The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) in its interim recommendations on the incident at the Mahara Prison on 29 November said that the protests were sparked by the transfer of prisoners infected with the COVID-19 virus from Welikada Prison to Mahara and had the authorities responded to prison officials’ concerns over this proposed transfer and set up a separate treatment facility for prisoners, this clash and the subsequent deaths could have been completely avoided.
HRCSL officials who undertook the visit to the prison a day after the clashes also said in its interim report that all new admissions must be first subject to PCR testing before being included in the prisons, quarantine facilities be provided for new intakes, and a separate treatment facility be provided for all prisoners and remandees who are infected with the virus.
The HRCSL also recommended that all prisoners at Mahara be tested for COVID-19 while there should also be regular testing and treatment for officials.
HRCSL Commissioner in charge of Investigations and Inquiries Ramani Muttettuwegama who issued the interim report said that the Commission experienced many delays in entering the facility and speaking to officials.
“While some delays were understandable, some of it was unnecessary – HRCSL must have unfettered access to the authorities and the authorities must immediately inform the HRCSL when such incidents occur since the commission is mandated to ensure the welfare of people deprived of their liberty under S. 11(d) of the HCSL Act,” the report said.
HRCSL also called on the authorities to release details of the people who had died, the injured who had been transferred to Ragama Hospital and the prisoners who had been granted bail, and create a centralised register of remandees to avoid the current problem in Mahara, as well as maintain records of all vehicles transporting prisoners and remandees including their drivers and security details.
The HRC also referred to welfare facilities at the Mahara Prison and said that authorities and prisoners confirmed that on 29 November, prisoners were served their lunch at 4:30 p.m. and many difficulties were observed in maintaining food supplies to the prisoners during the day on 30 November.
The commission said that while it was informed that alternative steps were being taken to ensure food supply, electricity, and water supply, it was clear that there had been no contingency plans in this respect.
“Further, many inmates were without their regular medication for various illnesses, including heart disease, mental health issues, and diabetes. It is essential that these are reconnected and medical services be recommenced,” the Report said.
The HRC said that in addition to ongoing inquiries, an additional inquiry should be held to understand the root causes and consequences of this incident involving all stakeholders, which it said was essential to prevent more unrest.
It recommended that forensic examination of the premises and post-mortem inquiries be held to understand the cause of death of those who died and nature of injuries and an immediate inquiry on the events under judicial supervision including understanding the nature of the pressures on the prison system and the threats due to COVID-19.
The recommendations for immediate implementation includes reduction of prison population, expediting the release of remandees on bailable offences, hold emergency bail hearings for others, stop remanding those arrested in suspicion of bailable offences and commence the early release program.
The HRCSL also made several medium-term and long-term proposals.