Calls for Justice Intensify
By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan
The raging speculations that State Minister for Prison Reforms and Gem and Jewellery, Lohan Ratwatte, had visited the Welikada and Anuradhapura Prisons has been confirmed by the Prison Department, but what had happened inside the prisons and who had accompanied Ratwatte is so far not known.
Public Security Minister Rear Admiral (retired) Sarath Weerasekera said there were no Police complaints into the incident where it was alleged that the Minister had visited the Welikada Prison on 6 September, to show the gallows to his friends, and on 12 September, he had visited the Anuradhapura Prison and is alleged to have threatened the PTA prisoners there.
Official Media Spokesman of the Ministry of Prisons Management and Prisoners Rehabilitation Affairs and the Department of Prisons, Chandana Ekanayake, confirmed the State Minister had visited the two places, on both occasions in the evening, but beyond that point, the officials are probing the matter, thus he could not divulge further information as the matter is under investigation. Despite the news being leaked so far, no officials of the Prison Department or other stakeholders have commented on the incidents.
Despite the incident taking place at two highly secured locations, there is no news about the CCTV camera footages on his visit to the prisons. Although Ratwatte vehemently claimed innocence saying he has not threatened anyone, a serious probe on the matter is currently underway. He maintains that he has been one of the reasons that the prisons are maintained well. Besides the probe, Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa visited the Anuradhapura Prison on 16 September.
He said, “A fair investigation should be conducted and until then Ratwatte has stepped down from his portfolio. We take the responsibility and we don’t accept such behaviour.” He said the Prison Department is conducting the investigation hence, it is not a problem having Ratwatte holding the other State Ministerial portfolio. It was the Committee for Protecting Rights of Prisoner (CPRP) that lodged a complaint at the CID that eight PTA detainees at the Anuradhapura were threatened at gunpoint after making them kneel in front of the minister on 12 September.
This led to a Police inquiry into the alleged incident. However, there is no complaint against his visit to the Welikada Prisons allegedly with his friends. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka has also asked the AG and the relevant authorities to act, noting that Ratwatte’s recent alleged criminal conduct at the prisons involves gross impunity, which should be duly investigated and all liable parties should be prosecuted.
The incident of the State Minister visiting the Anuradhapura Prison and threatening the prisoners and visiting Welikada were serious accusations and are criminal offences. Right after his visit, several newspapers mentioned that a State Minister had visited the two prisons and created havoc.
But, last Tuesday (14) media exposed that it was State Minister Ratwatte and a massive protest on social media as well by civil societies and Tamil political parties began demanding his arrest. Immediately after this exposure on 15 September, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa called for Ratwatte to step down from his Prison Management portfolio.
Also, the President’s Media Unit tweeted that State Minister Ratwatte had resigned, taking responsibility for the incidents at the Welikada and Anuradhapura Prisons. President of CPRP attorneyat-law, Senaka Perera demanded Ratwatte’s arrest for possessing a firearm and also for threatening the prisoners who are in the custody of the judiciary, failing which the Committee will file a lawsuit against him.
The CPRP said the Minister had threatened those inmates who are under the judicial custody hence he has committed serious violations of human rights and the law of the land. Perera told Ceylon Today several of his known officials at the prisons, fear to divulge information pointing that they may be victimised.
“I fear for those prisoners and if they give evidence, they may also be victimised, we don’t know by whom.” Perera demanded the immediate arrest of Ratwatte for allegedly possessing a firearm. “A parliamentarian visiting prison cannot enter the premises as he wants, the Prison Act 38 and 39 states. The Act says that if such a person wants to visit they will have to state the reason for the visit in the available book have to write their recommendations and comments.
Also, there is a time to visit a prison which is between 5.30 am and 5.30 pm based on Act number 39 and that applies to a parliamentarian as well. However, Minister Ratwatte not only went inside but also threatened Tamil detainees wielding a firearm and made them kneel in front of him, which is contempt against the judiciary. Those are prisoners under the custody of the judiciary.
