Prisons crisis: Prez sets record straight
Ballistic expert included in special team to conduct autopsies
By Shamindra Ferdinando
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, yesterday (10) faulted the Government Analyst’s Department, the Attorney General’s Department and the Police over the simmering crisis in the ‘prisons system.’
The President’s Office quoted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as having said at a meeting summoned to discuss shortcomings and problems in the ‘prisons system’ that due to inordinate delay on the part of the Government Analyst, the AG and the police, a large number of suspects were held in prisons pending investigations.
The President said so when a special five-member committee headed by former High Court Judge Kusala Sarojini Weerawardena handing over an interim report on the Mahara prison riot to Justice Minister Ali Sabry. A top level CID investigation too is underway into to the prison riot.
President Rajapaksa suggested that in addition to the departments mentioned, the Prisons, the Customs and Rehabilitation, etc., should constitute a Presidential Task Force to address the issues at hand.
Justice Minister Ali Sabry, PC and Prisons Management and Prisons Rehabilitation Minister Lohan Ratwatte were among those present at the meeting.
President Rajapaksa directed relevant authorities to explore the possibility of setting up pre-fabricated buildings at locations already chosen for prisons while underscoring the urgent need for a rehabilitation project for over 12,000 prison inmates addicted to narcotics. President Rajapaksa also suggested that foreign prisons, too, should be studied as part of the overall efforts to improve conditions in the country’s jails.
All the inmates killed in Mahara prison riots were remandees.
Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana said that they had been in remand for narcotics related offences. They were residents of Minuwangoda, Biyagama, Ja-ela, Weliweriya, Wattala-Hunupitiya, Ederamulla, Anguruwathota, Kelaniya and Sapugaskanda. The police spokesperson said that families of the dead inmates had identified the bodies.
DIG Rohana said that on a court directive the autopsies of the 11 dead would be conducted by a five-member team consisting of four consultant judicial medical officers and one ballistic expert from the Government Analyst’s Department.
Earlier in the day, DIG Rohana said that the CID inquiring into Mahara incidents had so far recorded 228 statements from Prisons officers (70), doctors (11) nurses (17) and the rest inmates.
The Mahara prison had approximately 2,800 including 600 convicts at the time of the riot.
DIG Rohana previously told a joint press briefing called by the police and the Excise Department that 72,000 persons had been arrested since 2019 November over narcotics offences.
COVID-19: Jaffna faces serious risk
Top medical man in North threatens lockdown
Five villages isolated in Ganewatta DS area
20% of IDH patients need oxygen
By Dinasena Ratugamage and Rathindra Kuruwita
Tough restrictions would have to be imposed in Jaffna if religious leaders did not help health authorities, Northern Province Director General of Health Services, Dr. A. Kethiswaran said yesterday. Jaffna was facing a serious risk of COVID-19, he said.
Dr. Kethiswaran said so during a meeting with religious leaders at his office. He said that a large number of devotees were seen at various places of religious worship during the festive period.
“None of these people follow health guidelines. It is impossible to control the virus because of this. At this rate we will have to impose travel restrictions in the Jaffna District. We need everyone’s support, if we are to avoid this fate.”
He then urged religious leaders to inform devotees of the dangers of the virus and not to gather at places of worship in large numbers.
Dr. Kethiswaran also said that a large number of policemen in Jaffna had contracted COVID-19. About 258 PCR tests had been carried out on Wednesday after it was found that 13 policemen attached to the Jaffna Police station were infected. Altogether 788 PCR tests were done in the Jaffna District on Wednesday, Dr. Kethiswaran said.
One hundred and forty eight new COVID-19 cases had been detected in several villages in the Ganewatta Divisional secretariat area, Divisional Secretary Niranjala Karunaratne said yesterday.
On Wednesday alone 733 PCR tests had been done there, she said, adding that about 175 individuals had tested positive for COVID-19 there.
Given these developments, Tittawelgala, Hunupola, Siradunna, Aluthgama and Hettigama Grama Niladari divisions at Ganewatta Divisional secretariat area have been isolated.
Travel restrictions were imposed on Kuliyapitiya Town, Thunmodara, Dhandagamuwa – West, Kanadulla and Pahala Weerambuwa as COVID-19 cases were increasing there.
PHI in charge of Divulapitiya said that 84 new COVID-19 cases had been reported from the area during the last 48 hours. However, no decision had been taken to impose travel restrictions in the area, PHI, S.A.U.T Kularatne said.
“Twenty-eight of these patients were among people who attended a sports event organised for the New Year in Aswennawatta Grama Niladari area. Forty-four people who went on a trip at Mellawagedara have also tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. If people are not careful, things might rapidly deteriorate,” he warned.
