Confirmed: Guards opened fire in Sri Lanka prison massacre

By Kithsiri Wijesinghe

The recent massacre in a Sri Lankan prison was perpetrated by shooting, the attorney general’s department informed the court, confirming claims by relatives of detainees and prison rights organisations.

Eleven inmates of the Mahara prison were killed and nearly a 150 were injured on 29 November in what authorities described as a 'riot'. Prison authorities, as well as ruling party parliamentarians, alleged that the clash was the result of detainees turning violent after using psychiatric drugs.

Quashing drug abuse claims, State Counsel Nishara Jayaratne told the Wattala magistrate court that the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of police had concluded the deaths and injuries were caused by shooting. She did not name any suspects.

The CID report has also highlighted that the number of inmates held in the maximum security prison is more than thrice its capacity.

Prison guards

However, JDS has received credible information that the shooting was done by the prison guards.

A Mahara prison staff member, as well as a survivor, told JDS that guards in the Mahara prison are responsible for opening fire at inmates on the fatal night. The latest report compiled by the CID has now confirmed their version.

“It was neither the police nor the police Special Task Force (STF) that opened fire on the detainees, but the prison guards,” an officer told JDS under conditions of strict anonymity.

Prisoner rights activists who consistently maintained that the Mahara bloodbath was the result of shooting welcomed the CID findings.

“For the first time, the attorney general’s report confirmed today that there had been a shooting,” Attorney at Law, Senaka Perera of the Committee for the Protection of Prisoners Rights (CPPR) told journalists following the court proceedings.

A survivor relating his experience to JDS through a third the party had also said that the Mahara prison guards should be held responsible for the lethal shooting.

“It was no one else than the jailors who opened fire at us. Before shooting they smashed the prisoner’s limbs. When the inmates got agitated, they opened fire. They even shot at those who were running away to save their lives.”

State Counsel Jayaratne told the Wattala magistrate’s court that prison officers refusing to conduct examinations for Covid19 detection led to unrest among prisoners.

Relatives humiliated

Relatives who were trying to establish the truth about their loved ones have faced severe humiliation at the hands of authorities.

Lakmali Nilushani, sister of Amith Subasinghe who was killed in the shooting related her harrowing experience at the Colombo north mortuary.

“Once I identified my brother’s body I asked them how did he die and why was he shot. They scolded me and chased me off saying don’t try to be too smart.”

She had pleaded to hand over the body to her.

“These fellows have Corona. We are going to burn them. Are you trying to contract the disease by carrying these infected ones home?” had been the response that Lakmali Nilushani received.

She further alleged that the staff at the mortuary tried to obtain her signature by force for some documents.

Meanwhile, an attempt to cremate the bodies of the victims has been thwarted by the courts.

The Attorney General's Department, which earlier informed the Wattala magistrate’s court that the deaths were caused by the fatal shootings, sought permission to cremate the bodies of the victims suspected to have been infected with COVID-19. The magistrate Buddhika Sri Ragala turned down the request and ordered the five member committee appointed to investigate the prison violence to submit their inquiry report at the earliest possible date.

The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka had earlier requested authorities not to cremate the bodies of Mahara victims until the cause of death is established by a post-mortem.

Attorney at Law Senaka Perera told JDS that they have urged the AG department to allow judicial medical officers representing the victims to be present at the autopsies of the dead detainees.




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.