates, once they leave the four walls of the prisons, will be productive citizens and shorn off the stigma that was once attached to them. Steps should also be taken to have frequent family reunions for prisoners, especially those serving sentences for minor offenses. In some of the advanced countries the term ‘prison’ has already been discarded and instead establishments where small time offenders are held named as ‘correction centres'. These are mostly open air expanses where the inmates have more freedom of movement and opportunities to intermingle with others and not feel the full impact of being a prisoner. Such a setup will be welcome here as well.
However, the authorities should also have special monitoring in the case of serious offenders, especially given the recent revelations of the subterranean life in the prisons. It is no secret that, for some, prisons have become a home away from home, even masterminding drug running operations and contract murders from within the four walls of the prisons. Even in the recent prison bus massacre in Kalutara, instructions had been received from a gang leader behind bars. There was also an instance where an inmate was allowed to leave the prison to attend the birthday party of his child. Needless to say, collusion by corrupt officials is today rampant in our prisons, with most prisoners allowed to have an ‘open line’ with their outside contacts, family members and monitor their drug distribution networks. Drugs and sleaze within prison walls are all too common today with officials looking the other way. Prisoners who are first time offenders are invariably drawn to the vice, rampant in our prisons, become hardened by the experience and add to the world of crime, once they leave the prisons. All these factors should be taken into consideration when effecting the proposed reforms to our prisons system.
Daily News, September 9, 2017

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