Photo courtesy CNN

The photos of prisoners, like thugs, holding a few machine guns on the roof of Welikada Prison, challenging a government which is capable of terrorizing an entire country, what do they tell us? The news of the mass murder which was a response to that challenge, what does that tell us?

The photos and the news are two sides of the same coin. And the coin reflects the reality of Sri Lanka. It shows that intimidation, violence and murder have replaced humanity.

Sri Lanka’s prisons are lawless. And today, there is no rule of law in the whole country. The recent dreadful massacre by the Government’s security forces is a crime symbolic of the violence resulted from the fusion of the lawlessness of prisons and the lack of law and order in the country.

There are reports revealing that several of these prisoners were killed while they were still in handcuffs and that the search mission soon turned in to a killing mission, although the mainstream media, being controlled by political and financial pressures, may not report so. The shadow of the delayed strategy of killing and abduction in suppressing the underworld hang over the Welikada killings as well.

When we were jailed for the 1971 uprising, there was this saying that the Commissioner General of Prisons used to say whenever one of us were brutally beaten: “I only have to put up another notice saying that there’s another corpse. You dying, what does it matter to me?”

The prison officials who beat the prisoners or detainees showed no softness. The worst case was that the prison doctors who attend to the beaten prisons kept no record or placed no complaints about the injuries sustained. Sri Lankan prisons are in fact overcrowded and breed crime. High profile thugs become the unofficial administrators of prisons once they’re jailed.

The usual rule in prisons is to ignore all human rights although the outer prison is decorated with the slogan ‘ Prisoners too are human beings’ . This rule bends in cases of the politically powerful, the rich and the thugs.

There’s no doubt that the most of these of machine gunmen welding prisoners are the ones who organised kiribath dansal on the roads and rejoiced over the war victory wavering lion flags in May 2009. If not they were representatives of that stream. During the celebrations with kiribath and victory-drinks, there was no apparent compassion for thousands of innocent Tamil civilians who died in the battlefield a week ago.

That’s not all. In July 1983, it was similar groups of thugs, incited by the state that killed 52 unarmed Tamil inmates in the same Welikada Prison. There was no inquiry in to that mass murder and no one was punished.

A few months ago, the same Special Task Force which was called for this massacre, was called to suppress a protest carried out by the inmates of Vavuniya Prison. As a result of assaults during and after that incident, two Tamil prisoners died. And there was neither an inquiry, nor punishment.

Now, the Kiribath heroes themselves have been assaulted and killed. The same voice that asked; ‘they are Tigers; what’s wrong with killing them?’, today asks, ‘they’re underworld kingpins, what’s wrong with killing them?’. And the same group who campaigned for the right to life of Tamil people is left to talk about the slaughtered prisoners.

In a society that does not voice the need to protect the other’s life, it is possible that the Welikada massacre is already forgotten.

‘They are dead, now what is there to do?’, they’ll ask. And what we should say is that ‘it is true that they’re dead, but the murderer is still sniffing for prey’. Who knows who the next prey is? Could it not be a University lecturer? A student involved in a demonstration? A picketing nurse? A protesting labourer? Murder is not only physical death. Killing with intimidation and threat, without actually killing, is also murder.

One of the significant demerits of the post war Sri Lanka is the culture of impunity, where crimes approved by state are not punished for. There is no need to say that there will be no independent inquiry in to Welikada killings and no perpetrator will be penalized; we all know it.

There’s no ground to justify killing 27 prisoners and detainees simply because they held weapons. Even if they were armed, they were inside the prison. Any operation intended to save lives should have first used other means of controlling inmates than just unleashing a rain of bullets like the legendary bull in the pottery shop.

However that is not the practice in present Sri Lanka where the military victory over the LTTE is praised heroic and exemplary in spite of the deaths tens of thousands of Tamil civilians. The practice is this: First the killing, then the justification. Both symbol and policy of the post-war Sri Lankan Government is to entirely eliminate whatever the opposition or dissent by whichever the party, by killing. The Sinhala society that has revered and heroized the war in Mullivaikkal where thousands of Tamil civilians died, cannot expect a different reaction from the state. The same war strategies that neglected the deaths of Tamil civilians were put in place in shooting at and beating hundreds of Free Trade Zone workers in Katunayaka and killing Roshan Chanaka. Same goes true for the shooting at the protest of the fishermen and killing Antony Fernando in Chilaw. The sickening verbal attack directed at the University lecturers who launched a strike based on reasonable demands, by labelling them traitors through State Media can also be an expression of the same war strategy.

The impeachment motion brought against the Chief Justice, they themselves appointed also shows the war strategy of intolerance of dissent or independence.

After the war, Sri Lanka continues to follow the ways of Chand-Asoka. There’s no need to exaggerate. Imperial Chanda followed no law. Because Chanda, himself was the law. Not only the King, royal family and royal relatives, but also those who lick the royal boots can violate anything. They can suppress anyone. Sri Lanka today is writing its future by going back to the past.

