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Sunday July 14th, 2024

Sri Lanka’s overcrowded jails tense over COVID 19

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s overcrowded prisons are constantly simmering with tensions, and the threat of COVID19 entering them has raised anxiety to a new level and placed jailors and inmates on edge.

Already the current situation has resulted in two deaths at the Anuradhapura jail when jail guards opened fire to quell a riot that grew out of a protest by inmates on March 21. At least six other inmates were injured in the shooting.

The incident at Anuradhapura began because of the restrictions the jail placed on visits to the inmates by close relatives as a measure to control the spread of COVID19. The primary complaint when such restrictions are placed is about food, says President of the Committee to Protect the Rights of Prisoners (CPRP) Senaka Perera.

It is often alleged that due to corruption in the Prisons the quantity of food the Department provides inmates is grossly insufficient and it requires food from home to keep the inmates adequately fed.

Perera, who is an attorney, told EconomyNext the “situation was made worse because there were rumours that an inmate infected with COVID19 has been transferred to the jail.”

Senior Prison staff were quoted in the media that a number of regular guards had not reported to work that day following the rumours.

Finally, to quell the riot and restore order the Police Special Task Force had to be called in. Police said that the deaths and injuries to the inmates had been caused due to firing by Prison Guards.

On March 16 CPRP submitted a paper to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa calling for the release of certain groups of prisoners to ease the overcrowding.

They included those who could not pay a small fine, those who could not afford to post bail or meet other bail conditions and others who were ill or over 72.

At present the premier jail, Welikada houses over 5,000 inmates in a space built during colonial times to accommodate 850. In Kegalle, another hot spot, there are 800 in a facility meant for 300.

“It is impossible to keep the distance required for personal space as recommended by the Health Authorities to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in our jails,” Perera pointed out. “If someone who is infected is detained, then the overcrowding and the unsanitary conditions could cause it to spread quickly,” he said.

On March 24 President Gotabaya Rajapaksa discussed the issue with a new committee appointed to take “relief measures for the prisons,” his Media Spokesman Mohan Samaranayake said.

The committee was specifically asked to ease congestion in Prisons.

The committee that includes Prison Department Chief Jayasiri Tennakoon and the President of the Bar Association Kalinga Indatissa was to have met yesterday with the President.

Across the world, dozens of prisoners have died in overcrowded prisons ranging from Columbia to Italy to India as the COVID19 threat made prisoners restive.

In Italy at least 50 jails have seen riots connected to the coronavirus threat mostly over the extraordinary restrictions imposed on visitors. Thirteen inmates have died in these incidents.

In Colombia, more than 23 inmates were killed and dozens of guards injured in a riot in the capital Bogota’s prison, officials said. The government triggered provisions which would allow for the release of prisoners over 60.

Sri Lanka’s incidents where inmates have been killed in Sri Lanka’s prisons have been reported in the past. Among the worst of the incidents was the murder of Tamil prisoners in 1983 at Welikada, at Bindunuwewa in 2000, Vavuniya in 2012 and the most recent massacre again at Welikada in 2012.

Writing in Groundviews Human Rights activist Ruki Fernando urged the authorities to take action to prevent such incidents.

He said that society should acknowledge that “prisoners are amongst the most vulnerable, have limited contacts with anxious families and the outside world and have less access to reliable information. They may panic and take desperate measures to protect and remove themselves from real or perceived harm from COVID-19 and may even resort to irrational, illegal or violent behaviour. Anxious and overworked prison staff and authorities may be hard-pressed to control such behaviour” Fernando said. (Colombo, March 27, 2020)

 

 

 

 

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UNESCO DG to discuss archaeological endeavours in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka: President

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s president has said that he will discuss initiatives for long-term archaeological endeavours in the Anuradhapura city with visiting UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay.

Azoulay will visit Sri Lanka from July 16-19 and take part at the celebration of the 75th Anniversary of Sri Lanka’s membership of UNESCO at the Nelum Pokuna Theatre in Colombo.

She will also travel to UNESCO World Heritage Sites around the island, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

“I have invited the Director General of UNESCO to visit Sri Lanka and discuss initiatives for long-term archaeological endeavours in the Anuradhapura city. Several universities overseas have shown interest in supporting us for these activities, and we are moving forward with their collaboration,” Ranil Wickremesinghe said.

“Anuradhapura boasts a rich history spanning over a millennium, once renowned as a hub of trade and economics. Preserving and exploring this ancient city’s archaeological treasures remains a significant endeavour.”

“New archaeological efforts in the Anuradhapura district are now imperative,” Wickremesinghe said during a ceremony to inaugurate a 150-kilowatt solar power system installed by the LTL Group at the Sri Maha Bodhiya premises in Anuradhapura on Saturday (13).

Wickremesinghe pointed out that UNESCO has undertaken extensive archaeological projects in Angkor Thom in Cambodia, and Luang Prabang in Laos.

“However, we have not taken the necessary steps to implement these activities in Anuradhapura city. Therefore, I have advised both the Department of Archaeology and the Cultural Triangle to undertake these initiatives.”

These efforts are part of a comprehensive program aimed at establishing Anuradhapura as a globally renowned city, Wickremesinghe said.

While Sigiriya has gained international fame, Sri Lanka has not adequately highlighted Anuradhapura’s historical significance as a major trade and economic center in the past, the president pointed out.

“Cities like Tanjore (Thanjavur), Madurai, and Sanchipuram are often discussed, yet Anuradhapura, the fourth city, has been overlooked. Therefore, it is crucial to develop Anuradhapura city.”

