There was one thing that everybody was sure of on Friday afternoon as news of the riot at Welikada prison broke – there would be a lot of bodies.
And so it happened. Twenty-seven deaths had been announced by Saturday morning. The stand-off lasted for an hour, as inmates somehow managed to get the better of not just their regular guards but 200 fully-armed members of the STF. They battled their way through clouds of tear gas to break into the armoury, then made their way up to the roof with a haul of more than 80 guns, from where they proceeded to shoot at passers-by. Some escaped, somehow.
This story is in itself fairly extraordinary.
But, so too was our reaction. We knew very well that a lot of people would end up dead.
Some said it approvingly. Prisoners may be human beings, as the sign on the wall declares, but human beings can behave worse than animals. Welikada houses convicted rapists and murderers, amongst others, and some people wouldn’t mind seeing them knocked off, legally or otherwise.
This constituency is behind the intermittent attempts to revive the death penalty, which they regard as cheaper and easier than keeping criminals in prison. And cheap and easy is all the rage these days.
It doesn’t matter to the Government whether restarting executions really does reduce the crime rate, since the objective is not to achieve anything but just to look like it is trying. That is, when it can’t persuade us that it is only media coverage of crime that needs to be reduced! Its representatives say the funniest things. Like when a minister explained how criminals are needed for election campaigns. Well, then we’ll just have to put up with crime!
Even cheaper and easier than executing prisoners is shooting them in a riot, of course.
This group argued that we need not worry about how a simple search got so out of control since the deaths are to be welcomed. They aren’t interested in investigating what happened.
I fear that after three decades of war, there are rather more people in this camp than ‘normal’.
The question for Sri Lanka is how to ‘normalise’ – how to get back to being a society that in general abhors killing in all its forms. (Before picking up their pens to complain that Western nations kill people all the time, readers might consider checking on how many occasions I have said exactly that in these pages. Such knee jerk reactions are another element of the war mentality that has to go – we need more thoughtfulness and less shouting at each other.)
The other reaction to the riot was even less encouraging. These were the people arguing that the incident was the result of a plot by the Defence Ministry, either to create an excuse to bring prisons under its purview, or even more disturbingly to get rid of a few inconvenient underworld leaders. Excessive violence was thus part of the plan. For them, it was never supposed to be a simple search.
They won’t believe the findings of any investigation, since they are already convinced that it won’t be conducted properly.
Part of ‘normalcy’ is citizens generally having confidence in the Government, or rather in the checks and balances to which it is subject. They should believe that elections are free, that the police can be trusted to maintain law and order, that courts give people a fair trial and that officials and politicians do their duty, and that when this isn’t the case, there are mechanisms that can be used to put things right. They should trust that they can effect change when it is needed.
But rather than moving towards this ideal, now that it is free of the pressures of war, Sri Lanka seems to be gradually slipping away in the opposite direction.
It is not a matter of popularity. Mahinda Rajapaksa would still win a re-run of either presidential poll, whether against Sarath Fonseka or Ranil Wickremesinghe. A lot of people like him, or at least prefer him to the alternatives on offer. The problem is power.
Even his own voters can see that he has too much of it.
I would like to think that the impeachment of the Chief Justice will be a turning point – that it will prove to be an outrage too far. The charges against Shirani Bandaranayake, which finally emerged last week, certainly encourage such an outcome, especially in combination with her letter of refutation that was sent to media outlets who published them. If it proves accurate, they boil down to being married to somebody who has been named in a complaint to the Bribery Commission – a case that is being pursued primarily to be able to argue that Shirani Bandaranayake must be impeached!
(Of course, her husband shouldn’t have been holding the position that has got him into trouble in the first place, but that’s another matter. Let’s drop it – her predecessors haven’t had husbands.)
However, there is probably still a long way to go. The Government won’t really mind how it looks so long as the Opposition remains in disarray.
While they recover, the only thing the rest of us can do is continue to apply pressure.
The Chief Justice must argue her case, and the media should ensure that the public hears as much about her defence as it does from the Government.
And the Government must be pushed to investigate what happened at Welikada.
Killing twenty-seven inmates in a prison riot cannot be practically unavoidable, and it should not be allowed to pass as either morally acceptable or sadly inevitable. The Government will no doubt try to put the blame on the guards, who are already being accused of having incited or assisted their wards. The rumours may even be true, since we know that some of them are doing very good business in contraband, most disturbingly phones via which some underworld leaders are said to be continuing to run their criminal networks from their cells.
But even if the guards helped, the inmates were stuck inside four walls that were quickly surrounded with armoured vehicles, and they had limited ammunition.
There is certainly a need to clean up prisons, but this incident cannot justify giving more power to another person who already has plenty. That is, the Defence Secretary.
In the end, this would bring more problems than it solved.
Regular guards can do only limited damage. They can take money in exchange for allowing contraband to get into prisons, but at least they cannot let the inmates out!
I am reminded of an expose about goings-on in prisons in India that appeared in the press there a few months ago. A journalist filmed a well-known gangster politician from Uttar Pradesh (where Mervyn Silva wouldn’t last long!), who had finally been convicted of the murder of his mistress after dozens of cases had been dropped due to the curious disappearance of evidence and witnesses, walking out of the jail in which he was supposedly being held for what turned out to be his daily turn around town. Assembly elections had thrown out the administration that had locked him up, and he was to all intents and purposes a free man, albeit keeping up appearances by returning to the jail to sleep. His luxury car, complete with driver and personal assistant, not to mention his laptop and mobile phone, picked him up in time for a hearty lunch. And having eaten, he proceeded to his meetings. More than 100 people came to see him in what was essentially his office on each and every afternoon, to submit petitions as if to their MP, to make deals and – allegedly – to organise crime.
The same piece listed a most impressive array of criminals the new administration had in its ranks, having unofficially helped them to get out of prison, one way or another.
This is ‘normal’ for Uttar Pradesh.
Sri Lanka must do better. And we should help the country to get back on the right track by trying to understand why we all knew in advance that the Welikada prison riot would end so bloodily.