Three prisoners were killed within the premises of the Negombo Prison, in the west coast Sri Lankan city of Negombo last week. One of the prisoners reportedly shot two others with a pistol and then climbed a tree, announcing he would surrender only if the commissioner of prisons came to the scene.
This was perhaps to avoid being assaulted or otherwise harmed when he surrendered. However, prison authorities called the police and the officer in charge arbitrarily ordered him to be shot.
The two prisoners shot first were brothers, Ajith and Asitha Silva, and the assailant was Chaminda Samara Silva, an army deserter.
Following the murders several newspaper articles appeared, based on the version of events provided by prison authorities. These said that the assailant belonged to an underground group on whose orders he had killed the other two, who belonged to a second underground group. However, no independent evidence has confirmed this, nor has an independent inquiry into the incident by the Criminal Investigation Division been ordered.
The prison authorities have not been able to explain how a prisoner in their custody possessed a firearm. Prison regulations require that a prisoner be fully searched and disarmed when taken into custody. Strict regulations and routines govern such searches, to ensure that prisoners do not possess instruments with which they could harm themselves or others.
The chief of each prison is responsible for ensuring that regulations are strictly enforced. The commissioner of prisons is responsible for maintaining order within the prisons and ensuring that regulations are being observed.
It is not possible for a prisoner to carry a weapon into a prison without the knowledge of prison officers. In fact, it is not possible without the direct or indirect involvement of the officers in charge of the reception and search of prisoners.
When the police arrived they made no attempt to arrest the prisoner before resorting to extreme action. It was their duty to attempt to negotiate with the prisoner and secure his arrest without physical harm. If all else failed, minimum force could have been used to subdue the prisoner.
A man in a tree could have been brought down easily without resorting to shooting him. So this case involves the use of force beyond what is legally allowed.
Killing the prisoner is to the disadvantage of any investigation, as the prisoner would have divulged information as to the reasons for the shooting and also the conspirators who ordered the killings. Therefore, possibly the most important source of information regarding the crime was lost when the gunman who shot the other two prisoners was assassinated.
This has lead to the suspicion that the assailant was killed deliberately to protect the conspirators. Links between the police in Negombo and criminal elements have been demonstrated by many other cases. Therefore the family of the deceased and the public are suspicious as to the extent of police involvement in this triple murder.
The murder of three prisoners should have been treated as a matter of extreme importance and subjected to a thorough inquiry by an impartial and competent investigating body. The failure to investigate such a serious incident implicates the inspector general of police, as it is his duty to arrange a credible investigation.
Under the present circumstances, the family of the two deceased brothers seriously doubts the story given by prison authorities and reported in newspapers. When the correspondent for a foreign wire service visited the family, many neighbors gathered to question the reporter about the published reports. The crowd was extremely hostile to the reporter, as they saw him as another journalist who would distort the story, they felt, as other newspapers had done.
To appease the crowd, the reporter had to explain that he was working for a foreign service and had no role in the publication of previous articles. Still the family and neighbors refused to be interviewed by the reporter, saying there were political reasons for the assassinations and they suspected a scheme behind the killings.
Inquiries into the possession of a firearm by a prison inmate have brought to light alarming facts regarding the condition of prisons in Sri Lanka. Many observers, including human rights activists, have stated that the smuggling of drugs, weapons and even women into prisons is not uncommon. As one human rights activist said, “Sri Lankan prisons are universities for crime.”
Within the Negombo Prison there have been several murders in recent years. The last one took place a few months ago when a prisoner was killed the very first day he arrived at the prison after sentencing. According to some inmates, the prisoner told them he had been severely assaulted by other inmates on the instructions of a prison officer who demanded bribes he was unable to pay.
In two other murder cases the Supreme Court granted relief to the families after concluding that prison authorities had failed to provide protection to prisoners. Yet the observations and recommendations of the Supreme Court have not lead to any reforms within the system.
Prisoners taken into custody are under the protection of the state. They are completely helpless; their movements are entirely controlled by the authorities. Allowing prisoners to be killed under those circumstances is a fundamental breach of the duty of protection by the state.
In a country where a credible system of administration existed, the prison commissioner and all senior officers of the particular prison would have had to resign by now. They would also have been brought to justice for criminal negligence, if not for direct connivance in these murders.
However, in the present case no action has been taken to restore public confidence that the prison system functions within the rule of law.
Prison murders are only one example of the state’s disregard for human life and failure to protect its citizens. In fact, no one can reasonably feel protected in a state where the murder of such people as journalists and political opponents of the government occurs with unabated impunity.