Welikada Prison’s women inmates air grievances from rooftop | Sunday Observer

Welikada Prison’s women inmates air grievances from rooftop

As Sri Lanka has signed the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, the Committee for Protecting the Rights of Prisoners (CPRP) adds, the UN has the ability to intervene if ‘Nelson Mandela Rules are being violated’. The Nelson Mandela Rules looks into key areas including respect for prisoners’ inherent dignity, medical and health services and access to legal representation.

Clad in coloured clothing and some even covering their heads with a piece of cloth to fight the scorching sun, ten women inmates at the Welikada Prison climbed on top of a roof on Monday (13) morning. They were later joined by 15 others who called out to the Minister of Justice and Prison Reforms Thalatha Athukorala, prison officials and passers-by to have sympathy and look into their grievances.

“Our children are suffering at home. Please grant us bail,” they lamented. “Why are we treated this way?” they asked.

One of the key demands they were voicing was to expedite their trials, and possibly grant them bail.

Most of these protesters were in remand for drug-related offences, prison officials said. They added that the delay in the inmates’ trials was due to the dawdling of scientific reports related to the cases.

Chairman of Committee for Protecting the Rights of Prisoners (CPRP) Senaka Perera complained that inactiveness on the part of the Attorney General has resulted in this situation.

“The Attorney General needs to give instructions to handle drug related cases. Also, a report by the Government Analyst’s Department is required to determine the weight of the drugs the accused possessed,” Perera said.

If the accused possessed two or over two grams of drugs such as heroin, she will be given a death sentence. In the case of the women detainees the reports were not forthcoming delaying the trials, in some cases, by years.

Perera said that the female inmates had no other resolution but to climb on top of the roof and voice out their concerns.

Speaking to Sunday Observer Minister Athukorala said the women inmates did not raise these complaints when she visited them on June 22nd. “The women said they wanted the Government Analyst’s reports, and we promised to get them,” she said adding that they needed a list of prison inmates whose reports were pending.

“Then suddenly for no reason these inmates climed up the roof!,” she said.

Minister Athukorala said that she believes the protest was launched by women who were disheartened by the transfer of a Grade Two woman jailor. “They wanted to get her back. We are not in a position to simply cancel a transfer of a prison official. There is a way things are done in this institution,” she explained.

In addition, the Minister said they are in the process of getting, not just the female inmates’ but also of male prisoners’ reports to expedite their trials.

Meanwhile, Minister of Public Administration and Management Ranjith Madduma Bandara has stated that groups connected to organised crimes and drug trafficking were behind Monday’s protest.

The protest was called off on Tuesday night after a few inmates met Justice and Prison Reforms Ministry officials. The female inmates were promised an immediate solution to their issues.

On Thursday (16) Minister Athukorala announced that a Prison Police Unit will be established within the prisons’ system.

Members of the CPRP claimed that they had no faith in the Minister’s promise to resolve the issues of prison inmates. In 2015, the Committee submitted an epistle detailing issues faced by prisoners to President Maithripala Sirisena. They urged him to have a more humane mechanism when handling prisoners.

“The President failed to address the matter. These prisoners do not get quality food or medicine. They are even made to stay in unhygienic confinements with little or no ventilation,” Perera of CPRP said.

This week the Committee handed over a letter to the United Nations’ office in Colombo seeking their urgent intervention to resolve issues faced by prisoners. The letter stated the CPRP does not approve prison detainees being subjected to various ill-treatment, despite the prevalent issues, owing to the alleged heroin related racket within the prison. ‘If there are illegal acts taking place within the prison, the Government should intervene in this regard in accordance with the existing law,’ it read.

As Sri Lanka has signed the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, CPRP adds, the UN has the ability to intervene if ‘Nelson Mandela Rules are being violated’. The Nelson Mandela Rules looks into key areas including respect for prisoners’ inherent dignity, medical and health services and access to legal representation.

However, Sri Lanka’s prisons that holds over 20,000 detainees live in poor conditions. “We did not have enough room to sleep and inmates took turns to lie down,” Secretary of CPRP and a former prisoner Sudesh Nandimal revealed. He said that they could not use toilets as they were clogged most times, nor did they get enough water to clean.

Nandimal said jailors would hit or inflict pain on detainees for no plausible reason. “I was slapped. I could not retort because I was powerless.”

The case of the female inmates is no different. The Welikada Prison houses nearly 400 female inmates. A former female detainee said, groups of 10-15 women sleep on the floor. The women did not have space either to stretch or turn. She said the food they were given was of poor quality but they eat to survive. “We were given access to water for a period of one hour at a time and all 400 women had to bathe at the same time,” she claimed.

Situations in prisons were not unnoticed by the international community. UN Special Rapporteur Mónica Pinto and Juan E. Méndez following the end of the official visit to Sri Lanka in May 2016 raised concerns about the prison conditions.

“Suspects are subjected to lengthy remand periods with many being detained for years, some even up to 15 years before trial. I urge Sri Lanka to make use of bail and alternatives to incarceration, especially for non-violent offences,” Méndez said. He added that he was ‘deeply concerned’ regarding the ‘more than deplorable prison conditions, including deficient infrastructure and severe overcrowding’. He added that these conditions were a ‘form of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment’.

Ironically, the prison wall in Welikada depicts the saying ‘Prisoners are human beings’.

CPRP is gearing up to launch a much larger protest to ensure that prisoners are treated humanely inside prisons and their rights are protected.

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