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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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LIOC seeks to expand operations

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by Ifham Nizam

Power and Energey Minister Kanchana Wijesekera yesterday revealed that Lanka Indian Oil Company (LIOC) had asked for permission to set up 50 new filling stations in the country and take over a certain number of petrol sheds currenlty under the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC). The government had asked the LIOC to increases the supply of fuel, in case Sri Lanka agreed to the Indian proposal,Wijesekera added.

Sri Lanka was facing daunting challenges as regards fuel distribution and it might not be able to get rid of fuel queues anytime soon, Minister Wijesekera said.Speaking to journalists yesterday, in Colombo, Wijesekera said that plans were underway to introduce a token system for fuel dispensation.He said the new scheme could come into effect from today (27) and the Police, and the armed forces will help implement it.

He also said that four separate groups from the Ministry were working on petrol, diesel, crude / furnace oil, and jet fuel imports. “We asked Lanka IOC to increase fuel supply and CEYPETCO to purchase diesel from them. But they asked for a price revision before that according to the pricing formula. That’s why we revised the price in a situation where there was no fuel in the country.”

The moves came as the government increased fuel prices with effect from the wee hours of Sunday wee hours. Petrol (Octane 92) now sells at Rs 470 per litre and Octane 95 at Rs. 550 per litre. Auto Diesel sells at Rs 460 per litre and Super Diesel at Rs 520 per litre.The Minister said they were working on 130-plus proposals for fuel delivery to Sri Lanka.

“USD 500 million is something that Sri Lanka cannot afford at this juncture. Therefore, consumption will have to be slashed, and fuel for public transport prioritized. Two ministers will fly to Russia today for discussions on fuel and related matters,” he said.The Minister said that bunker suppliers had been granted permission to deliver fuel for industries that deal in US currency.

He also said that overseas fuel companies based in countries that produce fuel, would be invited to set up business in Sri Lanka, as the CPC alone could not import fuel.

He said the CPC would become a more service-provider-based institution to facilitate fuel imports, and it had 9000 MT of diesel and the IOC 10,000 MT while the CPC had about 6000 MT of Petrol and the IOC about 8000 MT, of petrol.He said the IOC was issuing about 300 MT a day and their next shipment was due only after 10 July.

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Economic crisis: Govt. MPs slam Cabinet, Finance Ministry

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‘How come SLPA paid to Treasury just a faction of massive revenue earned in six years?’

By Shamindra Ferdinando

T wo SLPP MPs, Dr. Nalaka Godahewa and Madura Vithanage have, at different forums, lashed out at the government for the rapidly deteriorating status of the public sector finance. Godahewa has warned that economic recovery will not be possible unless the government restructured nearly 400 loss making public sector enterprises or at least take tangible measures to cut down on recurring losses.The former Media Minister, who represents the Gampaha District, said so addressing a group of Gampaha-based professionals and entrepreneurs recently.

Alleging that the failure, on the part of the government to establish an all-party government, contributed to the further deterioration of the situation, Dr. Godahewa emphasized the urgent need to curb, what he called, unbridled corruption as part of the efforts to revive the economy.The Gampaha District MP asked whether the current dispensation has addressed the issues at hand with a sense of responsibility.The MP questioned the composition of the Cabinet-of-Ministers, especially the appointment of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Premier, in spite of his party having just one seat in Parliament, against the backdrop of even the government parliamentary group not being properly represented.

Dr. Godahewa warned that SriLankan Airlines, the Ceylon Electricity Board, and the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) would deny the country an opportunity to recover as they remained a massive burden on taxpayers. The One-time top level private sector executive said that the Cabinet-of-Ministers lacked the strength to take crucial decisions. But, the situation would have been different if the Cabinet-of-Ministers included representatives of the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) and other political parties. Dr. Godahewa declared that the government couldn’t take decisions on sensitive matters as long as it didn’t command political power.

Meanwhile, Colombo District MP Vithanage has questioned the responsibility, on the part of the Finance Ministry, in the overall deterioration of public sector finance with the focus on the handling of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) at a recent meeting of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE). The lawmaker alleged that the Finance Ministry had conveniently failed to make required intervention on behalf of the government, thereby deprived the opportunity to utilize SLPA profits.

Prof. Charitha Herath chaired the meeting. Auditor General W.P.C. Wickramaratne attended the meeting whereas Ports and Shipping Secretary K.D.S. Ruwanchandra led the SLPA team.Both MP Vithanage and Prof. Herath asserted that the Finance Ministry should have intervened on behalf of the people. The COPE examined how the SLPA continuously refrained from paying the Treasury at least the minimum amounts in spite of receiving massive profits over the years.  The Director General Public Enterprises, who has received that position recently, struggled to explain their failure to take up the non-transfer of SLPA profits to the Treasury. The COPE was told of Rs 69,686 mn revenue earned from 2016 to 2021, only 600 mn had been transferred to the Treasury.

Lawmaker Vithanage yesterday told The Island that the recent examinations of various enterprises and the Central Bank, by the COPE, as well as other watchdog committees, disclosed how the Finance Ministry, Central Bank and the Monetary Board contributed to the developing crisis. MP Vithanage pointed out even after the Covid-19 eruption devastated the economy, the SLPA had been able to withhold funds required by the Treasury for want of Finance Ministry intervention.Responding to queries, MP Vithanage said that the Parliament should act without further delay to ensure the Finance Ministry and the Monetary Board acted responsibly.

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Ceylon Chamber distributes dry rations

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The Ceylon Chamber of Commerce’s ‘Diwiyata Diriyak’ social initiative provided emergency relief, in the form of 10,000 essential dry ration packs, to vulnerable families in the Kegalle and Colombo districts.

A press release from the Chamber said: Mobilising the Chamber’s Membership to assist low-income families that are struggling to survive the current crisis, the initial distribution, which took place at the Kegalle District Secretariat, was the first phase of Diwiyata Diriyak, which aims to provide 5,000 relief packs.

Containing essential items such as rice, lentils, sugar, wheat flour, canned fish, etc., costing Rs. 5,000 each, vulnerable families, identified by the respective District Secretaries in the Warakapola, Galigamuwa, Mawanella and Rambukkana DS divisions, were among the initial beneficiaries.

CEO and Secretary General of the Ceylon Chamber Manjula de Silva said that the Chamber was committed to supporting the public during this immensely challenging time, and would always strive to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society are protected.

Home Garden Starter Packs, sponsored by the CIC Group, were also distributed among the families, in order to assist and encourage home garden cultivation as a viable option to address the rapidly rising costs and predicted shortage of food items, the release said.

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