SRI LANKA: Triple murder within Negombo prison needs proper investigation

Three prisoners were killed within the premises of the Negombo prison last week. One of the prisoners shot two others with a pistol he had in his possession. Thereafter, he climbed into a tree and announced that he would surrender only if the commissioner of prisons came to the scene. This was perhaps to avoid being assaulted or otherwise harmed when he surrendered. However, the prison authorities called the police and the Officer-in-Charge arbitrarily ordered him to be shot. As a result all three prisoners were killed. 

The two prisoners who were shot first were brothers, Ajith Silva and Asitha Silva. The assailant was Chaminda Samara Silva, an army deserter. 

Following the murders there were several newspaper articles based on the versions of the prison authorities which said that the assailant belonged to an underground group on whose orders he had killed the other two who belonged to a second underground group. However, no independent evidence of any sort has been obtained about this incident. Neither has an independent inquiry by the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) been ordered into this incident. 

The prison authorities have not been able to explain how a prisoner in their custody came to be in possession of a fire arm. The prison regulations require that when a prisoner is taken into custody he should be fully searched and disarmed. There are strict regulations on these matters and routines have been established over the years for such searches and for ensuring that the prisoners do not possess any instruments by which they could harm others or themselves. 

The chief of each prison is responsible for ensuring that all regulations are enforced strictly. The Commissioner of Prisons is responsible for maintaining order within the prisons and ensuring that regulations are being observed. 

It is not possible for a prisoner to carry a weapon into a prison without the knowledge of some prison officers and also without the direct or indirect involvement of those officers who are in charge of the reception and search of prisoners. 

When the police team arrived they did not make any attempt to secure the arrest without resorting to extreme action. Under the regulations and practices of any policing system it would be the duty of the police to take all possible action to negotiate with the prisoner and to attempt to secure his arrest without physical harm. If everything fails minimum force may be used to subdue the prisoner. A man in a tree top could have been brought down easily without resorting to shooting him. Thus, the use of force beyond what is legally allowed is also involved in this case. 

The killing of the prisoner is to the disadvantage of any investigation as the prisoner would have been able to divulge information about the reasons for the shooting and also about the conspirators who ordered the killings. Thus, perhaps the most important source of information regarding the crime has been lost due to the assassination of the gunman who shot the other two prisoners. This has lead to the suspicion that the killing of the assailant was done deliberately in order to protect the conspirators who ordered the assassinations. As links between the police in Negombo and criminal elements have been demonstrated by many other cases the family of the deceased and the public are suspicious of the extent to which the police are involved in this triple murder. 

Thus, the murder of three prisoners should have been treated as a matter of extreme importance and subjected to a thorough inquiry by an impartial and competent investigating body. The failure to investigate such a murder implicates the Inspector General of Police as it is his duty to ensure the proper assignment of investigating teams to ensure credible inquiries. 

Under the present circumstances the family of the two deceased brothers is seriously doubting the story given by the prison authorities and reported in the newspapers. When a correspondent working a foreign wire service visited the family of the brothers a large number of neighbours gathered to question the reporter about the published newspaper reports. The crowd was extremely hostile to the reporter as they saw him as another journalist who may distort the story as according to them the other newspapers had done. This reporter had to explain that he was working for a foreign service and had no role in the publication of these articles to appease the crowd. Even then the family and the neighbours refused to give any interviews to the reporter saying that there are political reasons for the assassinations and that they suspect a scheme behind the killings. 

Inquiries into the possession of a fire arm by a prison inmate have brought to light alarming facts regarding the condition of prisons in Sri Lanka. Many observers including human rights activists stated that anything including drugs, weapons and even the smuggling of women into the prisons is no longer an uncommon practice. One human rights activist stated that “Sri Lankan prisons are universities for crime.” 

Within the Negombo prison itself, there have been several murders in recent years. The last murder which took place a few months ago was of a prisoner who was brought to the prison after sentencing and killed within the very first day. According to some inmates the prisoner has told them after he had been severely assaulted by some other inmates on the instructions of a prison officer that the officer demanded bribes and as he was unable to pay, he was assaulted. There are also two more cases in which the Supreme Court has granted relief to the families in instances of two murders. In these cases the Supreme Court has examined the neglect of prison regulations and the failure of the authorities to provide protection to the prisoners. The observations and recommendations of the Supreme Court have not lead to any reforms within the system. 

Prisoners taken into custody come under the protection of the state. There are completely helpless because their movements are entirely controlled by the authorities on behalf of the state. Allowing prisoners to be killed under those circumstances is a fundamental breach of the duty of protection by the state. 

In a country where a credible system of administration exists the prison commissioner and all the senior officers of the particular prison would have had to resign by now. They would also have been brought to justice for criminal negligence if not for direct connivance in these murders. However, in the present case no action has been taken to recreate the confidence of the public about the functioning of the prison system within the rule of law. 

The neglect of human life and the failure of the state to protect citizens have reached a point that no one could have a reasonable expectation for the protection of their lives by the state. Prison murders are those added to murders that are happening with unabated impunity to many others such as journalists and political opponents of the government.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-043-2009
Countries : Sri Lanka,