Dec 03, Colombo: The National Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) says that there are three main reasons for the prisoner protest at Mahara Prison and the ensuing clashes.
"When we went there, there was no order, no 'system', no order on how things were going, who would make the decisions, there was no order," Human Rights Commission Commissioner Ramani Muttetuwegama told the BBC Sinhala Service.
The remand prisoners then selected 12 people to present their views to the Human Rights Commission.
"They all said with one voice that it was wrong to bring us here and that it was wrong not to bail us out."
According to Ramani Muttetuwegama, heavy congestion, the fear of the spread of Covid disease and the agitation against it were the causes of the conflict that killed 11 inmates at the Mahara
"Prison authorities were afraid to deal with this because of the corona problem," she said.
The Human Rights Commission has issued a preliminary report on the November 29 clashes following inquiries conducted into the incident November 30 and December 1.
One of the key recommendations of the report is that immediate action be taken to reduce congestion in prisons, including Mahara Prison.
Among other recommendations of the Human Rights Commission are:
-PCR screening of all new inmates with a focus on prisoner health and treatment,
-Provide separate treatment and facilities for all inmates infected with the virus to reduce fear among inmates,
-Provide accurate information to the families of all prisoners who have died, injured or been hospitalized,
-Facilitate continuous access to food, water, electricity, medicine and other benefits for prisoners.
"All things considered, overcrowding is the biggest problem. I have been to many places like that but I have never seen such congestion anywhere," said Muttetuwegama.
"The capacity of the Mahara remand prisoner is 1000, but there are 2500 in it. And this is the Covid period."
According to the commissioner, following requests from human rights commission and activists the government took measures to reduce the prison population by 30% by the end of April due to the Covid epidemic, but changed its mind again in September.
"Prison authorities said bluntly - no PCR to those who were there, no PCR to those who came in."
The Commissioner points out another serious incident that is said to have taken place during the conflict.
"Some detainees mentioned that inmates were shot at from the guard towers. We still do not know if that is true, so we are waiting for the post mortem report," Ramani Muttetuwegama said.
"If so, it's wrong to shoot people with live ammunition. It's not the minimal force."
Therefore, the Human Rights Commission has written to the authorities not to cremate the bodies of the detained prisoners until the post-mortem examination is completed, even though they are infected with the coronavirus.
"Why? Because those 11 bodies are the evidence."
According to media reports, the court has decided to look into a motion filed by the Prisoners' Rights Protection Committee against the attempt to cremate the bodies.
The Human Rights Commission points out that although many people have paid attention to the rights of detainees in this conflict, not much attention has been paid to the human rights of prison officials.
"This is also very important. The Superintendent of Prisons stated that he informed not to bring 120 detainees from Welikada."
''-‘Why don't you think about us, the lives of my officers are in danger. They also have corona now,’ the Superintendent of Prisons said’- Muttetuwegama quoting the Prison Superintendent said.
"A lot of prison officials are very angry ... they say, 'they won’t allow to test these people. They won't give these people bail.'"
The Commissioner further stated that some inmates of the Mahara Prison could have been easily released on bail.
Meanwhile, police have blocked a protest organized by the Prisoners' Rights Protection Committee in front of the Welikada Prison to protest the killing of prisoners.
A 'Twitter' message from senior journalist Sunanda Deshapriya states that the police have obtained a magistrate's order for that.
Senaka Perera, chairman of the Committee to Protect Prisoners' Rights, told the BBC Sinhala Service that he had called on the government since March 16 to take action to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in prisons, but had not received any positive response from the government.
The Committee emphasizes that it is the responsibility of the Government to ensure the safety of any person detained in prison or any other government institution.
Speaking further to the BBC Sinhala Service, Human Rights Commission Commissioner Ramani Muttettuwegama stressed the importance of taking action regarding the mental health of inmates as well as prison officials who are found to be severely traumatized by the conflict.
"Some referred to breathing difficulties, while others referred to injuries sustained during the conflict," the Human Rights Commission said in a preliminary report.
"Prisoners found it difficult to comment on the 'brothers' who died in the conflict. It is essential to provide them with psychosocial support to alleviate the long - term impact of this conflict," the report said.
The International Commission of Justice (ICJ), which issued a statement on the Mahara prison conflict, stressed the need for a full, independent inquiry into the incident.
The ICJ also called on the Sri Lankan government to take steps to release prisoners at risk of losing their lives due to Kovid-19 disease, as well as prisoners serving sentences for minor offenses.