SRI LANKA: The killing of 27 prisoners at the Welikade Prison in Colombo 

The Asian Human Rights Commission has written to the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions regarding the incident at the Welikada Prison in Sri Lanka on November 9, 2012. The full text of the letter may be seen below:

Mr. Christof Heyns
Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions
Palais des Nations
CH-1211 Geneva 10

Dear Professor Heyns,

Re: The killing of 27 prisoners at the Welikade Prison in Colombo, Sri Lanka

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) wishes to bring to your notice the killing of 27 prisoners in two separate sections of the Welikada Prison; ‘L’ Section and the ‘Chapel Building’ that took place on the evening of 9 November. Further according to reports three persons are missing.

It is difficult to obtain a clear picture of how the killing took place as the public is only receiving information which gives the government’s version of the events published through the state media. No independent investigation about the incident is possible in Sri Lanka under the present circumstances.

According to the information provided by the spokesperson for the government, about 500 Special Task Force (STF) personnel entered the prison for an inspection or a raid to investigate the illegal possessions of the prisoners such as mobile telephones, drugs and the like. The STF is a paramilitary group. Under normal circumstances such groups are not deployed for inspections or raids inside prisons and this is usually done by prison officers themselves and at times in the past they have sought the help of the civilian police of the area. In this particular raid the assistance of the police was not sought and the raid was carried out entirely by the STF officers and later when the conflict developed military commandos were called in.

It is reported that the STF initially handcuffed the prisoners in ‘L’ Section and conducted the raid. This appears to have been completed without incidents. Thereafter, the officers went to the Chapel Building and attempted to do the same there. Here the prisoners protested against the use of the handcuffs and a commotion ensued.

While this was happening another group of prisoners, reported to be about 3,000 in number were being taken for daily labour. On hearing of the commotion by the prisoners in the Chapel Building, who were reportedly protesting the use of handcuffs, the prisoners who were being taken for their labour turned to help the other prisoners and this it appears to have led to the confrontation between the STF and the prisoners.

At this state teargas was used against the prisoners but it also affected the officers themselves and even those staying in the quarters of the prison officers which is close by. At this point the STF moved out and in the commotion some of the prisoners broke into the armoury and reportedly came into possession of some weapons.

Thereafter, the situation reportedly went further out of control and there appears to have been a gun battle between the prisoners and the officers that resulted in several deaths. However, even after several hours things were still out of control and army commandos were called in. They entered the area occupied by the prisoners under the cover of gunfire and after some time the situation was brought under control.

Family members of the prisoners claim that they received telephone calls from their relatives inside the prison at around 4 AM on 10 November. The prisoners informed their family members that they were being taken for questioning. Later these same prisoners were found dead of gunshot injuries. According to reports about 11 persons were killed in this manner after being taken for questioning.

The total death toll until now is 27 and there are many others who are in critical condition in hospital.

Quite recently there were two other raids of similar nature; one at the Magazine Prison and another at Vavuniya Prison. In both instances STF were used and there were conflicts in which several persons were killed. There has not been any credible inquiry into either of these incidents.

Following the Welikada incident on 9 November, the minister for the Department of Prisons, Mr. Chandrasiri Gajadheera, made a statement in the parliament in which he said that a three-member committee would be appointed to inquire into the incident. However, he failed to name who the three persons might be.

Such large-scale killings in prisons require a high level of inquiry headed by superior court judges. However, the appointment of such an inquiry is most unlikely.

In an inquiry the witnesses under the circumstances are going to be mostly the officers involved in the raid and the prisoners who witnessed the incident. However, it is most unlikely that the prisoners will come forward to state any evidence which is adverse to that of the officers. They have good reason to fear that they may be harmed if they were to honestly depose in an inquiry. Under such circumstances it is most unlikely that the actual event and the manner in which it happened will ever be revealed.

The state media is carrying on a heavy campaign to create the impression that the killings are a good thing as the persons who were killed are those convicted of serious crimes such as murder. This campaign is directed to counteract a possible reaction from the public against these killings and any demands for a proper inquiry.

The key question involved in any inquiry should be as to how the prison authorities lost control of the prisons. As mentioned above, this is the third instance within a few months when paramilitary forces have been called on to conduct raids inside prisons. Quite clearly there is a breakdown of the normal process of the control of prisons which should be carried out under the direction of the Commissioner of Prisons.

This breakdown of the control of the prisons reflects a similar problem that exists in all public authorities in Sri Lanka. The cause of the breakdown of all the public authorities is usually referred to locally as ‘politicisation’ of state establishments. A political process that favours the appointments of those who are nominated by the government, decides all appointments, promotions, disciplinary control and dismissals. Such politicisation has been severely criticised. However, under the executive presidential system in Sri Lanka all aspects of the state apparatus are brought under a handful of persons who are close to the executive president. This is causing a breakdown in administration in every aspect of governance.

This STF and also the commandos work directly under the Ministry of Defence. In recent years this ministry has acquired a reputation for engaging in all forms of killings such as by way of causing enforced disappearances and by uncontrolled use of force. Usually those who work under the ministry enjoy absolute impunity.

This is a serious situation and I hope you will take appropriate actions to demand from the Government of Sri Lanka a proper reporting about the incident and thereby to ensure accountability for these killings.



Bijo Francis
Acting Executive Director
Asian Human Rights Commission

Document Type : Open Letter
Document ID : AHRC-OLT-017-2012
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Extrajudicial killings, Prison conditions,