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Mahara prison riot: How pills meant for mental patients triggered violence

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* Over 2,400 inmates on their own within complex

* Death toll reachers 11, could rise further

* Clashes among prisoners injure 80

* Doctor under investigation

* Rioters popped more than 21,000 pills

By Shamindra Ferdinando

A high-level investigation into the Mahara Prison riot took an unexpected turn yesterday (1) following the revelation that the prison dispensary had stored over 21,000 tablets prescribed for mental disorders and sleeping pills.

Police spokesperson DIG Ajith Rohana told a joint media briefing called by the Police Headquarters and the Prisons Department, in Colombo, that they were quite surprised that such a large stock of tablets was maintained. He said it had to be found out who had ordered the stock, how inmates got addicted to such substances, and whether a doctor attached to the Mahara Prison hospital had instigated prisoners to demand PCR tests.

DIG Rohana said that on the directions of the IGP C.D. Wickremaratne as per the instructions received from Defence Secretary Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne, a 12 -member team from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) was inquiring into the riot.

DIG Rohana said those who had been addicted to heroin and cocaine were believed to have used tablets prescribed to mental patients.

Prisons Commissioner Chandana Ekanayake (Administration) said that those who popped the tablets had turned on each other. Quoting officers who had been at the scene last Sunday (29) Ekanayake said they had never witnessed such scenes of violent behaviour among prisoners before.

Responding to a media query, Ekanayake emphasised that the Mahara Prison riot had erupted suddenly whereas they received intelligence warning of possible trouble at some other prisons.

National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa told Parliament, on Monday, that the prison riot was part of a sinister plan to bring President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government into disrepute.

The media was told that at the time of the riot there had been 2,782 inmates at the Mahara Prisons complex. 585 were convicts and others suspects, DIG Rohana said, alleging that they had initiated Sunday’s violence. What initially started as common demand for all of them to be subjected to RT-PCR tests quickly had led to a riot, the DIG said.

DIG Rohana, who is also the head of the Police Legal Division, said that a section of those rioters had made repeated attempts to escape. Having failed, they had set fire to buildings within the complex. Among those destroyed were the Registry and the offices of top officials in charge of the prison.

The media was told one more inmate admitted to the Ragama Teaching Hospital had succumbed to his injuries yesterday. With that the total number of dead increased to nine, while 105 continued to receive treatment.
Besides, two Prison officers taken hostage and badly assaulted by the rioters were receiving treatment at the same hospital. Several hours after the conclusion of the media briefing Police headquarters said that two more persons had succumbed to their injuries.

At the beginning of the briefing Ekanayake said that of over 2,700 prisoners, approximately 1,600 had gone on the rampage. “Trouble erupted while they were being served food in line with health guidelines. They broke out from where they were held and swiftly gathered close to the main gate. They demanded immediate PCR tests on them.”

Ekanayake said 187 inmates had tested positive by then.

The rioters had attacked the main gate, Ekanayake said. “Officers opened fire having failed to bring the situation under control by shooting rubber bullets.” He said the situation had taken a turn for the worse after inmates took tablets meant for mental patients.

DIG Rohana said that of the 106 who had received injuries, 80 suffered as a result of violence among the prison community. Of the injured, only 26 were believed to have received gunshot injuries, DIG Rohana said.

Commissioner Ekanayake alleged that both the dead and the wounded were those in custody on narcotic charges.

Seventy eight coronavirus positive inmates had since been moved to a quarantine facility at Adalachchenai in the Akkaraipattu police area, DIG Rohana said.

DIG Rohana said those who had been granted bail couldn’t be immediately released as the Director General of Health Services (DGHS) had issued specific instructions on subjecting inmates to two weeks quarantine before release.

DIG Rohana said that following the removal of the injured and the dead to the Ragama hospital, those granted bail and infected inmates had been moved to a special section within the Welikada Prison complex and about 2,400 remained in the Mahara Prison.

Rohana said that among them were a large number of inmates who hadn’t been involved in violence. Acknowledging that the prisons complex wasn’t yet under the control of the jailers, the DIG said that the Police, including the Special Task Force (STF) and the Prison security were making plans to carry out an operation to restore normalcy. He said they would implement a special plan while the police backed by the STF maintained its presence outside the prison.

