Feature Article

With extreme prejudice

[TamilNet, Sunday, 05 April 1998, 23:59 GMT]
The racial hatred that had been simmering at the Kalutara prison where Tamils arrested under the infamous Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) are remanded, exploded into naked violence on December 12 last year, resulting in the deaths of three Tamils who were being held under preventive detention.

In early March this year, a Presidential Commission was appointed under the Chairmanship of High Court Judge A R N (Raja) Fernando to investigate the events which lead to the deaths of Shanmugaraja Sivanesan, Muththulingam Tharmalingam and Mohammed Sharif Jahan and the wounding of several others.

In view of the difficulties in transporting detainees and others to Colombo for the purpose of giving evidence, it was decided that the Commission would sit in the offices of the Kalutara prison itself.

The deaths of Tamil detainees at the hands of their Sinhala counterparts in Sri Lankan prisons is not a new phenomenon. The Welikada massacre of July 1983 is a well known incident. Sinhala prisoners in the Welikada jail killed 52 Tamils who were incarcerated for political activity against the State.

The evidence coming out in the inquiry that is in progress at the Kalutara prison is no less macabre.

"I saw a man with long hair, slash another with a knife. I saw a boy in a green shirt stab the fallen man repeatedly. I can identify the boy," said Surendran or Selvarajah Segar of Alaveddy, who is serving a 27 year jail sentence for his involvement in the Joint Operation Command (JOC) bomb blast, when he gave evidence before the Commission on March 7.

Surendran complained of general discrimination against Tamils by the prison officials. "If there are any incidents, the authorities punish us, never the Sinhala prisoners" he added.

"The prison officials avenged the death of Sri Lanka Army (SLA) soldiers in the battle field by torturing the Tamil prisoners. If soldiers in the 'Jaya Sikurui' operation are killed in action, the Tamil prisoners were beaten and kicked as a result", said Surendran.

There was a foretaste of what was to come on December 12 two days earlier. On December 10, stones were hurled from the section in which the Sinhala prisoners were housed, towards Block B where the Tamil detainees were held. The Tamil prisoners had returned the compliment, thereby dissuading the Sinhala prisoners from entering Block B.

Surendran said that when they heard that the Sinhala prisoners were planning to assault them on December 12, the Tamil prisoners informed the jail guards about the impending attack. However, Surendran said he did not know whether the jail guards had conveyed the information to the prison administration.

Describing the events on December 12 Surendran said, "After pelting stones at our prison block, we saw some Sinhala prisoners running towards D Block. Other Sinhala prisoners from our block jumped over the wall and entered E block.

He said any incident could have been easily prevented if the prison authorities had wished to do so. "However, they simply did not have the will to do so," said Surendran.

He said that when relatives of Sinhala prisoners came to the prison, permission was expeditiously granted to the detainees to meet the visitors. However, when there were people to see Tamil detainees, there were delays in meeting them and the visitors were required to make their conversation short and leave soon.

When sisters and other female relatives of the Tamil prisoners visited the prison, they were subjected to lewd and obscene comments by both Sinhala prisoners and prison guards, said Surendran.

"I will face problems [in prison] for giving evidence before the Commission," he said.

Arasaratnam Yogeswaran from Trincomalee, giving evidence on the incidents on December 12, said that around 50 Sinhala prisoners had stormed the gate of Block D and entered it The jail guard had told Yogeswaran to flee. But the detainees said a stone had brought him down before he could escape. The first stone was followed by another.

"I was lucky to have been removed from that place and sent to Nagoda hospital for treatment - otherwise they would have killed me also," said Yogeswaran.

Thanabalasingham Uthayalal (21), a Tamil prisoner from Pandariakulam in Vavuniya, told the Commission that he had been lying in bed with a headache on December 12 when he heard that the Sinhalese prisoners were going to attack Block D. Along with the other prisoners, Udayalal had tried to prevent the enraged mob from breaking in. He said he had been hit on his leg by a stone and began bleeding profusely.

"They (the Sinhala prisoners) entered by breaking the main gate. I fled with the others. Someone hit on my chest with a pole and I fell down," said Thanabalasingham.

He said that he was treated for his injuries first in the prison hospital and then taken to the Judicial Medical Officer, Kalutara for an examination.

Prison staff also gave evidence before the Commission.

"There is constant bickering between the Tamil and Sinhala prisoners. They always tried to stir up trouble by starting unwanted problems," Ananda Colombage, a prison guard at Kalutara Prison told the Commission on March 24.

Continuing his evidence, Mr. Colombage said that on December 12, the day of the incident, the Superintendent of the prison, Leelasena and two other officials had come to D Block and spoken to the Tamil detainees.

Around 2:30 p.m. a group of 200 prisoners from the Prison area and the E Block had come running into the D Block, shouting and abusing the Tamil prisoners with obscenities in Tamil. At the same time stones had rained down on Block D, said Mr. Colombage.

