Sinhala  Tamil    Seperate    
Governtment of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 51 - Detainees, Prisons and the ICRC

( Created date: 07-Dec-2012 )

A couple of weeks back the Task Force to expedite implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan for the first time invited persons not in government service to participate in a formal meeting. I had long wanted to do this, but government had, I suppose understandably, been wary of external involvements, which can often be interference. I had therefore continued with the system of informal consultations that had been set up earlier through the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, but it was I think a great boon that the Minister had met the ICRC head and realized how much they do and can contribute. 
The ICRC after all works only with governments (or parties to conflict) and though, as we saw from Wikileaks, some of its officials succumb to the charm of powerful countries, in Sri Lanka, except for a brief period in early 2009, they have been the souls of discretion. Indeed, a study of communications between them and government during that year (as I saw from the few documents the army gave me when I was looking into claims about hospitals and civilian deaths) would make it crystal clear that we are innocent of the allegations made in the Darusman Report about the conduct of our armed forces during the conflict. Sadly study is something neither we nor our critics engage in.
I was instructed then by the Minister to set up a meeting, which proved most informative, with active contributions also from Ministry of Rehabiliation and Prison Reforms, the Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation and the Prisons Department. Unfortunately the representatives designated to attend by the Attorney General’s Department and the Ministry of Justice failed to turn up, though the Secretary to the latter was most apologetic and promised to take up the matter formally with the officer concerned. 
I was particularly sorry that the AG’s representative did not come, because he had nominated Suhada Gamlath, who had been Commissioner General of Rehabilitation during the conflict. Though he had not done much for the older combatants, understandably so given his other manifold duties, he had been deeply concerned about the children, which is perhaps why they were looked after positively from early on. 
The ICRC however had not been involved in rehabilitation since 2009, though they had been present at the registration of over 10,000 combatants as they handed themselves in. In addition to discussion of the excellent document they had given to the Prisons as well as the Justice Ministry about ‘Prison Overcrowding in Sri Lanka: A systematic Approach of the Causes and Consequences – Proposals for a Collaborative Approach’, their involvement then at our meeting was in relation not to the rehabilitees but to those detained before the conflict ended.
They had been visiting them regularly, as I knew from my involvement in the process after I became Secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights. But unfortunately they now do not have access to some of the detainees, since earlier this year the Ministry of Rehabilitation and Prison Reforms decided to suspend the visits. This is not due to a policy decision, since the ICRC still has full access to the detainees held by the Terrorism Investigation Department. That relationship, given the professionalism of both the TID officials and the ICRC, has been a very positive one, so I hope they will also go back to working positively with the Prisons too. Certainly it would be a pity if we cannot take advantage of their experience as well as of the support they offer, which recently extended to a project to repair the roof of the Batticaloa prison, which seems a dire necessity. 
Before March this year, the ICRC had had regular access to all those detained under the PTA or Emergency Regulations. According to the figures I received from the then Attorney General last year, there had been 4195 of these. From the Ministry we had been urging that these should either be charged or released, but I could understand why this was not possible while the conflict continued and we were under threat of terrorist attacks all over the country.
After the conflict ended however the President instructed us to set up a Committee to go into these cases, and we had excellent cooperation from all the agencies involved, before sadly the Committee fell into abeyance with the end of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights. The Attorney General however continued with the good work, and by July last year 1676 had been released, while 990 had been sent for Rehabilitation. This number had increased by this year to 1257, all but 34 of whom had been released after rehabilitation.
In 2011 some had been charged or bailed, while two had died and two had escaped. There were thus only 817 detained then under the PTA. Some of those I assume are amongst the additions to the Rehabilitation Centres, but I am still awaiting precise figures – unfortunately we had omitted to invite the police to the meeting of the Task Force, and the Prisons Department, though it proved extremely helpful at the meeting, did not have precise figures to hand.  
One criticism made of the ICRC was that they were more concerned with detainees under the PTA than other prisoners, but the very helpful report they have produced on overcrowding indicates that this is not the case. Obviously in a conflict situation other aspects of their mandate meant they did have to monitor carefully the situation of conflict related detainees, but the principles on which they operate, and their findings, apply generally, and we should take advantage of these. Overcrowding and prison conditions in general were noted in the President’s Budget Speech last year, and I cannot understand why we are not making use of the recommendations in the report that are fully in line with what the President suggested a year ago. 


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