The death toll from the recent prison riots in Sri Lanka, sparked by fears of a raging second wave of COVID-19, rose to 11 on Tuesday.
Over 100 prisoners were injured when guards opened fire to contain the unrest on Sunday, as inmates at the Mahara prison, near Colombo, demanded to be freed after at least 1,000 prison inmates in the country tested COVID-19 positive. Prison guards “used force in order to bring under control an unrest”, police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana had said.
Amid persisting calls from rights activists to address the problem of overcrowding in Sri Lanka’s prisons — they currently have about 30,000 inmates, nearly thrice their capacity — President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pardoned over 600 prisoners last weekend. Further, the government has promised to consider releasing thousands in remand custody on bail, in the wake of the deadly prison riot that for many evoked memories of the 2012 riots at Sri Lanka’s Welikada prison when police shot dead 27 inmates.
The Police Criminal Investigation Department is probing Sunday’s incident, while Justice Minister Ali Sabry on Monday appointed a five-member committee to investigate the violence and killings.
Issuing a statement, human rights watchdog Amnesty International has sought a thorough and impartial investigation into the incident that saw “use of lethal force”. Urging authorities to address the underlying causes, it said the incident “reflects the anxiety among prisoners about the threat of COVID-19 within severely overcrowded prisons and the inadequate measures in place to protect them.
There is already a swelling number of inmates across the country who have tested positive for COVID-19.
Although Sri Lanka had contained its first wave of COVID-19 that broke out March effectively, the second wave that began early October is witnessing a rapid rise in cases and fatalities. As of Tuesday evening, Sri Lanka’s Health Promotion Bureau reported 23, 987 cases and 118 deaths.