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Prison riots, human rights and impunity

Date : 2020-Dec-05
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Prison riots have become a household topic. According to the records, we have seen five prison riots since 1980s. Although all these riots have been ended with carnage and destruction, no substantial public discourse or official resistance emerged against the brutality unleashed by prison administrations. Another marked absence is a dialogue on non-recurrence mechanisms or prison reforms.  


Five prison riots since 1980 are as follows: Welikada in 1983 (35 deaths), Kalutara in 1997 (03 deaths), Bidunuwewa in 2000 (26 deaths), Welikada in 2012 (27 deaths and 43 injuries). The latest is now reported from Mahara prison taking 08 lives and injuring over 100 inmates.



Prisons have existed in our country for many centuries. But the modern-day prison system has been introduced by the British. Department of prisons was established in 1844 by an ordinance (Act no 18 of 1844). The prisons are established to keep persons who are waiting to go on trial, or for execution or exile, or until a fine or a debt is paid. They are called remand prisoners. Occasionally, individuals who posed a particular threat to the state might be deprived of their liberty for a long period. They are called political prisoners. The others are prisoners are those who serve punishments accorded to them based on the penal laws of the country.



When a person is committed to prison as a punishment, on what basis such an act can be considered as a punishment? Unfortunately, for most of us, the rationale behind this kind of imprisonment is never understood or explained. We all know that human being is a social animal by nature and deprivation of this freedom to move in the society freely, can be considered a punishment.


Prisoners are citizens of the country and they are human beings. If a prisoner is languishing in a jail, he or she is entitled to enjoy two basic rights such as to be free from injury and enjoy the right to life, unless the law has not taken it from them. Therefore, the state has a responsibility towards prisoners to protect these two rights of them.



In the law, this responsibility is defined as duty of care. The duty of care is defined as duty to avoid doing or omitting to do anything which may have reasonable or probable consequence of injury to others. Anyone who is responsible of duty of care cannot relinquish that responsibility. In the case of prisoners, it is the prison authorities who hold that responsibility.



Right to life is an inalienable human right. Certain rights and freedoms are fundamental to human existence. They are inherent entitlements that come to every person as a consequence of being human, and are founded on respect for the dignity and worth of each person. They are not privileges, nor gifts given at the whim of a ruler or a government. They cannot be taken away by any arbitrary power. They cannot be denied, nor can they be forfeited because an individual has committed any offence or broken any law.



Prisons receive individuals who are lawfully deprived of their liberty. It is the responsibility of the prison and the prison staff to hold them safely, and in most cases, release them back to the community. Easier said than done. This function involves carrying out extremely demanding and stressful tasks on behalf of the society. Nevertheless, prison officials are obliged to know, and to apply, local as well as international standards on human rights when they handle their prisoners under normal circumstances as well as in extreme situations.



In order to ensure the protection of prisoners, there are three major instruments that could guide the prison officials apart from laws of the country. These three international documents are as follows:


1.       Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners

2.       Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment

3.       Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners


These three instruments provide a comprehensive set of safeguards for the protection of the rights of persons who are detained or imprisoned. The Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners was adopted by the First United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, held in Geneva in 1955, and later approved by the Economic and Social Council. The Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment was adopted by the General Assembly in December 1988. The Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, adopted by the General Assembly in December 1990, complete the set of safeguards, with 11 point-form standards.



Mahara Prison riots happened in the wake of an increasing number of prison inmates contracting COVID-19. Mahara prison is said to be overcrowded like most other prisons in Sri Lanka with insufficient facilities to cater to the basic needs of the inmates. Some of the reasons believed to have triggered the riots appear to have been the fear and frustration among inmates that being held in close proximity to each other will provide an easy target for COVID-19 and their repeated requests that they be subjected to PCR tests being ignored. 


It was an unfortunate incident that occurred after inmates complained to the prison officials that it was unfair to detain COVID-19 infected inmates inside the prison as it would result in the infection easily spreading to other prisoners. The protest turned into a riot when prison guards opened fire to counter the agitation. It is now reported 08 persons have died due to firing and scores of inmates have got injured.



In such a context, it is worthwhile to mention about use of minimum power by the officials to quell a riot in a situation of this kind. It is an accepted norm in law that use of power should be in proportionate to danger at hand as well proportionate to the duty they owed towards the prisoners in custody. Past records as well as Mahara prison riots show that prison officials have failed to prove their bona fides in substantiating their actions. It is the responsibility of the state to inquire into this incident and see whether the officials have breached their duty of care towards their inmates. If not, it creates a bad precedent based on impunity.



Impunity means lack of accountability for crimes committed, or condoned, by agents of the state. If the government of Sri Lanka does not takes a strong decision to inquire into the Mahara prison riots with a correct human rights perspective, it will definitely add into the past tally of Sri Lankan record on impunity.



In this context, it is the duty of the state to guarantee present victims of the prison riots to ensure a right to effective remedy. As part of this obligation, the government must put into place an effective mechanism to investigate credible allegations effectively, promptly, thoroughly and impartially, taking action where appropriate to bring those persons responsible to trial. The government must also ensure that victims of prison riots to have equal and effective access to justice.


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