Lohan Ratwatte prison rampage inquiry takes a familiar turn
Court of Appeal steps in to protect elephants from being handed over to unlawful caretakers

Sri Lanka’s precocious reputation for impunity has been resonating with several issues these days.  One is the Lohan Ratwatte incident which despite the lapse of almost two weeks is being held in abeyance by the state. The case of the 15 elephants caught in a legal tug of war between environmentalists and rights activists and the state has now reached the appellate court.  

The Ratwatte incident is a prima facie one.  On the 6th and 12th of September an inebriated Ratwatte, who ironically is the State Minister for Prison Management and Prisoner’sRehabilitation, broke into the Welikada and Auradhapura prisons and intimidated and threatened prisoners and prison officials. In Welikada, the visit was to show the gallows to his friends. The incident in the Anuradhapura prison was particularly harrowing.  Ratwatte singled out prisoners detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), humiliated them by getting them to kneel before him and threatened to kill them with his personal gun.  Firearms are prohibited in prisons but Ratwatte, despite being the subject minister, carried a firearm into the prison blatantly disregarding regulations. In their letter dated 22 September  to the President of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) Abdulla Shahid and Secretary General of the UN António Guterres about the current situation in Sri Lankan prisons, the Committeefor Protecting Rights of Prisoners wrote how ‘earlier this month, the state minister in charge of prison management had broken into two prisons on two separate dates in a drunken state and in the second incident, had threatened a prisoner with a pistol’. Their letter coincided with President Rajapakse’s address to the UNGA.

Ratwatte’s actions amount to multiple offences under the Offensive Weapons Act and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, Degrading Treatment or Punishment which Sri Lanka has ratified. It is also contempt of court because it involved people who are under a judicial order and in the custody of the state, towards whom it owes a duty of care. Above all, what Ratwatte did amounts to the offence of attempted murder which is a cognizable offence in the country’s penal code and one which does not require an arrest warrantfor the offender to be taken into custody by the police. The offence carries a 20 year mandatory term of imprisonment. The popular perception is that had it been someone other than Ratwatte, the person would have already been in remand. But not Ratwatte, who is still at large. The Minister for Justice M.U.M Ali Sabry and the Minister for Public Security Sarath Weerasekera, the two ministers under whose purview Ratwatte’s indiscretions are most likely to fall, have been beating about the bush, tantamount to trivializing the trauma of the prisoners.

In developments since last week, the justice minister tendered an apology to the victims and their families condemning Ratwatte’s actions, in itself seen as an admission of the prison minister’s culpability but stopped short of further commitment.  Ratwatte himself is denying his conduct towards the Anuradhapura prisoners breached the norms of responsible conduct.  Ali Sabry’s contention that the incident should not be turned into a racial, ethnic and political issue justifies closer scrutiny by him, of the reported events.  In the Anuradhapura prison which according to sources holds about 2000 Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim prisoners, Ratwatte had targeted only the PTA prisoners the majority of whom are Tamil. Even more incredulous have been statements from prison headquarters to the media that there are no CCTV facilities in the two prisons.  The Welikada prison is described as a maximum security prison. Like a river which meanders along its beaten path, the government’s decision to appoint former High Court Judge Kusala Sarojini Weerawardene to inquire into the matter while the investigations by the CID and the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission are ongoing, smacks of a familiar trajectory of whitewash. The government’s fondness for extrajudicial inquiry mechanismshas left a litany of unimplemented recommendations over the years, some of which have even been barred from public scrutiny even though they are conducted at public expense. The result is a loss of credibility about such mechanisms and scepticism that the government is embarking on another useless and time wasting exercise to fool the people and circumvent due process.

One such recent inquiry mechanism was the three member Presidential Commission of Inquiry on Political Victimization headed by retired Supreme Court Judge Upali Abeyrathne which looked at 48 cases, including those in which judicial proceedings are ongoing. While there are serious doubts about its political independence more crucially, questions have arisen whether it was acting beyond its jurisdiction.  

One of the cases the Commission looked at was the 2012 massacre in the Welikada prison, said to be the most heinous since the killing of 53 prisoners in the prison’s high security section during the Black July riots of 1983. In the 2012incident, 27 inmates were killed and around 40 were injured after a shootout when security forces personnel entered the prison to search for illegal arms, drugs and mobile phones.

The 2012 Welikada incident has been the subject of inquiry of two committees. The first one, set up during the tenure of Mahinda Rajapakse, was a three member committee comprising former Supreme Court Judge Bandula Atapattu, former DIG Gunasena Thenabadu and the legal advisor to the prisons at the time Lalith Andrahennadi. The committee report, although it was handed over to the government, never saw the light of day. The minister in charge of prisons at the time was Chandrasiri Gajadeeera.

After the Yahapalana government took over the new Prisons Minister Wijedasa Rajapakse set up another committee to inquire into the incident. It was headed by former Supreme Court Judge Wimal Nambuwasam and it also had in it former senior DIG Asoka Wijegoonetileke and a lawyer, SK Liyanage. The committee heard the evidence of nearly 60 witnesses, including that of Gotabaya Rajapakse, who was the defence secretary at the time. The report with itsrecommendations was hand over to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and it was tabled in Parliament. Among its recommendations was for the IGP to carry out a criminal investigation and bring charges against those found to be responsible.  Eight years have gone by with no concrete action on the recommendations. In fact, the COI on Political Victimisation found that charges filed in the High Court against key suspects were for political revenge. It  recommended that they are reinstated with all promotions due to them and that legal action is taken against those who complained about them. For the families of the victims, it has already been a long wait for justice and the decision of the COI is likely to ensure that any light at the end of the tunnel will surely be snuffed out.

Impunity has also raised its head in the case of 15 elephants that environmentalists and rights activists are fighting to keep away from their unlawful caretakers. An order made by the Additional Magistrate in the Colombo Magistrate’s Court in early September to hand back the elephants, until then in the custody of the state, to their caretakers was done while a judicial inquiry was still ongoing in the court. JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake who brought up the matter in parliament last week questioned the legality of the gazette which thecourt relied on to issue the order.  The gazette, issued in August this year and which should have been signed by the Minister of Wildlife and Forest Conservation C. B Rathnayake, wasinstead signed by the State Minister for Wildlife Protection Wimalaweera Dissanayake. The JVP leader also told parliament how the gazette is paving the way to legitimize the possession of elephants that have been captured and kept illegally. In Sri Lanka, an elephant is public property and can only be kept with a licence following registration with the Department of Wildlife Conservation.  The registration has to be renewed annually. While 14 of the elephants involved were taken away by their caretakers soon after the order was made, environmentalists and activists are trying to prevent a mother and her four month old calf, the only elephants remaining from the original group of 15 elephants, from being handed backto their caretaker.  Last week, the intervention of the Court of Appeal, the mother and baby were temporarily prevented from being handed over. The case will be called again for a hearing on the 29th of September when another petition, already in the pipeline, challenging the regulations of the new gazette will also be taken up by the court. The stance of the Court will determine the balance of the scales of justice.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here