* Opposition calls for independent probe
* 61 among rioters COVID-19 positive
* Tense situation in Negombo Prison
By Saman Indrajith, Norman Palihawadana and Nishan S. Priyantha
Police Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana told The Island yesterday that the Police had identified a senior member of the Mahara Prison Hospital staff as the mastermind of Sunday’s prison riot.
Prisoners clashed with their guards, police anti-riot squads and the STF, on Sunday, for several hours and the clashes left eight inmates dead and more than 70 others injured. The injured were removed to the Ragama Teaching Hospital. Among them were two prison officers.
DIG Rohana said the Police believed the prison clashes were preplanned, and the prison record room had been set on fire. A new building under construction as part of the prison expansion project had also been destroyed by the rioters, DIG Rohana said.
The Mahara Prison had more than 2,700 inmates at the time of the clashes. Out of them, 183 had tested positive for COVID-19, he said. They had been removed to a special section of the Colombo Remand Prison, the Police Spokesman added.
Although the Police told the media that the situation had been brought under control in the prison, injured inmates being removed to hospital , shouted, through the windows of speeding ambulances, that inmates were still being beaten.
Our photographers stationed near the prison said they had sighted the same ambulance making several trips, within a matter of hours, between the Mahara Prison and the Ragama Teaching Hospital.
The COVID-19 patients among the prisoners were taken to treatment centres, while the family members and friends of inmates were waiting outside the prison, making inquiries from the police.
Four prisoners of the Negombo Prison, yesterday, staged a rooftop protest, demanding that cases against them be expedited and they be granted bail. The Negombo Police arrested the four men and another person who had assisted them.
Meanwhile, Prison Reforms and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation State Minister Dr Sudarshini Fernandopulle told Parliament yesterday that there had been an invisible hand behind Sunday’s prison riots.
Minister Dr. Fernandopulle said the incident had occurred when prison officers, attempted to foil an escape attempt following a clash between the remandees and the convicts in the Mahara Prison. She said some inmates had set prison properties on fire.
The Prison officers had been able to prevent the escape attempt by opening fire, but to quell the riots they had called in the police anti-riot squads and the STF.
“It was so unfortunate that eight inmates were killed and around 50 others injured; the injured prisoners are receiving treatment at the Colombo North Teaching hospital,” Minister Dr Fernandopulle said.
She said that there had been a wave of protests and incidents of unrest in prisons all over the country during recent months. “First the agitations started at the Boossa Prison. There were similar incidents at the Welikada, Kalutara, Weerawila, and the Negombo prisons. A group of prisoners tried to escape from the Bogambara Prison recently but the jailers were able to prevent them by opening fire.” One escapee had been killed and several others injured, she said.
The Minister said that the government was convinced that there had been an invisible hand behind the Mahara Prison incident. She said so in response to a statement made by Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, who said that the Opposition was not happy with the incidents being investigated by a committee, headed by the Secretary to the Ministry of Prison Reforms and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation. “We do not think that the truth could be got at through such an investigation. We need an impartial investigation,” the Opposition Leader said.
Minister Fernandopulle: We, too, need to know the truth and how exactly this happened. We have decided to call in the CID to conduct investigations. There will be some other probes as well.
Opposition Leader: There was a COVID-19 cluster consisting of 183 infections in the Mahara Prison. How could such a cluster come up so suddenly there? What actions have you taken to prevent the spread of the virus in prisons?
The State Minister said that there were 1,099 COVID-19 infected inmates in prisons all over the country as of yesterday. “We have temporarily banned visitors. Court proceedings take place via Skype. Following recent anti-narcotic raids the number of inmates has increased. In prisons which can accommodate only 11,000 there are now 32,000 at present,” she said, adding that suspected COVID-19 cases were placed under quarantine for 14 days at the Bogambara Prison, in Kandy and Pallansena, Galella, and Kandakadu quarantine centres.
Measures had been taken to release on bail remand prisoners, a majority of whom were drug addicts arrested with less than two grams of narcotics each, and nearly 600 prisoners convicted of minor offences had been granted a presidential pardon, Dr. Fernandopulle said.
Chief Opposition Whip Kandy District MP Lakshman Kiriella said that he had asked the government a month back not to hold COVID-19 infected inmates in the Bogambara Prison, but it had not listened to him.
Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena: You have raised that matter several times in the House. This cannot be allowed.
Kandy District SJB MP Velu Kumar: The Kandy town is in danger because the government has transferred inmates infected with COVID-19 to the Bogambara Prison.
Six nabbed with over 100 kg of ‘Ice’
By Norman Palihawadane and Ifham Nizam
The Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB) yesterday arrested six suspects in the Sapugaskanda Rathgahawatta area with more than 100 kilos of Crystal Methamphetamine also known as Ice.
Police Media Spokesman, Deputy Inspector General of Police, Ajith Rohana told the media that the PNB sleuths, acting on information elicited from a suspect in custody had found 91 packets of Ice.
A man in possession of 100 kilos of heroin was arrested in Modera during the weekend and revealed that a haul of Ice had been packed in plastic boxes.
The PNB seized more than 114 kilos of Ice from the possession of a single drug network.
According to the information elicited from the suspects, more than 100 kilos of Ice were found.
The PNB also arrested six persons including two women with 13 kilos of Ice, during an operation carried out in the Niwandama area in Ja-Ela on Sunday.
DIG Rohana said the ice had been packed in small plastic boxes and hidden in two school bags.
PM intervenes to iron out differences among coalition partners
By Norman Palihawadane
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa yesterday said that he was confident that differences among the constituents of the SLPP coalition as regards the May Day celebrations and the next Provincial Council elections could be ironed out soon.
Leaders of all SLPP allied parties have been invited to a special meeting to be held at Temple Trees with the PM presiding on April 19.
Prime Minister Rajapaksa said it was natural for members of a political alliance to have their own standpoints and views on matters of national importance. “This is due to the different political ideologies and identities. It is not something new when it comes to political alliances world over. In a way, it shows that there is internal democracy within our alliance.
The PM said: “As a result of that the allied parties may express their own views on issues, but that does not mean there is a threat to the unity of the alliance. An alliance is more vibrant and stronger not when all the parties think on the same lines but when the member parties have different ideologies.”
Thilo Hoffman remembered
A copy of the book “Politics of a Rainforest: Battles to save Sinharaja” was handed over to Dominik Furgler, the Swiss Ambassador in Sri Lanka by the author of the book, Dr. Prasanna Cooray at the Swiss Embassy in Colombo last Tuesday, to be sent to the family of the late Thilo Hoffman in Switzerland.
Hoffman, a Swiss national, who made Sri Lanka his second home for six decades, was a pioneering environmental activist who led the battles to save Sinharaja from the front in the early 1970s, abreast with the likes of Iranganie Serasinghe, Kamanie Vitharana, Lynn De Alwis and Nihal Fernando of the “Ruk Rekaganno” fame. That was the era when the trees of Sinharaja were felled for the production of plywood by the then government. Hoffman was also a livewire of the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) for a long time. Hoffman died in 2014 at the age of 92.
The book includes a chapter on Thilo Hoffman.
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