On Monday morn, while UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet in Geneva was firing another scathing salvo on the Lankan Government for repeatedly failing to honour its commitments to human rights, details were emerging in Colombo claiming that the Lankan Minister of Prisons had been busy the night before, working overtime to provide more ammunition [...]


Lohan’s prison rumpus tightens Govt’s noose


On Monday morn, while UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet in Geneva was firing another scathing salvo on the Lankan Government for repeatedly failing to honour its commitments to human rights, details were emerging in Colombo claiming that the Lankan Minister of Prisons had been busy the night before, working overtime to provide more ammunition to her booming cannons and to prove her tirade was justified.

Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris’ laboured attempts to deny Bachelet’s allegations and assert  in reply that the measures taken since March to rectify the transgressions and to further strengthen human rights did not warrant any ‘external initiative’ from the UN body, sounded hollow and lost its credibility when the State Minister’s bizarre prison rumpus, staged twice over, went public.

Media reports claimed:

n  That last week on September 5 or thereabouts, Prison Minister Lohan Ratwatte had stormed his own Welikada Bastille with a bevy of friends, allegedly in a drunken stupor, to give them all a macabre guided tour of the gallows. When the prison guards had cautioned him not to take a woman in shorts past the men’s cells which lay en route to the gallows, they had been verbally abused for their insolence to dare question the minister’s rite of passage to the gallows.

n  That on September 12, Sunday evening, he had flown by helicopter to the Anuradhapura Prison and lined up Tamil prisoners held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and forced two prisoners to kneel before him. He had then taken his personal gun and held it point blank against their heads and asked them to confess their guilt, making no bones about whose fiat ran through the prison compound.

EX STATE MINISTER OF PRISONS LOHAN RATWATTE: ‘’I resigned not because I was guilty but to save Government from difficulty’’

A week after the first prison incident, and two days after the second, the Prime Minister moved in to exercise damage control from his Italian climes. Reportedly he called the minister and asked him to step down, pending investigation.

Lohan Ratwatte duly submitted a letter to the President stating that, in order to avoid the Government being placed in any difficulties due to media reports concerning his prison ministry, he seeks the guidance of the President to resign from his post as prison minister.

In whatever language it was couched in, the President accepted his resignation as Prison Minister immediately. The statement from the President’s Office said: “Accepting the responsibility for the incidents caused by him at the Welikada and Anuradhapura prisons, the State Minister of Prisons Mr. Lohan Ratwatte resigns from his post. He notified President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of this today (15) and the President accepted his resignation.”

But Lohan Ratwatte’s position as State Minister of Gems and Jewellery was left untouched.

Of course, resignation alone would not suffice. More was demanded. An investigation was called for. For if the allegation was true that Ratwatte had threatened prisoners with a gun, it warranted his arrest. Police Minister Sarath Weerasekera told reporters: “The gun he has used, I think, is a licensed firearm. However, if somebody makes a complaint related to these incidents, we might be able to take action against it according to the law.”

It seems the Lankan Police needs to be prodded to stir into action. Taking the cue, the Committee for Protecting the Rights of Prisoners lodged a complaint on Thursday and a police investigation has now begun.

Since then — as if the matter was subjudice and comment was prohibited as in court cases — a blanket of silence seems to have descended upon Government Ministers and SLPP MPs, with the normally garrulous politicians closing ranks and maintaining a studious ignorance on the prison ruckus, except to guardedly say, they don’t ‘know of the incidents and must wait for the report.’

In answer to claims that MPs have an absolute right to visit prisons, Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka pointed out the right was restricted to 5am to 5pm and said: “As the Minister of Prisons, he could have arranged in advance the visit to see the gallows. He could have even tried it to see if it works.”

The opposition SJB condemned the incidents while the TNA demanded Ratwatte’s immediate arrest. The Sri Lanka Bar Association questioned the eligibility of Ratwatte to hold any government office any longer and called on the Attorney General to act forthwith to deal with these serious acts of impunity. The Election Commission said, “Not only human rights violations of inmates but also the public will lose faith in the electoral systems, democracy if such public representatives visit prisons and intimidate inmates” and announced  it would request the Speaker to take action.

But despite resigning as state minister, despite the Office of President Rajapaksa issuing a statement, stating Ratwatte had taken “responsibility for the incidents at the Welikada and Anuradhapura prisons,” Lohan Ratwatte still maintains his innocence. He admits he went to the Welikada prison to see the gallows but says “it was only for a routine check”.  He admits going to the Anuradhapura Prison but says he did not threaten prisoners there. It was a routine visit, he says, to check on their welfare.

So, what were the incidents the statement from the President’s Office referred to? Surely not to routine visits to check prisoner welfare? The nation will have to wait for an impartial probe to reveal all.

The adverse fallout from the prison incidents will certainly have international repercussions for Sri Lanka.

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect to have created the maximum damage, exploding as the revelations did, during the crucial days of the Human Rights Council’s 48th sessions in Geneva with Lanka’s pious claims to reformation starkly exposed in the international glare. It couldn’t have come at a worse time, since the draconian provisions of the PTA and the welfare of the prisoners held under it formed part of the subject matter discussed.

Following the revelations, UN’s Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka, Hannah Singer-Hamdy, tweeted: ‘It is the duty of the State following Mandela rules to protect the rights of prisoners. UN Sri Lanka condemns any ill treatment of prisoners.’

Following Bachelet’s oral report, the Core Group of Sri Lanka comprising Canada, Germany, North Macedonia, Malawi, Montenegro and Britain at the UNHRC  said: “We are disappointed that even the limited progress made on accountability on key emblematic cases has regressed’.

The European Union stressed the importance of amending the PTA, emphasizing the need for ‘continued efforts for reconciliation, accountability and human rights pursuant to Council resolution 46/1’.

UN Special Rapporteur Fabian Salvioli, addressing the UNHRC, spoke of ‘the flagrant setback in the areas of accountability, memory and guarantees of non-repetition’.

None of the above international groupings nor the UN’s Resident Coordinator nor Special Rapporteur made any specific reference to the prison incident in their reports but, no doubt, with their eyes keenly focused on Sri Lanka, the unholy vista of a liquor sodden, gun toting minister storming a prison and pointing his gun at point blank range against the foreheads of kneeling prisoners held under a decried anti-terrorist law would not have been far from their minds, when they raised concerns over prisoners’ rights, of regression, of the PTA and of ‘the ‘flagrant setback to the guarantee of non-reputation’.

The ugly incident would have also been of special interest to the EU nations which have already placed Lanka on notice to polish her human rights act if she wishes to enjoy favoured GSP status uninterrupted.

On June 10 EU Parliament resolved to temporarily withdraw all GSP concessions granted to Lanka, pending human rights review. As part of its three months monitoring process a special EU team is set to visit Lanka on September 27, it was announced on Thursday.  The exports to the EU have increased to reach 2.3 billion or US$ 2.697 billion making the EU Sri Lanka’s second largest export market.

The EU team will, no doubt, take careful note of the two sordid prison incidents while assessing the country’s human rights progress. Furthermore they will use the manner in which the investigation is conducted as a yardstick to gauge the Government’s bona fides with regard to its professed commitment to human rights reforms.

Any semblance of a shabby cover up to enable Lohan Ratwatte to retain his position as State Minister of Gems and Jewellery will not only endanger the economy by depriving the nation’s dollar bare coffers of a GSP benefit of nearly 2.7 billion dollars but will risk putting 21 million Lankans from the frying pan into the fire and test their tolerance to the core.

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