Welikada prison in Colombo was the site of a rare picket campaign on 29 May, organized by the Movement for the Release of Political Prisoners (MRPP) which is an initiative of the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP).
Leaders of the radical left, including from the Frontline Socialist Party, and from the opposition Tamil National Alliance and Democratic Peoples’ Front addressed the protest, that received wide media coverage (for example, Dailymirror and Video), demanding a general amnesty for all political prisoners.
Many of the speakers drew attention to the presidential pardon received by former army commander and presidential candidate, Sarath Fonseka on 21 May. His conviction on charges of corruption and improper conduct while in military service, and imprisonment for almost 2 ½ years, was widely perceived to be politically motivated and had been a source of disaffection even within the government and its Sinhala nationalist base.
Vickramabahu Karunarathne of the NSSP asked, if leaders of the LTTE such as its former Eastern region military commanders V. Muralitharan (alias Karuna Amman) and S. Chandrakanthan (alias Pillayan) and political operatives ‘Daya Master’ and ‘George Master’ had been spared imprisonment and are at liberty, then why not extend the same treatment for those who were in its lower ranks or simply sympathisers, leave alone the innocents who had been wrongfully arrested?
The Welikada prison picket was organized in solidarity with the hunger strike conducted by 234 Tamils imprisoned in Colombo, Kalutara and Vavuniya beginning 17 May. It followed a protest in the northern town of Vavuniya (250 kilometres from Colombo) on 24 May in which 500 family members, mainly women, fasted for a day in solidarity with the prisoners, along with NSSP members and parliamentarians of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).
“Detainees should be either charged or released”, said MRPP activist, P Bhoominathan, while appealing for a general amnesty as had been extended to Sinhala political prisoners following the youth insurrections of 1971 and 1987-89.
The mobilisation for both solidarity actions in the face of state repression, including a court order preventing a proposed demonstration and public protest on the same issue that was planned by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (Peoples Liberation Front) in Vavuniya earlier in May, was in itself a success.
The ‘fast to death’ campaign of the Tamil prisoners began to highlight their forgotten situation and oppressive conditions of detention. Some have been in custody for 10 or even 15 years without having been convicted of any offence. Others have been indicted based on forced confessions or their signature on statements written in Sinhala (which they cannot read) but which are admissible under the provisions of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).
The plight of long-term detainees was also raised by the recent European Parliamentary delegation to Sri Lanka headed by Jean Lambert MEP, who called for them to be either charged or released.
803 persons are believed to be detained under the PTA. While the vast majority of the detainees are Tamil males originating from the Northern and Eastern regions; there are also several women, Hindu and Christian clergy, disabled persons, at least 30 Up-Country Tamils (mainly from Kandy), and Sinhala men (aka ‘Sinhala Tigers’) accused of supporting the banned Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Since 2011, that is almost 2 years after the end of Sri Lanka’s 26-year long war, 241 fresh arrests have been made under the PTA. Some of these are likely to be from among the 11,600 LTTE ex-combatants and surrendees, who were held in so-called ‘rehabilitation’ centres since May 2009.
Of this number the military claim that only 698 now remain in their custody; as over 10,000 have since been released, and an unknown number transferred into various holding centres pending their prosecution. There is no public registry of the names and locations of Tamils in detention, which has been a demand of family members searching for their missing relatives.
The government took a hard-line position against the prisoners protest, denying that there were any political prisoners in its jails, and refusing to negotiate with the prisoners until they called off their hunger strike.
“We are not holding any political prisoners. Those who are currently in detention and in remand are those who were connected to LTTE’s acts of terrorism,” said Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva. He also stated that at least 309 prisoners on remand will be indicted under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and that 359 have been charged to date.
As the health of the prisoners on fast deteriorated, Tamil National Alliance parliamentarians visited some of them to persuade them to end their protest while representations were made on their behalf.
Meanwhile the government announced that three new high courts would begin functioning from the beginning of June in Anuradhapura, Mannar and Vavuniya which would expedite the hearing of the cases against the prisoners.
On 25 May, the prisoners suspended their protest while vowing to resume it again in a month’s time if there is no progress in the review of their cases.
According to S. Mahendran of the Movement for the Release of Political Prisoners, the next step following the Welikada prison picket is a mass signature campaign beginning 5 June demanding a general amnesty for, and early release of, all political prisoners.
This will be a challenge in the Sinhala community where there is acceptance of the government’s view that those in remand are terrorists and undeserving of clemency, and there is active hostility towards anyone with a contrary view.
Another public protest is planned in June, in the north-central city of Anuradhapura, and which will be joined by families of the disappeared who are also clamouring for justice.