By Basil Fernando –
In Sri Lanka, the closest event prior to the human rights day on December 10th, is the killing of 11 prisoners and injuring of over 100 other prisoners in the Mahara prisons. That incident clearly speaks about the massive contradictions involved in the claims about the protection of human rights and the actual reality that exists in the country. The prisoners, throughout the country, have been recently complaining about the spread of COVID-19. They have been attempting to get the attention of the authorities to have proper testing as well as other assistance to deal with the spread of the virus. Their fears were well grounded because the prisoners live in close proximity to one another within a space that is wholly inadequate to keep large numbers of people. Even the sleeping space is so limited that the possibility of social distancing as required for the prevention of COVID-19 is simply impossible under the circumstances. It is therefore quite a natural human reaction for people to panic when they get to know that many of their inmates have been infected with the virus. Each one will also have been anxious to find whether or not he or she has been infected. COVID-19 has created anxiety around the whole world and even people who live in quite secure circumstances are constantly anxious about the possibility of getting infected. When that is the case, it is only natural that people who live just within a few steps from each other feel concerned about the possibility of infection.
Even if there had not been any complaint from the prisoners, anyone who has a normal sensitivity holding an official position should have realised that the prisoners are facing special dangers of becoming victims of this virus. It would have been most reasonable that officals should have been to gotten their act together to develop a strategy for dealing with the situation on an emergency footing. However, what happened was the opposite. The complaints and the protests of the prisoners were ignored, there was no evidence of any collective efforts by the prison authorities and those who are politically responsible for the administration of prisons even having discussion about taking some serious steps to protect the lives of the prisoners under these seriously risky circumstances.
Unfortunately, the attempts that were taken some decades ago to bring a more humane approach to deal with prisoners have now virtually disappeared. Over and over again there have been killings of persons inside the prison premises. General attitudes to complaints and protests is to use strong arm tactics in order to silence the prisoners. Perhaps, the authorities who are directly dealing with the prisoners may say in their defence that it is not possible to deal with such a large number of persons housed in the most unnatural ways of overcrowding.
The result of all this was the calling of security personnel from outside and dealing with the prisoners complaints with bullets, rather than with reason or compassion. That people demanding medical care for a problem like COVID-19 have been treated in this manner only demonstrates the barbaric and inhumane mentality that has developed within the administrative structures that deal with such sensitive problems.
The mere change of the minister incharge of the prisons does not alter any of these problems and issues. The killings and injuring of persons indicates a management failure of a high magnitude. Therefore that issue to be addressed, if there is to be any justice for the people who have been killed and injured and TO ENSURE if the recurrence of similar events. It is a matter of great shame that even after the killings had been done, there were massive campaigns to create a false image about what had in fact happened. A minister shamelessly claimed in parliament itself that the prisoners have themselves caused this problem because they had taken drugs and they wanted to see blood. Such a barbaric statement by a minister shows a certain deep inhumanity that has crept into the very administration of the state itself. Meanwhile, there were also attempts to say that the bodies of 11 persons could not be identified because the documents about their cases had been lost during the incident. It does not simply stand to common sense that for identification of a dead body requires such documents. Mere counting of prisoners who are still alive and those who have injured and are in the hospital would have easily explained which persons are missing. In any case, calling the family members who think that their loved ones are among the injured or dead could have easily resolved the identification problem. However, this attempt to hide the names of those who are dead gave rise to vicious rumours to the effect that perhaps the bodies would be burnt without identification being first done so that the whole matter would be buried under the carpet. Given the types of methods used over and over again to hide information about serious crimes many may conclude even such wild rumours may have some substance. The government for its part did not come forward boldly to condemn the killings, to try to appease the prison population and their families and society at large. Thus, the prison episode at Mahara could be taken as a symbolic expression of what has taken place within the entire structure of the state in Sri Lanka where the whole idea of accountability for the actions of the state agency is no longer taken as an obligation. Accompanying every violation of rights is a game of hide and seek where the state engages in putting all its energies, including all its resources within the media, to engage in false propaganda in attempts to save its own image rather than to play a responsible role in the protection of the lives of people.
This absence of a sense of obligation to protect the lives of people has spread into all areas of human rights. In the field of economic social and cultural life, we see increasing impoverishment throughout the country and no attempts being made by the government to address this all important issue. There are reports of suicides by poor farmers and others who have been unable to repay their small loans that they have obtained for employment purposes. There have also been suicides relating to COVID-19, itself where failures to take some basic measures on humanitarian grounds led to take some helpless people taking their own lives. Complaints of people who are able to have only one meal a day have also increased.
In civil and political rights, the crisis of the system of the administration of justice which has been deliberately created and maintained has led to people who suffer from crimes and/or violations of rights to be without any effective remedy. People fear that a resort to the courts as journeys to justice could take as long as 17 or more years. The threats posed to people who seek justice and people who come forward as witnesses is so great that people would rather prefer to withdraw from the processes of justice. The justice system therefore is no longer seen as the ultimate friend of the people who have been deprived of protection.
While promises are made about police reforms and a minister is being appointed for human security there is no strategy or a plan of dealing with this disabled institution. The dysfunctionality of the policing system is a measureable threat to the security of people. However, all this anarchy which is prevailing within public institutions is not accidental but itself a product of the very legal structure of Sri Lanka. This legal structure has undergone a complete change since 1978. All the basic principles of protection have been altered. The denial of protection is the overall strategy embedded in the entire constitutional structure. The 20th amendment of the constitution has made the situation even worse than before. If the government plans a new constitution, it would be only for the purpose of making things even worse from the point of view of democracy, the rule of law and human rights. Meanwhile, it was revealed in the parliament that a list of people who have been critical of the government has been made and some lists have been given to immigration authorities to arrest people on arrival, purely on the basis of free expression of their ideas. The propaganda machinery of the state is used to the maximum to falsify news and to deprive people of any sense of comfort in being able to know what is in fact going on. What really happens is the opposite where false messaging by the government officials is the daily diet of anyone interested in news.