Deputy Director of IDH said that over 130 COVID-19 patients were undergoing treatment there although the hospital could accommodate only 120 patients.
All eight ICU beds at the IDH are occupied and 20% of the patients there need oxygen. The number of people admitted to hospital had increased after the Sinhala and Hindu New year, health ministry sources said.
Director General of Health Services – Western Province Dr. Dhammika Jayalath urged people to refrain from travelling to Colombo unless it was very urgent.
Director General of Health Services, Dr. Asela Gunawardane said that the coming three weeks would crucial.
Covid figures: Govt. accused of misleading the country
By Rathindra Kuruwita
The College of Medical Laboratory Science (CMLS) yesterday claimed that State Minister of Production, Supply and Regulation of Pharmaceuticals, Prof. Channa Jayasumana was making statements on new strains of SARS-CoV-2 without any scientific proof.
Speaking to the media on Wednesday, Prof. Jayasumana said that there had been an increase in the spread of Covid virus in the country, especially among the young people and that was due to a new strain of the virus.
President of the CMLS, Ravi Kumudesh said: “The Minister claimed they were doing a research on this. As far as we know, neither the Ministry nor the University of Sri Jayewardenepura has done any research to identify this new strain. The Ministry of Health stopped identifying new variants a long time ago.”
The Ministry of Health could neither plan for new variants of COVID-19 nor determine what vaccine was effective as it simply didn’t have the equipment to identify new strains, Kumudesh said, adding that identifying COVID-19 variants across the country had been outsourced to the University of Sri Jayawardenepura.
“I have repeatedly said that the Health Ministry officials can’t make science and evidence-based decisions or statements on new strains. Institutions under the Health Ministry do not have the ability to identify new strains of the coronavirus; only the University of Sri Jayewardenepura has a gene sequencing machine. We said this was having a disastrous impact on the country’s pandemic response and here we are,.”
Kumudesh said that identifying various strains of COVID-19 was essential to respond to the pandemic as everything from PCR testing to selecting a vaccine, depended on that.
“There are a number of strains of the virus in the world now and we now know that the new variant that led to a lockdown in the UK is here. We have to be ready to identify what strains are coming.”
Kumudesh said that since the country had opened its airports people from various countries would arrive, carrying new strains. He added that there might also be a new strain that originated here without “our knowledge because we don’t do adequate gene sequencing.
“To identify new variants, we must sequence the genes of viruses detected through PCR testing. We need many gene sequencing machines because one cannot identify new strains through a PCR test. However, the Ministry of Health has not provided a single gene sequencing machine to labs under its purview.”
CEA accused of turning blind eye to cardamom cultivators raping Knuckles Forest
By Rathindra Kuruwita
A government decision to allow cardamom plantations inside the Knuckles Forest Reserve, which came under the Forest Conservation Department,it was already having a negative impact on the ecosystem, Sajeewa Chamikara of the Movement for Land and Agriculture Reform (MONLAR) said.
Chamikara said that Knuckles Forest Reserve was not only a unique ecosystem but also an important catchment area for rivers such as Mahaweli and Kalu.
“Illegal Cardamom planters had been operating in the forest area for many decades and there had been many attempts to get rid of them,” Chamikara said
About six years ago, there was an attempt to remove illegal Cardamom planters from the Knuckles Forest Reserve. When the Forest Conservation Department tried to remove these encroachers, based on a court order, several politicians and officials intervened on their behalf, the environmentalist said. Due to those interventions, illegal Cardamom planters could not be removed from the Knuckles Forest Reserve, he added.
“In many areas of the Dumbara mountain range, forest undergrowth has been cleared to make way for cardamom plantations. This has drastically increased soil erosion and the soil that is swept away by rains have been deposited in many reservoirs after being taken downstream to the Mahaweli Ganga. Moreover, many trees have been cut to use as firewood to dry cardamom. There are many structures used to dry the cardamom dotting the Knuckles mountain range and these activities cause significant damages to the ecosystem.”
Chamikara said it was illegal to cut trees, cultivate and clear land in a Conservation Forest. The offences carried jail terms or fines or both. Moreover, the court could estimate the damage done to the forest and make the guilty pay that amount. Under the law, even people who encouraged such violations could be prosecuted.
“The CEA has the power to act against those who carry out such illegal activities. According to Section 23 (a.) (a.) of the National Environmental Act, when a project is carried out without obtaining approval, the CEA can present such people before a magistrate’s court. If found guilty a person can be fined up to Rs. 15,000 or imprisoned up to two years or subjected to both. Unfortunately the authorities concerned are turning a blind eye.”
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