The Sunday Leader

Push For Justice Over ‘Welikada Massacre’ Intensifies

by Ifham Nizam

It is now been termed as the “Welikada Massacre” and the failure to ensure justice over the incident at the Welikada prison four years ago has drawn strong reactions.

Civic Rights orgnisations stressed that it is high time that the good governance regime which assured justice with regard to the killing of 27 detainees at the Welikada prison four years ago, will come out strong without delaying justice.

“We know that  despite credible reports and evidence nothing would happen during the former regime. But we don’t understand why the present regime is shielding it,” says the convener of Anti-Corruption Front (ACF) Convener Keerthi Thennakoon.

He told The Sunday Leader they would go all out by organising a series of protests to bring justice to the victims of the incident.

He also said that the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) had investigated the incident but nothing has come out of it. He said none of the reports have been published.

The committee said they would soon file a Writ Petition in the Colombo High Court to urge the Prisons Ministry to publish the investigation report which had already been completed and handed over to the government, which he said was not being done because the government was trying to protect the culprits.

Meanwhile, Lawyers for Democracy says that streets protests should be the norm if the government fails to ensure justice with regard to the deaths of 27 detainees at the Welikada prison.

“Committees appointed by the present and former governments to look into the incident issued reports, but neither has been tabled before parliament, co-convener of the organisation,” Chandrapala Kumarage told The Sunday Leader. 

He says incidents of this nature should not be delayed and it is the duty of the government to come out with the findings and punish those responsible, thereby giving the chance to the relatives and friends of the victims to take action against those who were responsible. 

It is understood that  a letter regarding the inmates deaths, was sent to President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The government has still not been able to fulfill the promise to look into these killings which was one of the significant promises made by the government before coming into power.

 Deputy Justice Minister Sujeewa Senasinghe, gave the promise to investigate into this when the parents of the killed and civil organisations held a protest demanding justice on February, 17, 2015.

Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission Prof. Deepika Udagama said the complaint would be looked into and a response made within a few days. However, despite several  attempts  to contact her she was not available for comment.

 Meanwhile, at a press briefing organised by the Committee for Protecting the Rights of Prisoners at Maradana last week, Sudesh Nandimal, a prisoner who escaped injury but had witnessed 27 prisoners in Welikada Prison being shot dead on  November  10, alleged that Welikada Prison authorities informed them that the order to shoot 27 prisoners was issued by the then Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

 The Committee for Protecting the Rights of Prisoners charged that despite ‘good governance’ promising the massacre would be investigated and justice would be served, the ‘yahapalana’ government was having deals with those responsible for the deaths of prisoners.

  The Committee’s President Attorney-at-Law Senaka Perera, pointed out that no one responsible for the massacre has been arrested despite the fact that the  Criminal Investigations Department (CID) had investigated the incident.

 The 2012 Welikada prison riots which left 27 dead and many more injured was a horrific incident of human rights violation that became the subject of intense discussion both locally and internationally. Today, it has once again come under the spotlight since the law has not yet been enforced against the culprits even though the truth behind the incident has already been uncovered.

 Under the Yahapalanaya government, a committee was appointed to investigate the incident. The committee has already handed their report over to the government, but due to some unknown reason, it has not yet been made public. The issue became a hot topic once again after death threats were made against one Suresh Nandimal, an eye witnesses to the incident who is also a convener of the Committee for Protecting the Rights of Prison Inmates.

 Nandimal is a main witness in the incident and insider sources revealed that several other personnel including prison officers had given evidence to the crime. 

Recalling the unnerving experience he suffered recently, Nandimal said that four men had met him inside a shop in Moratuwa around 8.40 pm and told him to stop pursuing the matter. They had warned him that his life would be in danger if they were to go to jail. Members of the Army, Police and several jailors were involved in the prison incident. Pointing out that he could recognise the culprits if he saw them again, Suresh says that scare tactics will not stop his quest for justice. Alleging that all these incidents had happened under Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s orders, Nandimal further requests the government not to use the incident for political leverage.

 It is indeed unfortunate that a human rights activist was threatened by an unidentified gang within days of the UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s four day Sri Lankan visit. Meanwhile, the review of the entire incident is as follows.

 The Welikada prison riots occurred on November 9, 2012 at the Welikada Prison. The riots broke out during a search for illegal arms. The riots left 27 people dead and 40 injured. The  Welikada Prison which houses around 4,000 prisoners has witnessed a number of violent riots in its history. This prison riots was the worst in Sri Lanka’s history since the 1983 riots, also at Welikada Prison, which left 53 prisoners dead.

 At around 1.30 pm local time on November 9, 2012, about 300 commandos from the Special Task Force (STF), a paramilitary unit of the Sri Lanka Police, arrived at Welikada Prison to assist prison guards in searching for illegal arms, drugs and mobile phones. The search was first carried out in the “L” section which was home to hardcore criminals. 

Despite protests from prisoners, the STF completed their search, recovering drugs and mobile phones from the cells. At around 4 p.m., the STF moved on to the “Chapel Ward” which was home to prisoners who served death sentence, life sentence and other long sentences. The STF commandos wanted to handcuff the prisoners, but they objected and arguments and fighting broke out between the STF commandos and the prisoners. Some prisoners alleged that they had been stripped and beaten up. The prisoners started throwing stones and other objects at the STF.

