Criminal gangs exploited prisoners’ grievances to further rivalries | Page 4 | Sunday Observer
Probe into Mahara Prison riot:

Criminal gangs exploited prisoners’ grievances to further rivalries

13 December, 2020

The committee appointed to investigate and report on the Mahara Prison riot in its report stated that criminal gangs in the Mahara Prisonhad taken advantage of other prisoners demand to release remand prisoners and conduct PCR tests on inmates and remove Covid-19 infected prisoners from the prison and attacked each other to further their personal rivalries.

The committee presented its interim report to Justice Minister Ali Sabry who tabled it in Parliament recently. Further facts into the events that took place on November 29 in the Mahara Prison were also submitted by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) before the courts shedding more light on the incident. The new information also dispelled a number of presumptions put forward by various parties following the prison unrest.

The committee, led by its Chairperson, former High Court Judge Kusala Sarojini Weerawardena, commenced its investigations on November 3 by visiting the Mahara prison.

The committee said that after learning that Covid-19 patients were in the Mahara Remand Prison and that there was a risk to their lives due to overcrowding in the prison, the inmates had been protesting to get a speedy solution from the authorities. Various criminal gangs within the prison had taken advantage of the prevailing situation and attacked each other to further their personal rivalries, the committee said.

According to the Committee, witness statements had revealed that at the time of the clash, detainees were in possession of stones, clubs, iron rods, swords, knives, as well as fuel obtained from the prison boiler to set the premises on fire. The committee noted that the inmates did not have firearms in their possession and that only prison guards had weapons and used them during the clashes.

The report stated that a large number of inmates had taken part in the unrest. The committee revealed that there were occasional shootings by prison officials, but no shots had been fired by the security forces or Special Task Force (STF) personnel who were called in to control the situation. Another grievance of prisoners raised by the committee was the low quality of food provided to inmates.


“The number of inmates in the prison was 2,782 and there were 2,148 remand prisoners. The rest were convicted prisoners.” It was revealed that there were three times as many detainees in the prison.

According to the committee, a decision had been made to transfer 112 persons suffering from various ailments at theWelikada Prison Hospital toMahara and housed in another area at the Mahara Prison Hospital, some remand prisoners had also been brought from the Bogambara prison. About 1,000 PCR tests were conducted on November 25 and 27 on the inmates at theMahara Prison over Covid-19. The results were received in the evening of November 28 and the morning of November 29 where it was also revealed that about 180 people had been diagnosed with Covid-19. This information had spread among the prison populace causing panic and confusion.

According to the findings, initially tear gas had been used to disperse the inmates and later rubber bullets to scare the inmates. Live ammunition had been used to quell the unrest. In the evening of November 30, the detainees came near the gate and acted violently. Officers had opened fire to control the rioters. Several people have been shot as a result, the Committee noted.

In its recommendations, the committee has stressed the need to release remand prisoners on bail immediately after PCR testing and direct them to self-isolate or be sent to quarantine centres depending on the results. It has also proposed to increase the number of prison guards at Mahara to resolve the long-standing staffing issues in the prison and to implement a better welfare system for the inmates when family members are not allowed due to Covid-19.

Damage to property

The committee also urged the authorities to conduct investigations into the damage caused in the prison and take action against the inmates involved.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa also, last week, instructed the authorities to look humanely at the grievances of the prisoners and address them immediately by providing assistance to them. As over 12,000 people are incarcerated due to drug addiction, the President emphasised the need to pay special attention to them and formulate a rehabilitation program.

President Rajapaksa instructed officials to explore the possibility of constructing pre-fabricated prisons to eliminate overcrowding.

He also stressed the need to study the models of foreign prisons and take immediate measures to provide facilities. The President said that the agencies, including Customs, Police, Prisons and Rehabilitation should establish a Presidential Task Force and take steps to resolve issues.