"Prison guards used force in order to bring unrest under control."
On December 1, 2020, the Sri Lankan Government agreed to release hundreds of prisoners held for minor offences following a prison riot.
The government has declared they would free thousands more after a riot broke out over Coronavirus cases at one of its many overcrowded jails.
The riot in Mahara prison, near Colombo, began after prisoners demanded better health facilities. They also called to expedite the hearing of their cases.
Sri Lanka Prisons Commissioner Chandana Ekanayake earlier stated:
“A group of inmates forced their way into an area where medicine is stored they were caught stealing pharmaceuticals.”
Sri Lanka’s overcrowded prisons have been a hot spot for new cases.
The prison currently has about 30,000 inmates, which is nearly thrice its capacity.
Inmates are demanding to be freed after at least 1,000 prison inmates in the country tested positive for Covid-19.
Over 100 prisoners were injured when guards opened fire to contain the unrest on November 29, 2020.
Eight prisoners were killed during the riots, whereas three more succumbed to their injuries the day after, bringing the total death toll to 11.
Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana said:
“Prison guards used force in order to bring unrest under control.”
There have been persisting calls from human rights activists to address the problem of overcrowding in Sri Lanka’s prisons.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has pardoned over 600 prisoners following the riots.
Further, the government has promised to consider releasing thousands in remand custody on bail.
The Police Criminal Investigation Department is probing the incident.
While Sri Lankan Justice Minister Ali Sabry on November 30, 2020, appointed a five-member committee to investigate the violence and killings.
Ali Sabry told Sri Lanka’s parliament that a total of 607 inmates had been given a general amnesty after the riots.
He added: “As part of a presidential directive, we are looking at other ways of releasing more prisoners and expediting the cases against them.”
Issuing a statement, human rights watchdog Amnesty International has sought a thorough and impartial investigation into the incident.
Urging authorities to address the underlying causes, the group said:
“The incident reflects the anxiety among prisoners about the threat of Covid-19 within severely overcrowded prisons.
The riots highlight the inadequate measures in place to protect inmates in Sri Lanka’s prisons.”
Sri Lanka had contained its first wave of Covid-19 that broke out March effectively.
However, the second wave that began in early October is witnessing a rapid rise in cases and fatalities.
As of December 1, 2020, Sri Lanka’s Health Promotion Bureau reported 23,987 cases and 118 deaths.