 As the disturbance intensified the STF tried to suppress the riots using teargas but at around 4.30 pm prisoners working in the “Bingo” section broke into the main area and joined the fight against the STF. The STF and prison officials had to retreat from the prison. The prisoners allegedly took control of the prison and a siege ensued during which some officials were held hostage by the prisoners. Numerous prisoners appeared on the prison’s roof, some brandishing weapons. They started throwing stones at the STF who were now on the road outside the prison. They also threatened onlookers.

 The prison was surrounded by the police and roads leading to the prison were closed at 5.45 pm. At around this time, the prisoners broke into the prison’s armories and took possession of arms including assault rifles. At around 6.15 pm, five prisoners broke out of the prison and tried to escape in a trishaw. They opened fire at the STF who returned fire killing four of the prisoners. Over the next half hour, there was heavy gun-fighting between the prisoners inside and the authorities outside. There was a power-cut in the area at 6.25 pm which added to the confusion. The authorities tried to storm the prison several times but had to withdraw after coming under fire from the prisoners. The army was called in, bringing with it an armoured car. The authorities had then planned to storm the prison at 8 pm but this had to be postponed because of heavy rains. Eventually, at 2 am, the STF stormed the prison and took full control of the prison.

 Twenty seven people, all prisoners, had been killed and 40 injured (20 prisoners, 13 STF, four soldiers, one prison guard and two others). Eyewitnesses, human rights groups and opposition politicians have alleged that some of the dead prisoners had been executed. A number of prisoners also escaped but many had been recaptured.

 The prisoners may have had inside help – it is alleged that some prison guards had been selling contraband items to the prisoners, and they weren’t happy that the STF had been brought in to assist with the searches.

 The report of the three-member committee appointed to probe the Welikada Prison riots was released to the media on June 25, 2015. In the report, the committee recommended payment of compensation to the families of the deceased and those who were injured in the incident.

 Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe appointed this committee with Retired High Court Judge Wimal Nambuwasamge as its chairman. It began investigations in early February 2015 and conducted its probe over a period of three months. The committee stated that during the investigation they recorded statements from over 100 people including jailors, inmates and relatives of those who were killed.

The report was handed over to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on June 9, 2015.

 The Centre for Human Rights and Research (CHR) called on Minister Rajapakshe to inform the public as to what further action would be taken as per the report.

 Writing to Minister Rajapakshe, Executive Director of CHR Ranjith Keerthi Tennakoon noted that there was sufficient evidence to prove that on November 9, 2012, a group of inmates had been targeted and killed in a premeditated manner. Two committees have thus far been appointed including one by the current government to look into this matter, and of one of the reports that has been handed over to Minister Rajapakshe, only a portion has been made public while ultra sensitive information in the report is still being kept secret, languishing in a safe in the Ministry of Justice, Tennakoon said.

 “This is one of the gravest human rights abuses and violations of the recent past. The entire civilised society vehemently condemns the violations. The need for  credible investigation and inquiry into the events has been repeatedly highlighted both locally and internationally.

Our preliminary investigations have unearthed that Ministry officials have hindered further actions pertaining to the report’s findings and revelations. The Police investigations into the incident too have failed to make progress,” he observed.

 Various other people have expressed their view on the incident over the past few years as well.

 Meanwhile, Chairman of the Collective Against the Killers of Welikada Prison Inmates, Attorney-At-Law Senaka Perera said, “It is problematic as to why no action has so far been taken even with the existence of eyewitness’ accounts. This undue delay is only going to aid the criminals. We are planning to obtain a writ order against the IGP, the AG, and the Minister of Law and Order for failing to act regarding the matter. The letters regarding the matter are already being drafted.”

 Attorney-At-Law Udul Premaratne, human rights activist said, “Although the report has been handed over to Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, still no action has been taken. An important fact mentioned in the witness testimonies regarding the weapons used in the incident is that they had been procured by the prisoners after crashing into the prison armoury, and that they had to be killed as they had tried to shoot the army.

 But those guns were weapons that had been taken out from the outer armoury and had been issued to the police via a prison officer. The officials have already made a clear testimony along with the numbers and times of the weapons to the Commission. So the undue delay is a problem.”

“During our inquiries we were also able to discover some of the points that are mentioned in the committee report on the incident. Accordingly, among the committee recommendations are prison reforms, compensating the victims, minimising the congestion inside prisons and pressing for a criminal trial.

 Despite arguing about the lapses of the committee, it could be worthwhile to act according to these recommendations. However, the attitude of the officials regarding the matter gives rise to many questions. In an indirect way, it gives an impression as to the attempts of the former President and the Defence Secretary to conceal the matter or the attempt of the present government to keep this as leverage.”

 This unfortunate incident at the Welikada Prison that openly violated the accepted norms of human rights has added a black mark to the country’s reputation. By failing to take prompt action, the government is making things even worse. Further delay is only going to stain the good name of the Yahapalana government.

4 Comments for “Push For Justice Over ‘Welikada Massacre’ Intensifies”

  1. janaka

    Our weak leaders prepared to look ridiculous in order to protect the filth Gota? WHY?

  2. kudson

    sirisena will never go after gotha
    sirisena knows he will never win the next elections
    because he has broken every promise he made
    and he will have to flee the country if he prosecutes any of the rajapakses
    so all those who were murdered , lasantha, eknaligoda, raviraj, thajudeen
    to their families I say stop hoping as long as sirisena is in power

  3. Mahen

    It’s galringly obvious that the present Governement had struck a deal with the top dogs of the previous regime. With Wijedasa as the deal maker nothing more will come out as he has ensured that the report is locked up safely in his cabinet.

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