( Some of the prisoners who were allegedly massacred at the Welikada Prison in Colombo)
By Ashanthi Warunasuriya.
The 2012 Welikada prison riot which left 27 dead and many more injured was a horrific incident of human rights violation that became the subject of intense discussion both locally and internationally. Today, it has once again come under the spotlight since the law has not yet been enforced against the culprits even though the truth behind the incident has already been uncovered.
Under the Yahapalanaya government, a committee was appointed to investigate the incident. The committee has already handed their report over to the government, but due to some unknown reason, it has not yet been made public. The issue became a hot topic once again after death threats were made against one Suresh Nandimal, an eye witnesses to the incident who is also a convenor of the Committee for Protecting the Rights of Prison Inmates. Nandimal is a main witness in the incident and insider sources revealed that several other personnel including prison officers had given evidence to the crime.
Recalling the unnerving experience he suffered recently, Nandimal said that four men had met him inside a shop in Moratuwa around 8.40 pm and told him to stop pursuing the matter any further. They had warned him that his life would be in danger if they were to go to jail. Members of the Army, Police and several jailors were involved in the prison incident. Pointing out that he could recognise the culprits if he saw them again, Suresh says that scare tactics will not stop his quest for justice. Alleging that all these had happened under Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s orders, Nandimal further requests the government not to use the incident for political leverage.
It is indeed unfortunate that a human rights activist was threatened by an unidentified gang within days of the UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s four day Sri Lankan visit. Meanwhile, the post-review of the entire incident is as follows.
The Welikada prison riot occurred on November 9, 2012 at Welikada Prison. The riot broke out during a search for illegal arms. The riot left 27 people dead and 40 injured. Welikada Prison which houses around 4,000 prisoners has witnessed a number of violent riots in its history. This prison riot was the worst in Sri Lanka’s history since the 1983 riot, also at Welikada Prison, which left 53 prisoners dead.
At around 1.30 pm local time on November 9, 2012, about 300 commandos from the Special Task Force (STF), a paramilitary unit of the Sri Lanka Police, arrived at Welikada Prison to assist prison guards in searching for illegal arms, drugs and mobile phones. The search was first carried out in the “L” section which was home to hardcore criminals.
Despite protests from prisoners, the STF completed their search, recovering drugs and mobile phones from the cells. At around 4 pm, the STF moved on to the “Chapel Ward” which was home to prisoners who served death sentence, life sentence and other long sentences. The STF commandos wanted to handcuff the prisoners, but they objected and arguments and fighting broke out between the STF commandos and the prisoners. Some prisoners alleged that they had been stripped and beaten up. The prisoners started throwing stones and other objects at the STF. As the disturbance grew, the STF tried to suppress the riot using teargas but at around 4.30 pm prisoners working in the “Bingo” section broke into the main area and joined the fight against the STF. The STF and prison officials had to retreat from the prison.
The prisoners allegedly took control of the prison and a siege ensued during which some officials were held hostage by the prisoners. Numerous prisoners appeared on the prison’s roof, some brandishing weapons. They started throwing stones at the STF who were now on the road outside the prison. They also threatened onlookers.
The prison was surrounded by the police and roads leading to the prison were closed at 5.45 pm. At around this time, the prisoners broke into the prison’s armories and took possession of arms including assault rifles. At around 6.15 pm, five prisoners broke out of the prison and tried to escape in a trishaw. They opened fire at the STF who returned fire killing four of the prisoners. Over the next half hour, there was heavy gun-fighting between the prisoners inside and the authorities outside. There was a power-cut in the area at 6.25 pm which added to the confusion. The authorities tried to storm the prison several times but had to withdraw after coming under fire from the prisoners. The army was called in, bringing with it an armoured car. The authorities had then planned to storm the prison at 8 pm but this had to be postponed because of heavy rains. Eventually, at 2 am, the STF stormed the prison and took full control of the prison.
Twenty seven people, all prisoners, had been killed and 40 injured (20 prisoners, 13 STF, four soldiers, one prison guard and two others). Eyewitnesses, human rights groups and opposition politicians have alleged that some of the dead prisoners had been executed. A number of prisoners also escaped but many had been recaptured.
