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Civil Society urge Sri Lankan prisoner releases amidst COVID-19 pandemic

A wide cross-section of civil society in Sri Lanka and the North-East has called for the reduction of numbers of prisoners through releases and called on the authorities to implement better hygiene standards in prisons on the island in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A letter from civil society organisations published on March 26 was addressed to Sri Lanka's President, Minister of Justice, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Commissioner General of Prisons, President of the Bar Association and copied to among others, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. The letter followed an earlier appeal by the Committee for Protecting Rights of Prisoners issued on March 16.

Both the World Health Organization and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have released statements this month stating that prisons are an optimal breeding ground for viruses due to their confined nature, and thus prisoners are among the most vulnerable segments of society to COVID-19.

Sri Lanka's prisons are notoriously overcrowded and according to statistics from the Sri Lankan Prison Department, between 2010 and 2018, 75-81% of the prison population were unconvicted prisoners held in remand. Among these prisoners are Tamil political prisoners detained under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) who have been held at times for over 15 years without charge, only to be acquitted when their cases are finally heard. The civil society letter calls on the Attorney General to "expedite decisions on sanctioning bail for detainees held under the PTA."

On March 21, two unarmed prisoners were killed by police officers when prisoners began rioting at a prison in Anuradhapura after officials halted all prison visits and due to fears about COVID-19. Prison visits are an essential means by which prisoners obtain adequate food, medications and other necessities.

The Sri Lankan government announced earlier this week that they were establishing a committee to consider the release of prisoners due to COVID-19 but as of yet, no actions have been taken. In their letter, civil society encourages the committee to particularly "take into account factors of vulnerability, such as those suffering terminal or serious illnesses, the elderly and children living in prison with mothers."

Civil society also calls on the government when implementing procedures to, "make public, in the interest of transparency, the criteria used to undertake the assessment of prisoners to be released and a number of prisoners in each category so released."

Transparency has been a prime issue with the government's decisions around prisoner releases evidenced by the announcement this week that the President pardoned Sunil Ratnanayake, a soldier convicted for the brutal massacre of eight Tamil civilians in 2000. Rathnayake is the only prisoner the government has given a special release to since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The letter also calls on the government to take measures to replace the gap filled by a stoppage of prison visits in terms of necessities for prisoners, and requests that additional sanitary measures be established in prisons.

The full letter can be viewed here

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