The police deployment consisted of 400 police and 200 STF personnel.

Both Police and Prisons officers couldn’t confirm whether at least some inmates had managed to escape though they believed such attempts were thwarted.

DIG Rohana said that the rioting inmates had been prevented from seizing the armoury.

The Parliamentary Consultative Committee on Defence, too, discussed the availability of three varieties of pills totalling 21,000 meant for mental patients at the Prison. Defence Secretary Maj. Gen. Gunaratne briefed the CC on the matter and steps taken by authorities to bring the situation under control.

DIG. Rohana told the media that he had requested Justice Minister Ali Sabry, PC, to leave him out of a special committee headed by retired HC judge Kusala Sarojini Weerawardena tasked with inquiring into the riot due to conflict of interests as his duties and responsibilities as the Police Spokesperson clashed with the probe undertaken by the committee.



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SC: Anti-Terrorism Bill needs approval at referendum and 2/3 majority to become law

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Certain sections inconsistent with Constitution

By Saman Indrajith

Deputy Speaker Ajith Rajapaksa informed Parliament yesterday that the Supreme Court (SC) has determined that some sections of the Anti-Terrorism Bill were inconsistent with the Constitution and, therefore, the Bill had to be passed by Parliament with a two-thirds majority and approved by the people at a referendum.

Rajapaksa said that the Supreme Court had determined that the Sections 3, 4, 40, 53, 70, 72 (1), 72 (2), 75 (3) and 83 (7) of the draft Bill were inconsistent with the Constitution.

The SC has determined that sections 3, 40, 53, 70, 72 (1), 75 (3) should be passed by Parliament with a two-thirds majority and approved by the people at a referendum if they are to become law.

Sections 4 and 72 (2) of the Bill have to be amended as per the SC determination.

Section 83 (7) requires passage by a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

However, the SC had stated that it could be passed by a simple majority if the recommended amendments are accommodated, Rajapaksa said.

Opposition MPs say the Anti-Terrorism Bill is being introduced in an election year to repress Opposition parties.They said the proposed law is a threat to democracy itself.

“This Bill is being presented not at a time of terrorism prevailing in the country but during an election period. The Bill has not defined nor analysed what a terrorist is. Anyone can be arrested,” SJB General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara said.

The MP said both the Anti-Terrorism Bill and the controversial Online Safety law were meant to quell democracy.

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Harin’s claim that SL is part of India: Govt. says it is his personal opinion

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Manusha accuses Wimal of having taken parts of Fernando’s speech out of context

By Saman Indrajith

Labour and Foreign Employment Minister Manusha Nanayakkara told NFF leader Wimal Weerawansa in Parliament to refrain from taking chunks of others’ speeches out of context and misinterpreting them for political mileage.

The Minister said so following concerns raised by Weerawansa over a recent statement by Tourism Minister Harin Fernando on India-Sri Lanka relationships.

Weerawansa said that Minister Fernando had recently stated that Sri Lanka was a part of India. “Was it Minister Fernando’s personal opinion or the government’s official standpoint? Was it the opinion of the Cabinet?”

Chief Government Whip Minister Prasanna Ranatunga said what Minister Fernando had stated was the latter’s personal opinion.

Minister Nanayakkara: “If anyone has read the entire statement made by Minister Fernando this type of question would not have arisen. The Tourism Minister was referring to historical relationships between India and Sri Lanka to ask Indians to visit Sri Lanka.

A distorted version of the speech by Minister Fernando is being circulated on social media. Certain parts have been removed while some words have been introduced to this edited version. Ones should read the statement in its entirety to understand it. We have not discussed this in the Cabinet meeting” Minister Nanayakkara said.

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US backs Lankan journalists vis-a-vis Online Safety law

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Kumar Nadesan, Chairman Board of Directors of the Sri Lanka Press Institute (left) Elizabeth Allen ( Centre) and US Ambassador Chung (pic courtesy US embassy)

Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Elizabeth Allen on Monday (19) declared US support for journalists here against the backdrop of enactment of ‘Online Safety Bill’

She spokes about press freedom and related issues at the Sri Lanka Press Institute Press Club.

A statement issued by the US Embassy quoted Allen as having said the U.S. Embassy is all in on supporting your incredible work. Sure, we might bump heads over a story now and then, but above all, we’re your biggest fans. We’re all in on programmes that hone your skills because we believe in your right to pursue journalism freely and fearlessly.

