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Ex-Rehab & Prisons Reforms Minister:Crisis cannot be solved by releasing prisoners alone

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… compares Welisara corona eruption with that of Mahara

By Shamindra Ferdinando

One-time Rehabilitation and Prisons Reforms Minister D. E. W. Gunasekara yesterday (8) said that tangible remedial measures should be taken to address the explosive situation in prisons.

Referring to the recent bloody riots in the Mahara Prison complex, the former General Secretary of the Communist Party emphasised that the problems pertaining to the prison system couldn’t be resolved by releasing convicts and remand suspects.

Gunasekara served as Rehabilitation and Prisons Reforms Minister during 2010-2011 before the Cabinet reshuffle during which several senior ministers were sidelined.

Responding to The Island queries, the former minister who recently quit active politics, said that instead of addressing the growing unrest in prisons, the government appeared to have responded to the crisis caused by the corona pandemic.

Gunasekara urged those responsible for prisons to identify the genuine grievances of the inmates.

Gunasekera said that the government should have taken adequate precautions to thwart the eruption of the corona epidemic in prisons, especially in the wake of the crisis faced by the Navy during the first eruption.

In spite of attempts to deceive the public, thanks to The Island what really caused the corona outbreak at the Welisara Navy base was in the public domain, the former minister said. “The truth is unprecedented congestion caused a corona crisis in that base. Finally, the Navy had no option but to move thousands of personnel stationed at Welisara to bases in the Northern and Eastern Provinces et al,” Gunasekera said.

Comparing Welisara crisis with that of Mahara that claimed the lives of 11 men, Gunasekera said that prisons authorities couldn’t absolve themselves of the responsibility for the well-being of convicts and as well as remand suspects.

“They are the custodians of those who had been entrusted by the courts,” the former minister said. At the time of the Mahara eruption, there had been approximately 2,800 convicts and suspects, the vast majority being the latter.

Gunasekara questioned the rationale in releasing remand prisoners and convicts in response to the congestion. Asked what would be his recommendation, the former Prisons Reforms Minister pointed out that the problem couldn’t be resolved by releasing inmates. Gunasekara agreed with The Island assertion that if emptying the prisons was the solution, then law enforcement authorities and courts, too, would have to curtail ongoing operations especially directed at narcotics and remanding suspects pending investigations, respectively.

Gunasekara urged the government to undertake proper reappraisal of the prisons and expand where necessary to meet what he called public security requirements. The former minister also agreed that it would be a huge mistake on the government’s part to go slow on organized crime because it lacked infrastructure to hold suspects.

Referring to a joint press conference given by the Police and the Excise Department at the latter’s head office, former MP Gunasekara pointed out the Police Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana was on record as having revealed during 2019 Nov-2020 Nov period 72,000 persons were arrested in connection with heroin, ganja and synthetic drugs such as ICE offenses. If the country lacked the infrastructure to detain suspects it could cause a serious law and order situation, the former minister said, pointing out that the failure to address the issue at hand after the conclusion of the war over a decade ago.

Prisons Management and Prisoners Rehabilitation Minister Lohan Ratwatte told the inaugural meeting of the Justice Ministry Consultative Committee meeting recently the government was planning to release 8,000 prisoners to overcome the congestion.

Gunasekera said that the State should provide basic facilities to the prisoners. “On my first visit to Welikada having assumed duties as rehabilitation and prisons reforms minister over a decade ago, I saw a very long queue there. I was told such long queues were routine as Welikada lacked sufficient toilet facilities. In the absence of proper system to provide such facilities, I sought help from Sri Lanka Red Cross. They swiftly provided funds required to build several dozens of toilets and bathrooms,” Gunasekera said.

Responding to another query, the former minister said that different governments commissioned four reports on prisons reforms and he studied them all soon after receiving the relevant portfolio. Gunasekera said that he was deprived of an opportunity to implement the recommendations in a meaningful way.

The former minister said that appointing commissions after some disaster today was somewhat fashionable. The Mahara riot was a catastrophe which could have been avoided, the ex-MP said. Gunasekera urged the government to examine the complex situation and take remedial measures in consultation with all stakeholders. Gunasekera urged the Opposition not to play politics with the issue but make suitable suggestions.

