Welikada prison massacre: The re-appearance of dictatorship

| by Nalaka Rupasinghe
( December 5, 2012, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) There is a famous saying that goes: “When the smoke clears and the dust begins to settle, we can finally begin to see the truth through all the rumours and the lies that have attempted to cloud the reality of what we have already become.”
Sri Lanka’s STF prepare to storm Welikada prison where many prisoners were massacred.

On the 9th of Friday afternoon and the early hours of the 10th November 2012, Sri Lanka’s Special Task Force (STF) and army commandos killed 27 prisoners and injured more than 40 inmates inside the Welikada high security prison and at the main gate.  There were conflicting reports about how the prison riots started and why the STF had to open fire on the prisoners.  But one thing is crystal clear: The prisoners were killed in cold-blood by the STF and the army commandos; against the law and on the orders of defence ministry, they invaded the prison.  President Mahinda Rajapaksa is also the Minister of Defence and his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the secretary of the ministry.  The so-called ‘search operation’ must have been authorised by either of them or both with the power to kill. 

On the day, nearly 600 STF armed men were sent to invade Colombo Welikada high security prison, on the pretext of searching for drugs and mobile phones.  The move was extremely unusual:  Neither the STF nor any other regular outside law enforcement agency has a legal right to enter the prison with arms and engage in such searches. The law stipulates that only the prison authorities have the right to deploy its security guards for any such purpose. According to reliable sources, after entering the prison, one of the commanding officers of the STF had asked from prison officers about some specific prisoners who were on their hit list and they had found and arrested them with the prison officers.
The riots started when the STF started handcuffing prisoners in the L-Ward. When other prisoners protested against this humiliating act, the STF locked them back in the cells tear-gassed the whole ward.  That was the time the other prisoners stated screaming and rioting.  It was alleged using the opportunity the STF killed the prisoners in handcuffs who were on their hit list. This triggered violent reactions from inmates. It was reported that the killer team was led by Assistant Superintendent of police (ASP) Sylvester (his criminal history has been published in the Lanka e-news website.)
The brutal killing provoked other prisoners and within minutes the news had spread among the prisoners.  (There are about 4500 inmates in the prison who live in appalling conditions.)  They naturally reacted by hurling stones.  When the STF started shooting indiscriminately at the prisoners, some prisoners had wrested some automatic rifles from the STF for their self-defence.  This would have been the atmosphere the government expected to create to justify the killings.  Many imamates climbed to the rooftops for their defence and public sympathy (the prison situated in the heart of Colombo in a densely populated area in Borrella, surrounded by Lady Ridgway children hospital, Wesley College-Boys school and the local town).  So the people can see the prisoners on roof tops from the roads and buildings etc. vice versa. But the heavy-handed STF killed 16 prisoners killed and injured more than 40.  Many were in critical condition.

Some of the prisoners who were massacred at the Welikada Prison in Colombo.

During the night (early hours of the November 10th) the army commandos entered the prison for the second round of killing: They arrested and killed another selected 11 unarmed prisoners after ordering them to kneel.  This raised the death toll to 27.  Almost all the prisoners had been killed and injured in the shooting were Sinhalese, there were two Muslims and one Tamil was among the killed.  Prisoners are human beings this has been well crafted in the front wall of Welikada prison.
What does the law say about prisoners?
This is an extract from the press release of Lawyers for Democracy (LfD) in Sri Lanka:The LfD wishes to remind the authorities that the essence of imprisonment is only deprivation of liberty and that the right forfeited by prisoners are those that are taken away expressly or by necessary implication by the fact of this deprivation of liberty and they are entitled to all other rights including right of life, dignity, freedom from torture and inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment at all times in their period of imprisonment or detention….
In conclusion the LfD states that those authorities who called in STF personnel into the prison are directly answerable to the massacre of these prisoners…   Lawyers for Democracy
 For the operation, in addition to nearly 600 STF men, the government also deployed hundreds of policemen and army commandos with armoured vehicles to support the STF.  Why the government had to use such a massive force to search and kill unarmed prisoners in cold blood, in broad day light, in the heart of Colombo?  What the government wanted to achieve and tell the people:  ‘Shut up or get killed’
After the massacre, the government was trying to make prisoners’ riots a scapegoat to justify the killings. This was the government’s version:
A shootout broke out between the prisoners and the STF, Prisoners went on the rampage defying orders by the STF to declare hidden mobile telephones and drugs. A tense situation prevailed at the Welikada Prison in Borella, Colombo North as the Police Elite Forces carried out a search operation within the prison premises for drugs and illegal goods. The situation took a turn for the worse as Prison inmates broke into the armoury and seized 82 weapons and then began an unceasing attack on the STF personnel. Inmates started firing at the STF personnel who came in for the search.(Sunday Observer – Government newspaper – 11 November 2012). Had the prisoners managed to get such a large number of automatic rifles, they would have killed dozens of STF men and army soldiers. But none of them from STF and the army was killed.
DIG Anura Senanayake: ‘…those were killed and injured in the shooting had been dangerous criminals and drug dealers…’

Speaking to the media, on Saturday the 10th, senior DIG Anura Senanayake defended the whole operation and the killings.  He said that all those were killed and injured in the shooting had been dangerous criminals and drug dealers.  Irony is who had /have been the actual criminals?  In fact, among those killed and injured were remand prisoners who were arrested for minor offences. 

Since President JR Jayewardene (JR) (1978-1989), no president in Sri Lanka had signed to implement death sentences.  Since then every government came to power did chose the evil practice, extrajudicial killing, to eliminate government opponents and the people who were/are in their hit list.   For political gains, the government says in public death sentence by courts are against our Buddhist ethic.  The vast majority in Sri Lanka are Buddhists. According to Buddhist moral principles killing even an animal is a sin.  
The STF is the most ruthless armed force in Sri Lanka, perhaps one of the most ruthless forces in the world.  During the JR regime Special Task Force (STF) was formed to kill and terrify people.  It operates as a paramilitary group.  During the JVP uprising (1987-1989) they killed thousands of Sinhalese people including Buddhists monks, hundreds of school children and suspects in police cells.  Many of them had been arrested for minor offences such as smoking cannabis.   In Anuradhapura-Talava STF men killed a teacher and his brother and a friend when they asked from Tambuthegama police why had they killed his brother, who surrendered to the police?  I have another story from Vavuniya about the ‘professional army.’  An unarmed Sinhalese young man, a JVP suspect, was killed in front of his young wife and two year old son when they came to have a bath in the lake.  Smaneras (young trainee monks) from a temple in Veyangoda begged for mercy for their chief incumbent, as he was being pushed into the vehicle.  They were shot dead on the spot; the incumbent never came back.
In recent times there are widespread media allegations about the government’s top politician’s links with underworld gangs, paramilitary groups, criminals and drug dealers.  Extrajudicial killing have been the best evil practice and tactic for the governments to hide the truth and frame the victims as criminals.   Even after the war ended (2009), in Sri Lanka, hundreds of people have been extrajudicially killed and framed as underworld leaders and dangerous criminals.  Had they been brought to courts the truth would have come out. 
Pro-Tamil media and organisations in the West, such as Chanel 4 and Freedom from Torture, assumes Tamils as the only persecuted group in Sri Lanka because the government is dominated by Sinhalese. But in fact, both Sinhalese and Tamils had/have been victims of the governments of dictatorship.  But could any law enforcement authority punish dictators who are above the law?
( The writer regular contributor of the London Evening Post, where this piece was originally appeared)  

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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