The prisoners may have had inside help – it is alleged that some prison guards had been selling contraband items to the prisoners, and they weren’t happy that the STF had been brought in to assist with the searches.
The report of the three-member committee appointed to probe the Welikada Prison riots was released to the media on June 25, 2015. In the report, the committee recommended payment of compensation to the families of the deceased and those who were injured in the incident.
Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe appointed this committee with Retired High Court Judge Wimal Nambuwasamge as its chairman. It began investigations in early February 2015 and conducted its probe over a period of three months. The committee stated that during the investigation they recorded statements from over 100 people including jailors, inmates and relatives of those who were killed.
The report was handed over to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on June 9, 2015.
The Centre for Human Rights and Research (CHR) called on Minister Rajapakshe to inform the public as to what further action would be taken as per the report.
Writing to Minister Rajapakshe, Executive Director of CHR Ranjith Keerthi Tennakoon noted that there was sufficient evidence to prove that on November 9, 2012, a group of inmates had been targeted and killed in a premeditated manner.
Two committees have thus far been appointed including one by the current government to look into this matter, and of one of the reports that has been handed over to Minister Rajapakshe, only a portion has been made public while ultra sensitive information in the report are still being kept secret, languishing in a safe in the Ministry of Justice, Tennakoon told media last week.
“This is one of the gravest human rights abuses and violations of the recent past. The entire civilised society vehemently condemns the violations. The need for a credible investigation and inquiry into the events has been repeatedly highlighted both locally and internationally.
Our preliminary investigations have unearthed that Ministry officials have hindered further actions pertaining to the report’s findings and revelations. The Police investigations into the incident too have failed to make progress,” he observed.
Various other people have expressed their view on the incident over the past few years as well.
The following is the statement of one woman who took part in the recently held protest in front of Welikada prison demanding that authorities punish the killers. “My brother’s son was killed in this incident. He was 25 years old. He had been shot 16 times. His father was also killed. After ordering all these murders, Gotabhaya still roams free. Although Mahinda Rajapaksa visits temples, it is not going to cleanse of his sins. We urge the President and the Prime Minister to look into the committee report and bring justice. Only a leader with a strong backbone can do such a thing. The President has promised to solve the problems of the prisoners. “
Meanwhile, Chairman of the Collective Against the Killers of Welikada Prison Inmates, Attorney-At-Law Senaka Perera said, “It is problematic as to why no action has so far been taken even with the existence of eyewitness’ accounts. This undue delay is only going to aid the criminals. We are planning to obtain a writ order against the IGP, the AG, and the Minister of Law and Order for failing to act regarding the matter. The letters regarding the matter are already being drafted.” Attorney-At-Law Udul Premaratne who is a well-known human rights activist said, “Although the report has been handed over to Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, still no action has been taken. An important fact mentioned in the witness testimonies regarding the weapons used in the incident is that they had been procured by the prisoners after crashing into the prison armoury, and that they had to be killed as they had tried to shoot the army. But those guns were weapons that had been taken out from the outer armoury and had been issued to the police via a prison officer. The officials have already made a clear testimony along with the numbers and times of the weapons to the Commission. So the undue delay is a problem.”
“During our inquiries we were also able to discover some of the points that are mentioned in the committee report on the incident. Accordingly, among the committee recommendations are prison reforms, compensating the victims, minimising the congestion inside prisons and pressing for a criminal trial.
Despite arguing about the lapses of the committee, it could be worthwhile to act according to these recommendations. But the uninterested attitude of the officials regarding the matter gives rise to many questions. In an indirect way, it gives an impression as to the attempts of the former President and the Defence Secretary to conceal the matter or the attempt of the present government to keep this as leverage.”
All attempts made by The Sunday Leader to contact Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe to obtain his comments were unsuccessful.
This unfortunate incident in Welikada Prison that openly violated the accepted norms of human rights has added a black mark to the country’s reputation. By failing to take prompt action, the government is making things even worse. Further delay is only going to stain the good name of the Yahapalana government.