Last week controversy prevailed over 16 women taken into custody by the police, from an Ayurvedic Centre from Bambalapitiya, on charges of prostitution, then stripped bare and searched at the Welikada Prison.
The arrested women allege the female Army officers in the Prison had insisted they remove their clothes to perform body searches on them, before they were allowed into the remand prison.
Lawyer Gunasekera Wanninayake, Counsel for the defence claimed the act of undressing women fully in search for contrabands is totally demeaning and undermines the women’s dignity.
The case was taken up last week at the Colombo Magistrate’s Court, the propriety of stripping a woman bare during search operations, the wisdom of using military personnel for the task were brought up.
Prisons officials however, argue that the practice has been in existence for over two years, ever since November 2012, when a major riot broke out at the Welikada Prison where 27 inmates were killed and scares were injured.
Prisons Commissioner, Intelligence and Security, Thushara Upuldeniya said the Prisons Department, since then, always has a small contingent of Army personnel helping the prison guards perform routine checks on inmates and search operations carried out inside the prisons. It is held that the body search on inmates for contrabands, take place on a daily basis in the Welikada, Magazine, Colombo Remand and Female Ward Prisons.
According to the Prisons Department, checking is being done on all inmates returning from Court hearings and on new prisoners who come into the remand prisons, daily. It is said that around 200 prisoners are being checked on a regular basis.
It is believed that the prisoners pre-plan to smuggle in mobile phones and drugs on the days their case is being heard and connive with their family members and friends to obtain them in Courts. Thereafter the prisoners adopt various ruses including hiding them in the rectum, to smuggle them into the cells.
It is ironic that although a report by prison authorities on the Welikada riots revealed that the very uprising occurred because officials of the Special Task Force (STF) and the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) were involved in the raid, the Prison Department continues to use Army officials in search operations. Former Prisons Commissioner P. W. Koddipili, in 2012 justifying the use of outside forces for search operations had said “We do not have sniffer dogs to search for heroin or sophisticated hi-tech machines to scan mobile phones and other items that may be hidden in the body. We check them only manually that is why we need help.”
Also he complained of short staffing and the prison officials being unable to manage a contingent of over 4,000 prisoners at the Welikada Prisons.
According to Koddipili there were 25 guards to manage the lot including several officers who have to take the prisoners to Courts. Around 200 prisoners are shuttled to and from Courts daily.
Immediately, following the raid, although the Ministry of Prisons talked abundantly about allocations of monies to purchase hi-tech equipment to counter such incidents from being repeated in the future, there has been no such purchases.
Two years hence, the public are presented with the same explanation of lack of staff and inevitability of the body searches done manually due to lack of hi-tech equipments.
On the brighter side, the current Prisons Chief says tender proceedings are going on for body scanners and metal detectors and the department will be calling for applications to boost up its cadre. Accordingly 1,100 personnel will be recruited to the department, he maintains.
According to him, insufficient funds would allow only Colombo Prisons to have the facility. “We do not have allocation of monies to equip all the prisons in the country with hi-tech equipment,” he says.
Having hi-tech instruments in prisons, means that the Prisons Department can perform the task of checking inmates without stripping them bare. Recruiting more personnel into its cadre will make it highly unnecessary to have Army backup forces during its sporadic search operations, inside cells.
The present system of body search is being carried out on both men and women.
Human Rights Activists Against all Types of Discrimination, Nimalka Fernando, said it was a blatant violation of women’s rights, in the country and queried the fact that only the women are taken into custody.
Police Media Spokesman, Ajith Rohana responding to this query said “Sri Lanka follows the British law and under the Vagrants Ordinance, it is the women and the owner of the brothel who are arrested. To prove the charges the women are important,” he explains.
Women’s Rights Groups are aghast at the law, and are calling for a change. They ask why the government which talks about ape rata and ape gama is still holding on to such antiquated laws that purely discriminates against women. They claim it is time the government considered changing these ancient laws.