ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s Justice Minister Ali Sabry has condemned an incident involving the ex-Prisons Minister who has been accused of threatening detainees at the Anuradhapura prison, an allegation that Sabry said will be investigated by a retired high court judge.
“At the outset, let me unequivocally and unconditionally condemn the incident which has taken place,” the minister of justice told parliament when an opposition MP raised the issue on Wednesday (22).
“It should have never happened and it was a disgrace,” he said.
Prison Management State Minister Lohan Ratwatte has been accused of threatening minority Tamil political prisoners held under provisions in the Prevention of Terrorism Act, at gunpoint.
On September 15, Ratwatte tendered his resignation from the portfolio – one of two he holds – over the alleged incident. In his resignation letter, which was accepted by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Kandy district MP said he was resigning in order to not put the government in a difficult position due to media reports. He has repeatedly denied the allegations.
He told one newspaper that he was “not an idiot” to do such a thing, though he did admit to having visited the prison for an inspection tour.
He remains the State Minister of Gem and Jewellery.
The incident in Anuradhapura prison has drawn world attention to Sri Lanka at a time when the United Nations is once again scrutinising Sri Lanka’s past human rights conduct.
Ratwatte’s resignation came as pressure mounted on him after opposition political parties demanded his resignation and arrest over the incident.
Opposition MP Gajendiran Ponnambalam questioned the government in the parliament on any action against Ratwatte and the safety of the detainees who were subjected to human rights violation.
Ponnambalam, citing the detained Tamil prisoners who were involved in the incident, claimed Ratwatte had made 10 PTA prisoners kneel, forced the gun into the body of two detainees and had said he was given freedom to “shoot or free prisoners”.
“Let me also tender my apology to the victims and their families for whatever the difficulties they had to undergo,” Justice Minister Sabry responded to Ponnambalam.
“The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) has commenced investigation; the Human Rights Commission has independently commenced investigation.”
Sabry also said the justice ministry has already written to victims and witness protection authority to ensure the safety and security and dignity of these prisoners and the detainees.
“They are under the custody of the government and the government has the responsibility of their safety,” Sabry said.
The actions of Ratwatte, a strong and prominent member of ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), have brought negative publicity for the government. Analysts say the government’s popularity is already declining due to its handling of the pandemic and poor economic management.
Tamil parties have demanded the arrest of Ratwatte and said the incident resembles similar events that took place before the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) took arms for an independent state in the island nation’s north and east.
President Rajapaksa’s government has pledged ‘one country, one law’ to all and promised to ensure law and order for all Sri Lankans.
Since the end of the war in 2009 and after the annihilation of the LTTE, successive governments have promised to uphold human rights while speeding up the legal cases of those detained under the PTA.
Tamil legislators have demanded for an independent inquiry as well as the safety of the prisoners allegedly subjected to threats by the former minister.
“We also yesterday, at the cabinet, decided that we will appoint a retired high court judge to inquire into this independently and report to us and thereafter to take action,” said Sabry.
“If necessary, they will be transferred to a more secure location,” he added.
Co-cabinet spokesman Minister Dullas Alahapperuma told reporters on Wednesday that the said high court judge will chair a committee that will be appointed to probe the allegations.
“As people’s representatives, a government’s success depends on the people’s confidence in it. Ensuring this is our obligation as MPs. I trust the government will act do the right thing,” he said.
“The landmark decision by a high court judge in Moneragala last week was an exemplary decision. Such decisions are necessary for a health democracy to function,” he added, referring to a verdict that stripped a ruling party local government member of his position.
“The party and the government will each act on this separately,” said Alahapperuma, inviting the media to watch out for any biases.
The European Parliament has asked Sri Lanka to repeal the PTA, claiming it has been used against ethnic minorities. The Rajapaksa government has agreed to amend the PTA, but not to repeal it until it is replaced with another anti-terrorism law. (Colombo/Sep22/2021)