As part of these initiatives, preparations are underway to establish new hotels in Anuradhapura, which will contribute significantly to its development, Wickremesinghe said. (Colombo/Jul13/2024)

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Government committed to improving living conditions in Jaffna: Sri Lanka PM

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s prime minister, who is in Jaffna “to monitor the progress” and “get a little feedback” has said the government is committed to improving living conditions of the people in the northern peninsula.

“This government is dedicated to improving the living conditions of the Jaffna Peninsula,” Dinesh Gunawardena told a Jaffna District Coordinating Committee meeting on Friday, according to a statement by his media division.

“In order to increase the living conditions, we have embarked on an increase in most of the expenditure needed by the departments, and also special allocations for rural and urban development in the local government area.”

Nationalist Gunawardena met with Tamil politicians at the Jaffna Divisional Secretariat Office and participated in the distribution of rice and egg incubators for low income families.

“A special privilege to be with you all, in order to monitor the progress made by all of you, as well as to get a little feedback where we stand today in relation to the reports given.”

Gunawardena joins a string of leading political figures who have visited the north ahead of upcoming polls.

The government was, he said, “committed to improve the services and living conditions, therefore, to provide the necessary infrastructure for developments, which means much to your area.”

The prime minister said he appreciated the efforts of farmers because “farmers are all private sector, I would say. Let us not forget, farmers are all in the private sector, either in the ownership or in the tenancy. They are private contributors to the national development of the economy.”

The poverty numbers are “fairly managed” in the country. Gunawardena said, pointing out that poverty was a key problems in any economy. “Any country, you would agree with me, the richest country, in the United States even, food stamps have been given. So all economies the world are going through difficult situations in relation to the poor.

“We have to look after the poor especially in these remote villages of the Northern Province…”

Minister Douglas Devanada, MPs M A Sumanthiran, Angajan Ramanathan, C Vigneshwaran, Dharmalingam Siddharthan, and other officials participated in the meeting. (Colombo/Jul13/2024)

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Sri Lanka leader’s presidential campaign faces dilemma over coalition: sources

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s presidential election campaign is facing a dilemma over coalition due to rivalry parties with different political ideologies, sources said.

President Wickremesinghe is yet to announce his candidacy for the presidential poll which is expected to be declared by the island nation’s Election Commission after July 17.

However, his close allies and some ministers in the current coalition government have already started a campaign to promote him assuming that President Wickremesinghe will declare his candidacy.

Three sources who spoke to EconomyNext said legislators from the main opposition center-right Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) are ready to join, but they do not want to be in coalition with the ruling Sri Lanka Podujna Peramuna (SLPP).

“SJB members who want to join Wickremesinghe are bit nervous because people wanted to oust SLPP in 2022 for their past sins including corruption and wrong economic policies,” on source who is in a member in the core campaign strategy group told EconomyNext.

Another source said majority of nationalist party SLPP are with the president, but a few key SLPP leaders do not want to back Wickremesinghe because of his market-led economic policies.

“SLPP does not want to be seen as backing Wickremesinghe’s privatization moves. So a few leaders are worried to join the campaign and have different idea of fielding their own campaign,” the second source who is indirectly involved with facilitating meeting between Wickremesinghe and legislators said.

The SJB is leaned towards somewhat liberal economic policies and has ensured to treat all ethnic people equally, while SLPP has backed a state-controlled economy and has given priority for ethnic majority Sinhala Buddhists.

UNDECIDED VOTERS

There is no formal and transparent survey to assess the popularity of possible presidential candidates.

However, an informal survey shows Opposition and SJB leader Sajith Premadasa is leading followed by Marxists Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna leader Anura Kumara Dissanayaka.

The same survey has shown a gradual gain for Wickremesinghe in the last three months.

“He is confident of winning, but he has to win most of the undecided voters for that,” a third source, who is in the campaign planning team, said.

“Still things are very fluid. Majority of the people still don’t understand the benefits of economic recovery and the country getting out of the debt default under the current president. We will have a clear picture by end of next month.”

Wickremesinghe was elected as the president in July 2022 by the parliament after his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country in fear of his life amid mass protests and outside the presidential palace.

Wickremesinghe has implemented some tough economic reforms including raising taxes, imposing new taxes, freezing recruitments to state-owned companies, and privatizing loss making government-owned entities in line with commitments agreed with the IMF.

UNPOPULOUR REFORMS

Those reforms have made him unpopulour mainly among government employees and lower income groups.

He has raised the salaries of government employees from April this year while has introduced a new transfer payment called Aswesuma for lower income and vulnerable groups.

Sri Lanka faced an unprecedented economic crisis with a sovereign debt default in 2022. But it has recovered faster than expected under Wickremesinghe administration with difficult and unpopulour reforms.

People protested against the SLPP-led government in 2022 and ousted then leader Gotabaya Rajapaksa and all his relatives from the key ministerial positions for their alleged involvement in corruption and wrong economic policies.

The SLPP which had more than two-third majority in the parliament after 2020 general election, is worried about its perception and electoral performance after the economic crisis.

Analysts say Wickremesinghe has a greater chance to win if he join with SJB than SLPP because of the SLPP’s negative perception.

Sources, however, said they are in discussions with both SLPP and SJB legislators to agree on a common programme for Wickremesinghe’s presidency.

Presidential election is likely to be held either in October first week or second week, Election Commission officials say.

Wickremesinghe lost the parliamentary election in 2020, but entered the parliament in 2021 using the solo seat his party won through the national list.  (Colombo/July 13/2024)

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