Rev Marimuttu Sathivel speaks out on International Human Rights Day. Many people are in jail for political offences. The prison system holds 34,000 prisoners in facilities with a capacity of 12,000. Prisons should be places of rehabilitation, not torture.
Colombo (AsiaNews) – Today is International Human Rights Day. In Sri Lanka though, “the fundamental rights of prisoners are seriously violated,” says Rev Marimuttu Sathivel, coordinator of the National Movement for the Release of Political Prisoners.
For this reason, “There is little to celebrate,” said the clergyman who has been an active advocate for prisoners’ rights.
Speaking to AsiaNews, he explains that “‘Prisoners are human beings’ is written on the walls of our prisons, but we must ask ourselves if they are treated as such.”
Sathivel is an Anglican minister based in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. He wants to see the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) repealed. The law has been used to arrest many people simply because of their commitment to a political cause.
The government rejected his accusations, saying that there are no political prisoners in the country. However, for Sathivel, the case of Hijaz Hezbollah disproves this. Arrested for terrorism, the Muslim human rights lawyer has been in prison for eight months without any formal indictment or trial.
The Anglican pastor points out that anyone arrested for alleged terrorist acts does not even have the right to bail. What is more, some inmates have been in isolation for 20 years, and it is not easy for family members to visit them in prison. “Isn't this a violation of human rights?” Fr Sathivel asks.
The problem of overcrowding is another serious issue. Sri Lankan prisons are built for 12,000 inmates, but currently hold 34,000, 28,000 according to government figures. Whatever the number, overcrowding is so bad that prisoners are often forced to take shifts to sleep, or have to rest in bathrooms.
Sathivel calls for respect of the rule of law and therefore the release of political prisoners. He wants to see a change of culture: prisons must not be “places of torture or simple punishment, but rehabilitation institutions. Instead of preventing crime, the existing system pushes people into cycles of poverty and marginalisation.”