By Chandani Kirinde
Opposition lawmakers yesterday raised questions in Parliament about the Mahara Prison shooting that left 11 dead and scores of prisoners injured as a committee headed by a retired High Court Judge began an inquiry into the incident by visiting the prison.
Justice Minister Ali Sabry said that the five-member committee headed by retired Judge Sarojini Kusala Weerawardena was to visit the prison as part of the inquiry. Its other members include U.R. De Silva PC, who is an Adviser to the Justice Ministry, Justice Ministry Additional Secretary Rohana Hapugaswatta, retired DIG D.R.L. Ranaweera and retired Prisons Commissioner Gamini Jayasinghe.
The Committee began its work admits growing concern about what led to the unrest which resulted in the shooting.
Opposition MPs asked the Government to clarify why over 100 prisoners were transferred from the Welikada Prison to Mahara amidst the spread of the coronavirus and why video footage that was released to the media did not include scenes of the shooting.
Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa said that over 100 prisoners from Welikada had been transferred to the Mahara Prison after an outbreak of COVID-19 at Welikada, which resulted in the unrest.
“In violation of COVID -19 guidelines, 120 prisoners were transferred from Welikada to Mahara. The transfers were done at the behest of the medial officer in charge of prisoners at Welikada who is a member of Viyath Maga. What the prisoners at Mahara demanded was that they be subject to PCR tests, but this was refused and it led to the unrest,” Premadasa said.
National People’s Power (NPP) MP Vijitha Herath said that authorities had released video footage showing two groups of prisoners clashing but the footage of the shooting was missing.
“A Prison official at Mahara said they have no CCTV facility. If that is the case who made the video of the prisoners fighting and why is the video of the shooting missing?” he asked.
Herath also said that the authorities had so far failed to inform the relatives of the deceased and injured of the fate of their loved ones and they were languishing outside the prison for three days waiting for answers.
Justice Minister Sabry said that answers to all the queries would be given once the committee submitted its report. “A final report will be submitted within a month, but I have asked for an interim report within a week if possible,” he said.
The Minister added that there were a total of 2,891 prisoners at Mahara of whom 2,059 were remand prisoners, while islandwide the prison population was 28,541 of which 20,723 were in remand custody. Of this around 52% of the inmates are drug addicts.
“We have taken several measures to reduce the prison population and take a more holistic approach to dealing with drug addicts. The long-term program is to send them for rehabilitation instead of prison,” he said.