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Covid-19 vaccination programme: MPs not in priority group; President, armed forces chiefs in ‘third category’ 

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By Shamindra Ferdinando

State Minister for Primary Health Care, Epidemics and COVID Disease Control, Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle yesterday (25) said that members of Parliament were not among those categorised as priority groups expected to be vaccinated against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr. Fernandopulle said so in response to The Island query whether parliamentarians would receive the vaccine scheduled to be delivered by India this week. Asked to explain, Dr. Fernandopulle said that health workers, armed forces and law enforcement personnel engaged in Covid-19 prevention operations would be given priority.

“Lawmakers haven’t been listed under priority groups. However, some members may get the vaccine if they are accommodated in the over 60 years category and those suffering from diabetes, heart disease, cancer et al,” the State minister said.

In addition to State Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera, several lawmakers, representing both the government and the Opposition had been afflicted over the past several weeks. SLPP lawmaker Wasantha Yapa Bandara (Kandy district) is the latest victim. Health minister Pavitradevi Wanniarachchi was among over half a dozen lawmakers tested positive.

Army Commander General Shavendra Silva told Derana yesterday morning Sri Lanka would receive approximately 500,000 to 600,000 doses from India. Responding to a spate of questions from Derana anchor Sanka Amarjith, Gen. Silva explained the measures taken by the government to ensure a smooth vaccination programme. The Army Chief who also functions as the Chief of Defence Staff revealed India had paid for the consignment obtained from the UK.

Later in the day, The Island sought an explanation from the Army Chief regarding the President, Service Commanders, Secretary Defence given the vaccination along with frontline health workers et al, the celebrated battlefield commander said: “Will be in third priority group.”

Asked whether the student population would be accommodated at an early stage of the vaccination programme, Dr. Fernandopulle said that those under 18 years of age, pregnant and lactating mothers wouldn’t be included at all as such groups hadn’t been subjected to trials. Education Secretary Prof. Kapila Perera wasn’t available for comment.

Dr. Fernandopulle emphasized the pivotal importance of following health guidelines strictly in spite of the launch of the vaccination programme. “We shouldn’t lower our guard under any circumstances,” Dr. Fernandopulle said, urging the population to be mindful of those unable to receive the vaccination due to no fault of theirs. As those under 18 years of age had been left out of the vaccination programme, a substantial section of the population would be denied the protection, the State Minister said.

Sri Lanka is also expected to procure vaccines from China and Russia in addition to the doses from India. Health Secretary Maj. Gen. Sanjeewa Munasinghe wasn’t available for comment.

Sri Lanka launches the vaccination programme with the total number of positive cases nearing 60,000 with nearly 50,000 recoveries. The government recently re-opened the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) following a pilot programme that brought over 1,200 Ukrainians in dozen flights through the Mattala International Airport.

Dr. Fernandopulle said that the government was ready to launch the vaccination programme as soon as the first consignment arrived from India.

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Tennis balls filled with drugs thrown into Kandakadu Covid-19 treatment centre

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By Norman Palihawadane

Two tennis balls filled with drugs had been thrown into the Covid-19 treatment centre at Kandakadu, Police Spokesperson DIG Ajith Rohana said.

The contraband was found on Saturday by the Army officers attached to the facility.

DIG Rohana said the two tennis balls containing cannabis, heroin and tobacco, had been handed over to the Welikanda Police.

A special investigation has been launched into the incident, the Police Spokesperson said. Such incidents had been previously reported from Welikada, Negombo and other prisons, but it was the first time contraband containing narcotics had been thrown into a Covid-19 treatment centre, he added.

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All cargo clearances at Colombo port now through electronic payments

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The Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) has introduced a system where payment for imports could be made via the Internet. This allows port users to make payments from their homes or offices to clear goods from the Port of Colombo.

The SLPA has said in a media statement that the new special facility will enable port users to make their port payments easily without hassle.

At present, all terminals of the Port of Colombo are run according to a strategic crisis management plan.

 

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