Hence threatening prisoners’ rights cannot be accepted, he added. He alleged that Ratwatte had approached an inmate named Sulakshan and placed the pistol to his head. So, under the Firearm Possession Act, he has committed a crime. He also cannot take a weapon inside the prisons.
In Anuradhapura, he has removed eight Tamil prisoners from their cells, including Sulakshan. That is a crime under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). “We hear he has stepped down from his Prisons Management portfolio but that’s not the punishment because he has committed crimes against those prisoners which should lead to an arrest and prison term. He is a suspect who had a firearm in his possession. If only he has been taken into custody it means that the justice system is functioning,” Perera said.
He added that stepping down and getting another portfolio is not the point here and people will not be relieved by over such actions. Those who broke the law of the land should be punished and it applies to everyone, he added. “He cannot enjoy the President’s immunity. He is just an ordinary person.” Following the Prime Minister’s demand to step down, State Minister Ratwatte tendered his resignation within hours and stepped down from his Prison Management portfolio.
In his letter of resignation to the President, Ratwatte first thanked the President for giving him the portfolio of Prison Management and for the faith and trust the President had in him to manage the prisons and rehabilitate the prisoners. He said so far under his purview, everything has been successfully handled and, due to the media reports circulating about him, that have caused inconvenience to the Government, he is volunteering to step down from 15 September 2021. He did not accept any wrongdoing but due to media reports he said he was resigning.
Following his actions at the two prisons, several civil society leaders, including Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, Tamil politicians and diplomats, called for the arrest of Minister Ratwatte.
United Nations Resident Coordinator Hanna Singer tweeted that ‘it is the duty of the State, as per the Mandela Rules, to protect the rights of prisoners. We work to strengthen capacities to uphold the rights of all those in custody and condemn any ill-treatment of prisoners in our work on prison reform and drug rehabilitation.
SJB leader Premadasa said “I vehemently condemn the disgraceful and illegal behaviour of a government minister at the Anuradhapura Prison Complex. This disgusting, unlawful act amply exemplifies the anarchical situation that exists in our country.” Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) Leader MP Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam also tweeted that a Minister can behave in this manner when UNHRC’s gaze is on Sri Lanka, only shows how unperturbed the State is with regards to the UNHRC. He said Tamil political prisoners are already traumatised by being held in detention under one of the most draconian pieces of legislation known to the world, the PTA.
TNA spokesperson MP M.A. Sumanthiran tweeted that stepping down from a portfolio is not enough and that Ratwatte must be arrested and a full-scale inquiry must be conducted and he and all those responsible must be prosecuted. Prisoners are wards of the state and their protection cannot be compromised in any way, he added. The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) said they were deeply disturbed by media reports of two incidents. He is reported to have travelled by helicopter to Anuradhapura.
Given the gravity of these incidents, the CPA demanded that the State Minister resign immediately, that the authorities launch a credible investigation into the incident, and that action be taken without fear or favour. CPA also notes that such incidents occur against the background of previous incidents of violence, including several prison riots that led to the deaths of inmates with no known domestic process of accountability. This is compounded by past incidents of violence linked to the State Minister, including his alleged involvement in the murder of ten Muslim youths in Udathalawinne in 2001, where he and several others were indicted for the murders but subsequently acquitted.
In such a context of impunity, there are genuine fears of evidence tampering and witness intimidation that will undermine an independent process meant to investigate and hold perpetrators accountable. These two incidents occurred whilst Sri Lanka’s human rights record is being discussed at the ongoing 48th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and this incident has also occurred days prior to the commencement of the United Nations General Assembly session where President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is tipped to participate, the CPA added.
In the meantime, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has started a Suo Motu investigation related to the incidents that have taken place in prisons where it is alleged that Ratwatte had entered and allegedly threatened the inmates.
Three Regional Coordinating Officers of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka visited Anuradhapura Prison on 15 September 2021 to investigate the incidents that took place on 12 September 2021. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka will summon all the responsible parties connected to these incidents as early as possible. Talking to Ceylon Today an official at the HRCSL said they will continue to probe on the events to unfold the truth.