Opposition calls for independent probe
* 61 among rioters COVID-19 positive
* Tense situation in Negombo Prison
By Saman Indrajith, Norman Palihawadana and Nishan S. Priyantha
Police Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana told The Island yesterday that the Police had identified a senior member of the Mahara Prison Hospital staff as the mastermind of Sunday’s prison riot.
Prisoners clashed with their guards, police anti-riot squads and the STF, on Sunday, for several hours and the clashes left eight inmates dead and more than 70 others injured. The injured were removed to the Ragama Teaching Hospital. Among them were two prison officers.
DIG Rohana said the Police believed the prison clashes were preplanned, and the prison record room had been set on fire. A new building under construction as part of the prison expansion project had also been destroyed by the rioters, DIG Rohana said.
The Mahara Prison had more than 2,700 inmates at the time of the clashes. Out of them, 183 had tested positive for COVID-19, he said. They had been removed to a special section of the Colombo Remand Prison, the Police Spokesman added.
Although the Police told the media that the situation had been brought under control in the prison, injured inmates being removed to hospital , shouted, through the windows of speeding ambulances, that inmates were still being beaten.
Our photographers stationed near the prison said they had sighted the same ambulance making several trips, within a matter of hours, between the Mahara Prison and the Ragama Teaching Hospital.
The COVID-19 patients among the prisoners were taken to treatment centres, while the family members and friends of inmates were waiting outside the prison, making inquiries from the police.
Four prisoners of the Negombo Prison, yesterday, staged a rooftop protest, demanding that cases against them be expedited and they be granted bail. The Negombo Police arrested the four men and another person who had assisted them.
Meanwhile, Prison Reforms and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation State Minister Dr Sudarshini Fernandopulle told Parliament yesterday that there had been an invisible hand behind Sunday’s prison riots.
Minister Dr. Fernandopulle said the incident had occurred when prison officers, attempted to foil an escape attempt following a clash between the remandees and the convicts in the Mahara Prison. She said some inmates had set prison properties on fire.
The Prison officers had been able to prevent the escape attempt by opening fire, but to quell the riots they had called in the police anti-riot squads and the STF.
“It was so unfortunate that eight inmates were killed and around 50 others injured; the injured prisoners are receiving treatment at the Colombo North Teaching hospital,” Minister Dr Fernandopulle said.
She said that there had been a wave of protests and incidents of unrest in prisons all over the country during recent months. “First the agitations started at the Boossa Prison. There were similar incidents at the Welikada, Kalutara, Weerawila, and the Negombo prisons. A group of prisoners tried to escape from the Bogambara Prison recently but the jailers were able to prevent them by opening fire.” One escapee had been killed and several others injured, she said.
The Minister said that the government was convinced that there had been an invisible hand behind the Mahara Prison incident. She said so in response to a statement made by Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, who said that the Opposition was not happy with the incidents being investigated by a committee, headed by the Secretary to the Ministry of Prison Reforms and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation. “We do not think that the truth could be got at through such an investigation. We need an impartial investigation,” the Opposition Leader said.
Minister Fernandopulle: We, too, need to know the truth and how exactly this happened. We have decided to call in the CID to conduct investigations. There will be some other probes as well.
Opposition Leader: There was a COVID-19 cluster consisting of 183 infections in the Mahara Prison. How could such a cluster come up so suddenly there? What actions have you taken to prevent the spread of the virus in prisons?
The State Minister said that there were 1,099 COVID-19 infected inmates in prisons all over the country as of yesterday. “We have temporarily banned visitors. Court proceedings take place via Skype. Following recent anti-narcotic raids the number of inmates has increased. In prisons which can accommodate only 11,000 there are now 32,000 at present,” she said, adding that suspected COVID-19 cases were placed under quarantine for 14 days at the Bogambara Prison, in Kandy and Pallansena, Galella, and Kandakadu quarantine centres.
Measures had been taken to release on bail remand prisoners, a majority of whom were drug addicts arrested with less than two grams of narcotics each, and nearly 600 prisoners convicted of minor offences had been granted a presidential pardon, Dr. Fernandopulle said.
Chief Opposition Whip Kandy District MP Lakshman Kiriella said that he had asked the government a month back not to hold COVID-19 infected inmates in the Bogambara Prison, but it had not listened to him.
Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena: You have raised that matter several times in the House. This cannot be allowed.
Kandy District SJB MP Velu Kumar: The Kandy town is in danger because the government has transferred inmates infected with COVID-19 to the Bogambara Prison.