The Justice Ministry and Cabinet of Ministers have taken no steps to charge State Minister for Plantations Lohan Ratwatte with the attempted murder of prisoners in Anuradhapura prison and for multiple firearms offences despite recommendations a Justice Ministry Committee made as far back as November 2021.

The recommendations are the result of one of several inquiries that were launched after Ratwatte, then the State Minister for Prison Management and Prisoner’s Rehabilitation, went on the rampage in the Welikada and Anuradhapura prisons in September 2021.  In Anuradhapura prison, he got Tamil prisoners who were held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act to kneel before him and pointed a gun at them, threatening to kill them.

The Centre for Society and Religion, a Colombo based organization promoting social justice which obtained the report with the recommendations through a Right to Information application, has called on the Attorney General to take immediate action against Ratwatte. In a statement issued on 8th June, the CSR said the Justice Ministry took nine months to release the report even after an appeal to the Commissioners of the Right to Information Commission. The CSR wants Ratwatte prosecuted under the Convention Against Torture for the physical abuse of prisoners in the Anuradhapura prison and under the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights for advocating national hatred.

In addition to attempted murder, the committee found credible evidence that Ratwatte had used a weapon in prison to commit an offence and cause hurt and had brought disrepute to the Sri Lankan state.  His actions had violated multiple provisions of the Penal Code, Prisons Ordnance, and the Weapons Ordnance.

The committee also found how prison officials failed to stop Ratwatte from entering the prisons and carrying out unlawful acts.  They include allowing entry to unauthorised persons, allowing a firearm to be taken into a prison outside the permitted hours of 5. 30 am -5. 30 pm, failing to stop the torture and abuse of prisoners and parading them before Ratwatte, threatening a prisoner not to reveal the full extent of Ratwatte’s actions and falsifying records in the Welikada prison to show the visit took place during regular hours. It concluded that Ratwatte’s visits to the prisons were not official ones because he had been dressed in casual attire and he had not carried out tasks. He had gone to Welikada only to show the gallows to two civilians who were not authorised to visit the prison.

Among other damning evidence that surfaced during the committee inquiry is that Ratwatte had behaved in a drunken manner and had lied to the committee.  He had threatened prisoners, asking them to confess to crimes and misled them by telling them he can grant a pardon.

Alongside charging or indicting Ratwatte quickly, the committee recommended a mechanism to obtain evidence from Anuradhapura prison officials who were on duty when Ratwatte visited who will be important eye-witnesses and for the police to file a B report with the Anuradhapura Magistrate about Ratwatte’s visit to the prison if this had not been done.

Since there is no prescribed punishment for violating the Prisons Ordnance, the president has to take the necessary action. It was deposed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who was heading the government at the time.

Ratwatte’s intrusions into the Welikada and Anuradhapura prisons with a group of friends on near consecutive days stirred a storm of public outrage.  Ratwatte, who has a litany of offences for which he has so far escaped criminal convictions because of state patronage, is alleged to have taken his friends on a tour of the gallows in the Welikada prison.  After entering the Anuradhapura prison Ratwatte is alleged to have targeted and terrorised Tamil prisoners. At the time, Ratwatte’s position in the government as State Minister of Prison Management, compounded the gravity of his actions. It raised questions about his suitability to hold the sensitive post and how he got it. Under pressure from opposition political parties for an inquiry into the incident, Ratwatte stepped down as State Minister for Prisons but continued as the State Minister for Gem and Jewellery Related Industries.  Six months later and the incidents all but forgotten, Ratwatte was sworn in as the State Minister of Container Warehouse Facilities. A reliable legal source said legal proceedings that were started in the Vavuniya High Court had to be abandoned because the victim prisoners did not want to give evidence as witnesses. The outcome of several inquiries by former High Court Judge Kusala Sarojini Weerawardene, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and the Prisons, remain unknown to the public.

Among Ratwatte’s antecedents are the 1997 alleged shooting and death of Joel Pera, a rugby player of Papua New Guinean origin who was playing for the Havelocks Sports Club, in a casino in Colombo. The commonly held belief is that the CID hushed up the case. In 2006, Ratwatte, his father and brother Chanuka were acquitted of all charges in the Udathalawinna murder trial in which they and ten security guards were accused of shooting dead ten Muslim youth who were supporters of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress. Five security guards of Ratwatte’s father who were security forces personnel were sentenced to death instead. In January 2021, Ratwatte made the headlines again after he allegedly started a shootout in the W15 boutique hotel in Hantana in Kandy.