The Sri Lanka Army (SLA) personnel had merely stood by watching the rioting. There were no shields, tear gas launchers, helmets or other weapons to use in case of a riot, he said.

"I saw the Sinhala prisoners carrying with them manna knives, poles and other weapons, but I could not do anything because of the hail of stones", prison guard Lakdeni Navaratne said in his evidence.

Mr. Navaratne referred to an incident on December 11 when giving details of the security system in the prison.

A few Sinhalese prisoners escaped from the prison by letting themselves down from a rope made of intertwined cloth.

"Though I shouted to them not to do so and blew my whistle, they went off. They returned in one hour's time the way they went. Four of these prisoners have been identified and transferred to Welikada jail," he said.

When he was asked whether prison guards could use guns, the witness said that they could, but that he did not have a weapon when the prisoners escaped. He said that prison guards are not allowed to use batons and there was no tear gas available to quell a riot.

"On the 12th, I was standing at the entrance to the prison. There were two other guards within the prison. Around 2:40 in the afternoon, stones were thrown at the prison. Even I could not have escaped if the prisoners had tried to lay their hands on me. The Tamil prisoners came running to me requesting protection and [asked me] to telephone the Superintendent to strengthen the guard"

About 200 or 300 Sinhalese prisoners broke down the door to the prison of the Tamil prisoners. They had sticks, barbed wire and knives in their hands. The Tamil prisoners tried to throw chilli powder at their assailants. When the Sinhala prisoners broke into the prison, the Tamil prisoners ran into their cells.

"Though I blew my whistle repeatedly and sounded an SOS, no prison officials came, nor did they take protective measures," said Mr. Navaratne.

He said the Sinhala prisoners had shouted at the Tamil detainees "We will not leave without killing you!"

"Three prisoners were killed, but I did not witness the killing. It was later that police and military personnel came on the scene with Prison Superintendent, Mr. Leelasena," he said.

Three bodies were recovered from different parts of the prison, said Mr. Navaratne in his evidence.

Giving evidence before the Commission on March 23, Sumanasiri Thettegamuwa of the Prison Welfare Society said that he had read in a newspaper about a Tamil prisoner mentioning in his evidence to the Commission that he (Thettegamuwa) had given weapons to Sinhala prisoners to attack their Tamil counterparts.

Mr. Thettegamuwa said that he had seen a blood soaked knife in the hands of a Sinhala prisoner and wrested it out of his grasp. He said that he did not act harshly with prisoners, and that he was especially friendly towards the Tamil prisoners.

"I heard that there had been a lot of ill feeling among the other prisoners against the person who had given evidence against me," said Mr. Thettegamuwa.

He had seen the Sinhala and Tamil prisoners throwing stones at each other. When he had entered the prison, he said the doors for prison blocks C and D were smashed and prisoners running hither and thither.

"What I saw made me very unhappy. I saw a prisoner with a blood soaked knife. I grabbed it. This was what a Tamil prisoner saw and thought I was handing weapons," said Mr. Thettegamuwa.

Even after the main bout of rioting was over, he said that some of the Sinhala prisoners had tried to enter the prison's D Block saying there were three Sinhala prisoners trapped within. He had told them there were no Sinhala prisoners trapped within and that the military had arrived on the scene.

Mr. Thettegamuwa said that the prison authorities gave the prison's welfare officials step motherly treatment. Prison officials did not even like prisoners complaining of food.

The former Senior Jailor of Kalutara prison and presently the Senior Jailor at Tangalle prison, Udayakantha Fernando also referred to the incidents on December 10 at the Kalutara prisons. In his evidence he said that around 4:30 p.m. that day, he was returning to his quarters, when he heard the alarm ringing and two gunshots.

He had come into the prison to find around 60 Sinhala prisoners armed with staves and pieces of firewood preparing to enter the B Block where the Tamil detainees were being held.

"The Tamil prisoners were shouting in Tamil which I could not understand. The Sinhala prisoners were shouting that they should be hammered," said Mr. Fernando.

It rained on the evening of December 10. Whilst the Sinhalese prisoners from F Block threw stones towards the B Block they shouted that they were going to beat up the Tigers, said Mr. Fernando

Mr. Fernando said he had cautioned them not raise the communal issue. Later, Mr. Fernando said he had spoken to the Prison Superintendent Leelasena and told him to inform the Commissioner of Prisons to take steps to protect the prison.

Mr. Leelasena had replied that he informed the relevant person. Mr. Fernando said he did not know whether this information was correct or not.

Referring to an earlier incident, Mr. Fernando said that on December 1, a Tamil prisoner had suffered head injuries when he was hit by a stone. The four prisoners involved in the incident were transferred at once to Welikada immediately he said

"If the military had done its duty properly, this incident would not have occurred," said Mr. Fernando.

Related Articles:
16.12.97   Amnesty calls for inquiry into Kalutara murders
12.12.97   Three Tamil prisoners killed by Sinhala inmates


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