Sri Lanka’s prisons minister resigned on Wednesday, following allegations that he asked Tamil prisoners to kneel, threatening them at gunpoint.
A statement from the Presidential Media Division said: “Lohan Ratwatte, State Minister of Prison Management and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation has tendered his resignation, acknowledging his responsibility for the incidents”. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa accepted his resignation, it said.
Meanwhile, official sources told The Hindu that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, currently on a visit to Italy, telephoned the Minister accused of threatening prisoners, to immediately resign, pending investigation.
However, Mr. Ratwatte will continue holding his other post, of State Minister of Gem and Jewellery Related Industries, effectively continuing to serve as a government minister, Colombo-based The Morning newspaper reported.
The Minister’s resignation from the prisons portfolio followed wide condemnation from the political opposition, mainly Tamil political parties, that demanded his immediate resignation.
In a Twitter thread confirming the incident, Jaffna legislator and Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) Leader Gajen Ponnambalam said that on September 12, the State Minister for Prisons went to the prison in Anuradhapura, North Central Province, “summoned the Tamil political prisoners” and got two of them to “kneel” in front of him. The minister had them pointed his personal firearm at them and had threatened to kill them on the spot, the Tamil MP said.
Inmates at the Anuradhapura prison include dozens of Tamils, arrested under the country’s Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) that rights activists deem draconian and want repealed. In some cases, the suspects have spent over a decade in prison, without any evidence produced in court or indictments served.
The serious allegations of the Minister’s conduct at the prison, along with “drunk” friends according to local media reports, surfaced days after the UN Human Rights Chief raised concern over persisting attacks on human rights in Sri Lanka, at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. “That a minister can behave in this manner when UNHRC’s gaze is on Sri Lanka, only shows how unperturbed the state is with regards to the UNHRC,” Mr. Ponnambalam said.
Following Mr. Ratwatte’s resignation from the prisons portfolio, Jaffna parliamentarian and Tamil National Alliance spokesman M.A. Sumanthiran said in a tweet: “That’s not enough. He must be arrested, and a full-scale inquiry must be conducted and he and all responsible must be prosecuted. Prisoners are wards of the State, and their protection cannot be compromised in any way.”
Leader of Opposition Sajith Premadasa said he “vehemently condemns the disgraceful & illegal behaviour” of a government minister. “This disgusting, unlawful act amply exemplifies the anarchical situation that exists in our country,” he said in a tweet.
The incident also sparked immediate reaction from international bodies, including the UN. In a tweet, Resident Coordinator Hanaa Singer-Hamdy reminded the Sri Lankan government that: “It is the duty of the State, as per the #MandelaRules, to protect the rights of prisoners.”
Human Rights watchdog Amnesty International said: “These dumbfounding reports go to show that our ongoing concerns regarding Sri Lanka’s treatment of prisoners, especially the authorities’ torture and other inhumane and degrading treatment of PTA detainees are all too valid.”
In addition to his alleged involvement in the violent incident at the Anuradhapura prison, Mr. Ratwatte is also accused of entering the Welikada prison in capital Colombo last weekend.
Mr. Ratwatte, hailing from a politically influential family in the central Kandy district, has remained a controversial figure from the time he — along with his father and brother — was accused of involvement in the 2001 murder of10 Muslim youth during the general elections that year. The Ratwattes were acquitted in a controversial judgment in 2006 that sentenced five of their bodyguards to death.