I want to thank you for protecting the rights and freedoms of journalists here in Sri Lanka and around the world, ensuring all citizens enjoy the right to express their ideas and opinions openly and freely. Even in difficult times, you continue to press forward and ask difficult questions. Your commitment to seeking out the truth and shouting it from the rooftops remains a democratic staple, and I truly appreciate what you do.

It’s only fitting that I begin my remarks this afternoon by telling a story that I think is relevant in light of today’s topic about the media’s role in a democracy.

Over a century ago, American media coined the term “muckraker” for journalists who delved into societal issues, exposing corruption.

Although the term carried a somewhat negative connotation, labeling these journalists as mere “gossip mongers,” today, we honor them as the pioneers of investigative journalism.

These muckrakers played a pivotal role in ushering in the Progressive Era, a time of significant social and political reform in American history.

Even President Theodore Roosevelt referred to them as “muckrakers,” criticizing their focus on society’s flaws through figures like Lincoln Steffens, whose work shed light on corruption and spurred a nationwide call for accountability and reform.

Steffens’ book ‘The Shame of the Cities,’ published in 1904, made him renowned for uncovering corruption within American cities, highlighting the nefarious links between political leaders, businesses, and organized crime.

His fearless journalism raised critical awareness about the urgent need for governmental and corporate accountability. Steffens wasn’t acting as a public relations officer for the government; his role was to uncover the truth; however unpleasant it might be.

Faced with the stark realities Steffens presented, American officials and the public were compelled to confront a pivotal question: ‘Is this the kind of country we aspire to be?’ The resounding answer was no.

Steffens’ work didn’t just expose wrongdoing; it sparked a nationwide demand for reform and played a crucial role in fostering a dialogue about the essential role of investigative journalism in ensuring power remains accountable.

This story showcases how freedom of the press and freedom of expression are not just fundamental human rights, they are also vital contributors to a country’s development and growth.

This brings me to my main point: how the global media space supports democracy and fosters peaceful, just, and inclusive societies.

In my mind, the correlation is obvious: When a government constricts the rights and freedoms of its citizens, the future and the development of the country will naturally suffer.

Globally, we’re witnessing serious and escalating challenges to media freedom. The United States stands firmly for the freedom of expression, advocating for press freedom both online and offline, and ensuring the safety of journalists and media workers worldwide. Unfortunately, these essential freedoms are under threat globally, including concerns raised here in Sri Lanka.

When governments intensify efforts to withhold information from the public by restricting internet access and censoring content, we must speak up. Notably, when Sri Lanka’s Parliament passed the Online Safety Bill in January, the United States voiced concerns over its potential effects on freedom of expression, innovation, and privacy.

It’s common to hear arguments against unfettered freedom of expression. Critics claim the media is biased, aiming to embarrass governments and undermine public trust. Others worry that without checks, freedom of expression may fuel the spread of misinformation. Some argue that an unchecked press can incite tension and compromise security. And there’s concern that continuous reports on corruption, violence, and political strife can tarnish a nation’s image, deterring investment and hampering development.

However, the media’s bias should lean towards the public’s interest, acting as a guardian to ensure that leaders fulfill their duties. This principle holds in Sri Lanka, the United States, and globally.

The challenge of negative press, often labeled as “fake news” or “biased journalism,” is not new. For generations, governments and the media have navigated a complex, sometimes adversarial relationship. This dynamic isn’t unique to any one nation; in the United States, for instance, presidents from both major political parties have experienced their share of friction with the press. This tension, a hallmark of democratic societies, plays a crucial role in fostering transparency and encouraging effective governance. It’s a familiar scene: politicians and journalists engage in heated exchanges, especially when leaders feel their actions are misrepresented, leading to accusations of inaccuracies and biased reporting.

The press’s duty is to deliver facts as they stand, shedding light on the government’s achievements as well as spotlighting areas where policies or programs fall short. This transparency not only informs the public but also strengthens the nation as it encourages constructive action and improvement.

And suppressing voices only complicates matters further. Attempting to conceal issues rather than addressing them is akin to hiding a broken tool rather than fixing it. True progress comes from collaborative dialogue, even if it means embracing the messiness of public discourse.”

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