Five years on a family member recounts images that still haunt her from the day after the shootings Lawyer representing families says uphill task to gain public sympathy for the cause of prisoners By the time Manel Wijesinghe (54) received a call on the morning of November 10, 2012 from an official of the Prisons [...]


Loved ones of those killed while trying to escape melee seek justice Welikada prison killings


  • Five years on a family member recounts images that still haunt her from the day after the shootings
  • Lawyer representing families says uphill task to gain public sympathy for the cause of prisoners

By the time Manel Wijesinghe (54) received a call on the morning of November 10, 2012 from an official of the Prisons Department informing her that her nephew who was in remand custody had been injured in the unrest that took place the previous night at the Welikada Prison, neither she nor the rest of the country was aware of the magnitude of the unrest at the country’s largest prison facility.

Manel Wijesinghe holding up a picture of Sameera

By then 27 inmates lay dead and scores of others including prisoners, prison guards and police personnel injured and sections of the prison extensively damaged.
Manel rushed to the National Hospital only to be told that her nephew Sameera Wijesinghe (25) was among the 27 inmates killed in the incident and that she should proceed to the mortuary to identify his body.

Five years later, what she saw there is still etched in her memory and the images continue to haunt her. “There were several bodies on iron trollies at the mortuary, some of them naked. Among them was Sameera with what looked like a bullet injury to his chest and neck. It was a ghastly sight. I was in shock that even though I wanted to cry out, I could not do so,” she said.

The rest of her story is much like what happened to all the family members who lost their loved ones in the Welikada incident. They were sent the bodies with the death certificate and ordered to bury their loved ones. There was no one to answer their questions as to what had led to the deaths.

The Welikada prison incident, as it has come to be called, was initially passed off as a riot instigated by the prisoners, but a three-member committee of inquiry appointed after the present government came to power blamed the excessive use of force by law enforcement officers who were allowed to enter the prison premises with weapons and without proper authorisation for provoking the unrest by firing tear gas into the cells.

Sameera was in remand custody at Welikada and was among 11 who were shot dead while they allegedly attempted to flee the scene amidst the ensuing melee. Among those killed a majority were either convicted or in remand custody for drug related offences. Sameera’s story is also a classic case of a young life lost by the misfortune of having been born on the wrong side of the track.

“His father was my brother. His parents were not married but had four children out of wedlock and the mother was a drug user. I became their legal custodian as the parents did not live together and as he was the only boy, I did my best to keep him out of trouble,” Manel said. Despite her best efforts, Sameera started using drugs in his late teens and it was not long after that he was in the clutches of drug dealers. “He was in prison once earlier and was released without charge. I sent him to a rehabilitation center run by a church but after a few months there he returned and soon afterwards he was back to using drugs and keeping company with those involved in the trade,” she said.

The second time he was arrested he was not so lucky. Even before charges could be framed against him, Sameera was caught up in the unrest that engulfed the Welikada prison on November 9, 2012 and was shot dead along with 11 others allegedly trying to escape in a three wheeler. “I am not convinced that he was trying to flee. I have heard many versions of what happened that day and I am sure I’ll never find out the real story. Whatever crime he may have committed, no one had the right to take away his life in this manner,” Manel said.

Attorney Senaka Perera

Nirmala Atapattu (31) of Piliyandala who was also being held without charge on suspicion of involvement in deleaing with illicit drugs too died in the incident. For the past five years, his father Siripala Atapattu has been fighting to get justice for his son. “My son was taken into custody and kept in remand for several months without charges. He was killed needlessly for no fault of his,” Atapattu said.

Attorney Senaka Perera is among a group of lawyers who are exerting pressure on the government to hold an impartial inquiry into the incident and punish those responsible for it as well as get compensation for the family members of those killed in the incident. The Committee that inquired into the incident recommended compensation only for the next of kin of the 16 inmates killed inside the prison but not the 11 who died outside. “This is grossly unfair. The prison was like a battlefield that day and it is a human instinct to want to run away from such a scene. Those including Sameera who ran outside were only trying to save their lives and were shot dead in cold blood. Their families too must be given compensation,” he said.

Mr. Perera also spoke about the failure by successive governments to punish those responsible for causing the deaths of prisoners. “The reality of this country is that no one has ever been punished for any of the incidents of violence in prisons that have taken place in the country. From the riots in 1983 when a large number of Tamil prisoners were killed in Welikada to the Bindunuwewa incident to this incident, no one has been charged for wrongdoing,” he said.

The families of the dead inmates are now counting on legal action initiated by one of the witnesses to the incident to punish those responsible for the deaths, Mr Perera said. The Court of Appeal has fixed December 6 for support of the writ application filed by the eyewitness W.S. Nandimal Silva who is seeking an impartial investigation. On Thursday the family members and activists gathered at Galle Face and proceeded towards the President’s office to appeal to President Maithripala Sirisena to ensure justice for those killed in the incident. However among them there were those who realised that public sympathy is not always on the side of the prisoners.

Loved ones of those killed and activists walking towards the President's office on Thursday. Pix by Sameera Weerasekera

“In our country, people think anyone who goes to prison is guilty of an offence. Trying to gain public support for the cause of prisoners is an uphill task, ” said attorney Senaka Perera.
The three member committee that inquired into the Welikada incident noted that while the words written on the outer wall of the prison says “prisoners are human beings”, the Government needs to take cognizance of the accepted international principles governing prisoners to avoid similar incidents happening in the future.

In its concluding remarks, the Committee noted that “people are sent to prison as punishment and not for punishment, and there was a need to change words into deeds by recognising that “prisoners are humanbeings” in its true spirit.

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