Sri Lanka judge advises probe into "prison riot video"

A judge in Sri Lanka urged human rights lawyers to lodge a complaint with police to investigate edited footage released by the government allegedly of a prison riot that ended in a massacre.

Welisara Magistrate Buddhika Sri Ragala made this request after lawyers sought out court assistance to ban the broadcast of unverified video footage claiming to be scenes of a clash among inmates.

The lawyers were in court opposing the cremation of detainees’ bodies without establishing the cause of death by postmortem.

Eleven were killed and at least a hundred were injured when guards used lethal force against inmates of the Mahara prison who staged a protest on 29 November fearing the spread of Covid19 in the overcrowded facility.

Three days after the massacre, mainstream TV stations broadcast a video a claiming to contain scenes of a clash among inmates. The silent footage showing men wielding sticks beating each other had been distributed by the department of prisons.

The footage was broadcast on the state TV, Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation with a commentary that said, “these scenes make it clear that a clash between two groups escalated to a riot”. However, the commentator did not make it clear under what circumstances the video was recorded.

The video had been filmed at daytime on the 30th "after the main clashes ended" says the Sunday Times, published from Colombo.

Video with voices

Attorney at law Senaka Perera brought to the Welisara magistrate’s attention on 4 December that airing a film claiming to contain scenes of a clash among Mahara inmates without verifying its credibility was a major obstacle to ongoing investigations. He further argued that the broadcast of the controversial video would pose a threat to identifying suspects.


The request was made amidst growing concerns about the circumstances surrounding the Mahara prison massacre. Authorities are yet to release names of the deceased and the cause of death. Emotional relatives desperate to know the truth about their loved ones have been pleading to policemen barring access to the prison and North Colombo teaching hospital premises, where the injured and dead have been taken to.

Police officers present in the Welisara Magistrate’s court said they are unable to probe the government video in the absence of a complaint. This prompted the magistrate to request lawyers to lodge a complaint to launch an investigation.

Following the broadcast of the unverified government video with no sound track to it, JDS has received an identical video with Sinhala speaking male voices in the background.

The footage in the possession of JDS contains audio of at least two men believed to be prison guards from an elevated position watching a clash at the ground level with apparent enthusiasm and taking no action to stop the fighting.

When some involved in the fight appear to be running towards the camera, the men who are apparently filming can be heard shouting abuse in Sinhala and turning them away. An outstretched palm making gestures towards the group is visible. Obviously, the men behind the camera had some authority over those engaged in the brawl.

At one point, the men can be heard talking of “hitting at” the fighting mob. This was a clear reference to opening fire.

JDS is unable to verify the date or place of the recording.

'Aiding and abetting'

Following the broadcast of the government video a group of lawyers campaigning for the rights of prisoners called for an immediate probe into the release of the film.

The Committee for Protecting Rights of Prisoners (CPRP) condemned the video as an attempt to suppress the truth and subvert the course of justice.

“The person who filmed it had clearly aided and abetted the clash,” Attorney at Law Achala Seneviratne told journalists in Colombo.

"Are they not investigating those people who were making fun of it instead of preventing?" she asked.

Media outlets that broadcast unverified footage without establishing its authenticity came under heavy criticism.  



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.