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Sentenced to death – Sri Lankan prison chief convicted over 2012 prison massacre

After almost a decade, a Sri Lankan court has sentenced a senior prison official to death over his role in the killing of at least 27 inmates in a massacre at the Welikada prison in 2012.

Sri Lanka’s Prisons Commissioner Emil Lamahewage was found guilty over his role in the killings, which was initially reported as a clash between Sri Lankan Special Task Force (STF) elite commandos and Sinhala prisoners. It emerged that at least 27 inmates were killed, and at least eight were called out by name and executed.

According to court documents, weapons were later planted to make it seem as if the prisoners had fired on the guards.

As the riot spread across the prison, located in Colombo, more than 180 Tamil political prisoners were reportedly moved from Magazine prison in Welikada to another jail for their own safety.

Though Lamahewage was found guilty, his co-accused, police commando Moses Rangajeewa was not convicted.

It took almost 5 years for Sri Lankan authorities to launch an investigation into the massacre. Witnesses to the massacre reported intimidation, whilst gunmen also reportedly fired at the house of one of the key eyewitnesses. Eventually, Lamahewage and Rangajeewa were indicted in 2019.

However, apart from Lamahewage, no one has been convicted.

Sri Lanka has a disturbing history of massacres and rights violations in prisons.

Just last year, Sri Lankan state minister Lohan Ratwatte forced Tamil inmates detained in the Anuradhapura prison to kneel down at gunpoint. Ratwatte was allegedly under the influence of alcohol when he entered the premises and demanded Tamil prisoners to perform the humiliating act.

It is understood that Ratwatte also took his friends along to the prison, who were also inebriated, and threatened Tamil prisoners that he would kill them on the spot with his gun if they did not obey his orders.

Previous prison riots, notably in 20001997 and 1983, have resulted in Tamil political prisoners being murdered by Sinhala mobs.

In the 1983 massacre, 53 prisoners were slaughtered by Sinhala inmates whilst prison guards watched on.  On the 25 July 1983 Sellarasa “Kuttimani” Yogachandiran, leader of the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) and Ganeshanathan Jeganathan, a political writer, had their eyes gouged out in mockery before being killed by Sinhalese inmates at the high-security Welikada prison in Colombo. A total of 37 Tamil prisoners were murdered the same day, and 18 more were killed two days later.

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