By Malinda Seneviratne -
‘Prisoners are also human beings’ is the large-lettered legend that decorates the wall of the Welikada Prison. The Sri Lankan prison system recognizes the fact and has space for many programs that affirm it. Prisoners, especially those serving long sentences, learn new trades, prepare for and sit examinations, put together all manner of cultural events, participate in meditation programs and through these and other measures obtain meaning for their otherwise monotonous lives.
Of course, those entering prison find themselves in some half-way house to enlightenment, heaven or blissful state of being of course. A lot of seedy things happen in prison. Hardcore criminals are known to direct criminal activity from their cells. Some prison officers are said to work hand-in-glove with these criminals.
And yet, prisoners are human beings and when the term ‘Prisoners’ Rights’ is brought up, what is conjured is the notion that even while serving sentences there are non-negotiable privileges that they have the right to enjoy and therefore need to have access to. Forgotten in this is the most fundamental of all rights guaranteed to citizens who for whatever reason is made part of legal processes. Justice.
Justice is the most fundamental of prisoner-rights. Wrongful arrest is not new. Conviction on thin or false evidence is also not uncommon. All kinds of injustices are wrought by special laws, such as Emergency Regulations and the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The law is silent in times of war, they say. That’s hard to swallow for the law abiding citizen and the champion of democracy, but what is most unpalatable is the screw ups that have nothing to do with extraordinary circumstances, the injustices in routine legal processes and the immense violence done to human beings consequently.
The case of Loku Vithanage Ratnapala, Prisoner No. P7834 in the Mahara Prison is one of many where justice has slipped, most of which have been examined thoroughly by rights advocate Kalyananda Thiranagama and his team of civil conscious citizens.
Ratnapala is now 61 years old, has spent 29 years in prison and is to complete his sentence(s) on March 31, 1953 at which time he would be 102. His family has abandoned him. His wife last visited in 1992 and his son in 2003, which was his first and last visit. He does not get any letters from anyone. He was sentenced to 84 years rigorous imprisonment in 3 cases by the Morawaka Magistrate’s Court in 1988. He had already being service sentences imposed in other cases and did not have legal representation. He pleaded guilty. The charges: a) causing simple hurt by assaulting with hand and robbery of a repeated gun, b) unlawful assembly, house breaking and retention of stolen property, and c) unlawful assembly, house breaking, robbery of goods worth Rs. 4,900 and retention of stolen property.
Thiranagama contends that the sentences of 15 years and two of 34.5 years each are illegal, exceeding the powers and jurisdiction of the Magistrates’ Courts. He cites the proviso to S 16 of the Code of Criminal Procedures Act according to which a Magistrate’s Court can impose a sentence exceeding two years only where a person is convicted of several trials at one trial. A person with previous convictions can be sentenced to two additional years, under the provisions of the Prevention of Crimes Ordinance, with the condition that the fact must be stated. The maximum that Ratnapala could have been given is 12 and not 84 years as per the upper limits of jurisdiction. Add the other convictions and Ratnapala ought to be serving 40 years.
When one considers that prisoners serving long sentence are required to serve only two-thirds of the term, Ratnapala should have been released in May 2012, not counting in other term-reductions usually dispensed on special occasions.
‘Any sentence of imprisonment exceeding 4 years imposed by a Magistrate’s Court is illegal, incompetent and lacking in validity. A prisoner is not bound to serve such an illegal sentence and prison authorities are not legally obliged to enforce such manifestly illegal jail sentences.’
Thiranagama, above, faults the Magistrates’ Courts of imposing many other such illegal sentences and dubs them as flagrant violations of law and gross infringement of fundamental rights of prisoners.
The question is, what is the Attorney General, the higher judicial authorities and the Human Rights Commissions doing about it?
Malinda’s blog http://malindawords.blogspot.co.uk/