Five-member committee to probe Mahara prison riots; govt suspects “invisible hand”
ECONOMYNEXT – Justice Minister Ali Sabry appointed a five-member committee on Monday (Nov 30) to investigate the riots and violence that erupted at the Mahara prison 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 with recommendations for short and long-term actions within a month, the ministry said.
Earlier yesterday, Secretary to the Ministry of Defence Rtd Maj Gen Kamal Gunarathna instructed the Inspector General of Police (IGP) who in turn ordered the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to carry out a separate investigation into the incident.
A media release from the Ministry of Defence claimed that initially prison officials had gotten involved in “easing off the situation” Sunday evening.
“However, when it was noticed that the incident escalated to an intense riot, they summoned the Police and Special Task Force (STF) to the premises and strengthened the security of the outer perimeter of the prison,” the statement said.
The Ministry further said that the agitated inmates had set fire to the Prison Health Office and its storage areas – a fire that raged until last morning.
The Department of Prisons confirmed later yesterday that the fire was completely doused and that routine prison operations had resumed.
Police Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana meanwhile said that apart from the actions of the prison inmates, the carelessness of one prison official had led to escalated tensions. Rohana said the police hopes to take disciplinary and legal action against the prison officer in question.
According to the police, the incident took place around 5pm Sunday when certain inmates tried to escape from the prison through gate 1 and 2 of the facility. Prison officials had used the powers granted to them by Prison Ordinance in an effort to stop the inmates from escaping when one inmate had died.
Upon requests made by the Prison Department, 400 police officers and 200 STF personnel were deployed to the Mahara prison, “but they never got inside the facility,” said Rohana.
The prison archive, prison superintendents’ and assistant superintendents’ offices, food storage, cafeteria and some prison cells were completely destroyed in the chaos, he said, noting however that prison officials were able to secure the weapons storage.
Police said eight people died and 71 were wounded in the incident.
Meanwhile, Deputy Director of Ragama Hospital Dr Sarath Premasiri told reporters yesterday that 26 inmates out of the 71 inmates admitted to the Ragama hospital following the unrest have tested positive for COVID-19.
According to Premasiri, 48 rapid antigen tests were carried out on the inmates admitted to the hospital over injuries sustained during the confrontation. Ten are in critical condition, he said.
Family members of the inmates staged protests in front of the Mahara prison and Ragama hospital yesterday demanding to see the dead and the injured.
Secretary for the Committee for Protecting Rights of Prisons Suresh Nandimal Silva charged that when a group of prisoners met the prison officials on Sunday to ask why COVID-19 positive inmates had not been separated from the rest, the officers had attacked the group.
The inmates had then staged a protest on the prison roof, said Silva, to which the officials had responded by opening fire. Is this how the government intends to respond to everyone who opposes it, the activist asked, accusing the authorities of greeting prisoners who demand basic rights with bullets.
Meanwhile, state Minister of Prison Reforms & Prisoners’ Rehabilitation Dr Sudarshini Fernandopulle told parliament earlier yesterday that the government suspects an “invisible hand” was behind the riots.
A clash between remand prisoners and convicted prisoners had escalated to a full blown riot, Fernandopulle claimed, adding that it had occurred when prison officials were trying to prevent a number of inmates from escaping the facility by opening fire at them.
“Yesterday, some inmates tried to escape the Mahara prison, but prison officials were able to stop them by opening fire at them. Meanwhile the remand prisoners, a majority of whom had been remanded for drug cases, clashed with the prison inmates, causing massive damages to the prison properties,” the state minister said. (Colombo/Nov30/2020)