File photo: Welikada (Magazine) Prison, Colombo
At least 64 Tamil prisoners incarcerated in prisons across the island, including political prisoners, have contracted the coronavirus. PCR tests conducted at Welikada (Magazine) prison in Colombo over the past few days confirmed the presence of the virus in the bodies of 14 prisoners, as extensive calls for the release of Tamil political prisoners continues. Among the infected at Welikada is Ragupathi Sharma, a political prisoner given a 300-year jail sentence in connection with the bombing of former Sri Lankan president Chandrika Kumaratunga.
Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) leader and MP Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam stated that families of the detainees across the island complained of poor and low-quality food and medicine being provided to their loved ones inside the prison. The families also fear that such poor services might risk the lives of their incarcerated relatives.
Former Judicial Medical Officer, Dr. Sivaruban, who was arrested in 2019, and former Jaffna University Lecturer, Kanesasundaram Kannadasan, who remains detained despite being acquitted of charges by the Sri Lankan Court of Appeal earlier this year, are reportedly among the political prisoners who have tested positive the virus.
Ponnambalam added that that the United Nations (UN) delegation in Sri Lanka had been informed of the plight of the Tamil political prisoners in the country. Many long-serving political prisoners reportedly suffer from chronic illnesses, which would make the particularly vulnerable to succumb to the virus, families feared.
Tamil political prisoners detained at the Welikada prison, numbering 44 altogether, have become increasingly worried following the rapid spread of the pandemic inside the prison.
Despite repeated pleas for release via bail, the government paid only short shrift to legitimate health-related concerns from the prisoners and neglected their release.
The Sri Lankan government has continued to reject the pleas from political prisoners and NGO’s. Organisations such as, 'The Voice of the Voiceless', have expressed concerns about the plight of the prisoners and demanded that despite past neglect, this current situation should finally prompt them to take action into freeing the prisoners on bail.
Former political prisoner and current co-ordinator of 'The Voice of the Voiceless', Murugiah Komakan, has urged that Tamil politicians should take immediate notice of the health-risk that Tamil prisoners find themselves in and take actions to alleviate their suffering.
Earlier this year, the longest-serving Tamil political prisoner, Sellapillai Mahendran, died in custody. He was just 17 when he arrested in 1993.
*A previous version of this article erroneously stated that 64 prisoners inside Welikada prison had been infected.*