12/16/2020, 16.50
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They were shot when asking for water

by Melani Manel Perera

The Mahara Prison incident report blames the riot of 29 November on food shortages, difficulties in communication with families, and lack of COVID-19 testing.

Colombo (Asia News) – The riot at Mahara Prison was caused by food shortages, difficulties in communicating with families, and lack of COVID-19 testing, this according to Ruki Fernando.

In an article on the “Mahara Prison incident”, the Catholic human rights activist writes that a report on the incident documents how and why 11 prisoners were killed  and more than a hundred were wounded.

The report was tabled in parliament on 9 December but was not released the public; however, Fernando was able to get a copy provided to him by a Member of Parliament.

“The report noted that about 1,000 PCR[*] tests were done on inmates at the Mahara prison on November 25 and 27,” Fernando writes. “The results had come on the 28th evening and the morning of the 29th, indicating that about 180 inmates and six prison officers had tested positive.”

This “showed that PCR tests had been done on only about 35 per cent of the inmates at the Mahara prison.” In fact, “According to the committee, at the time of the incident, Mahara Prison had 2,782 inmates, three times the number it could accommodate”.

“The committee noted that the news about the results reached inmates and those outside the prison through unofficial channels and this had caused unrest and fear about the risk to life. The committee concluded that the protest was a reasonable one driven by demands to protect their lives.

“The four key demands were to release those who had already been granted bail, provide food that was suitable for consumption, do PCR tests on all inmates and remove those who test positive for COVID-19 from the prison.”

“The report stated that no inmates had access to or used firearms and that only prison officials had used firearms”. However, “There were problems with water and food supply on the 30th and more unrest that evening”.

“The committee also recommended implementing a mechanism to provide food and other essentials through welfare centres”. It also “recommended doing PCR tests on those released as soon as possible, sending those testing positive to treatment centres and those testing negative for quarantining at home.”

“The report mentioned that when the committee visited the Mahara prison on December 3, they had asked the Superintendent to facilitate calls from detainees to families. But even on December 5 there were desperate families outside the prison gate demanding to know about their lover ones, pleading for at least a phone call from those who had survived.”

“The committee noted delays in the release of prisoners who had been given bail [. . .]. It recommended expediting releases of other inmates who could be freed after payment of a fine or bail [. . .].” likewise, “It also recommended implementing a process to release convicted prisoners considering the length of their sentences, giving priority to the elderly.”

[*] Polymerase chain reaction.

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