There may be no other country that can reiterate verse by Pastor Martin Niemöller while he was in a Nazi death camp: ‘Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me’.

We need to stop thinking that prisons deaths do not matter to us, as they were criminals. Because criminals or not, they are still human: Because the voice that is not raised for the right to life of the other may remain the silent witness of our own death.

*Borella is where Welikada prison located and Pudumathanlan is where thousands of Tamils civilians died in the war.

  • Is it really necessary for the author to connect these criminals with the celebrations at the war’s end? What evidence does he have that these criminals were involved in that? This sort of mean spirited pettiness on the part of Deshapriya is the reason he remains largely ignored as an irrelevant and suspect character.

  • Kusuma Wattawa

    ”Pudumathalan” has not yet come to an end:

    ”Conflict-affected areas remain highly militarised, which has made progress towards achieving durable solutions more difficult. The military has become an important economic player and a key competitor of local people including returnees in the areas of agriculture, fishing, trade, and tourism. It has also been involved in areas that would normally come under civilian administration. It continues to occupy private land, thereby impeding IDPs’ return. The government has failed to make durable solutions a priority, and humanitarian organisations have faced funding shortages and restrictions on programming and access” – Sri Lanka: A hidden displacement crisis, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 31 October 2012,

  • justitia

    In May and June 1995 bodies of tamils,handcuffed & torured floated on Beira lake and other waterway round colombo.Police arrested 22 STF men and indicted them in court.But the accused refused to atend court.The state counsel too did not attend after one or two dates. After many more dates,on which accused and state counsel failed to appear,the magistrate postponed the case indefinitely.The magistrate DID NOT issue warrants for the arrest of the accused.
    The STF now have shot dead 27 prisoners.
    Wilful shooting with intent to kill,without prior baton charges is murder. Shooting below knee level to prevent fatalities was the norm earlier.
    Impunity is alive and well in sri lanka.

    • Justita, the next time convicted murderers and rapists armed with over a hundred assault rifles (106 T-56 rifles — enough to arm an infantry company — were stolen from the prison armory) are shooting cops, guard and civilians, I hope you will volunteer to lead a baton charge and/or shoot below the knee 😀

      What they should have done was bring in the SL Army snipers early and station them on the Wesley College roof. A section of ten rifles could have dropped at least five convicts before they found cover. Then gunships could have brought in commandos in a air assault. It would have been over in an hour. The snipers were only brought in at the very end to pick off the leaders and armed convicts before the ground assault.

      The STF is an elite police commando unit; the killings in 1995 were carried out by its support unit, Special Task Force Intelligence. This unit was disbanded after the killings.

      • * A section of ten rifles could have dropped at least five convicts EACH before they found cover.

      • justitia

        Those who dred baton charging a group of unruly prisoners carrying guns they are unfamiliar with,should choose safer vocations.
        The elite commando unit’s ‘task force’ should have been court martialled and not disbanded.

        • Sadun


          just how do you know that the prisoners rioting were unfamiliar with guns. Have they displayed their prisoner IDs in the process for you to derive what you say. and also if what you say is true then pray tell us where they put prisoners who are familiar with guns?


        • Justita, you really should educate yourself on the subject before sallying forth. If you know anything about SL, you would know that gang members are more than familiar with the use of automatic weapons, in fact they are quite expert at it. Many are former servicemen. The fact that they were able to serious wound several policemen and prison guards is evidence of the fact. Choosing to do a dangerous job doesn’t mean your job is to commit suicide — not unless you’re one of your friends from the north 😀 Do you know of any instances where police riot units anywhere in the world use batons against criminals armed with automatic rifles? Lol

          What should or shouldn’t have been done with STF Int 17 years ago is irrelevant to this incident. One is an alleged series of extra-judicial killings, and the other is the suppression of a prison riot.

  • Sadun

    “We need to stop thinking that prisons deaths do not matter to us, as they were criminals. Because criminals or not, they are still human: Because the voice that is not raised for the right to life of the other may remain the silent witness of our own death.”

    Sunanda, Kiribath or not I think its better that you seek a pardon if you have committed any crime or fraud. Otherwise we will sadly miss your kiribath articles like these since one cannot never guarantee that the inmates would rise up again and you happen to be in or passing nearby the prisons in such an unfortunate situation. That STF DIG and the newspaper cameraman were shot while waiting on the pavement on the otherside of the road you know.

    There is also an advantage in Kiribath, which is if you eat a stomach full of it then that could in itself be a safe measure since you in most probability would fall asleep right at the table and wouldn’t have to face the risk of being in front of welikada. Kiribath could save lives in that sense.


    PS: When the war ended in 2009 my thoughts were that there would be no more bomb blasts in colombo and our folks would be safe going to work there and coming back home after work. We didnt have any Makkal Padai you know.

    • Truth

      Safety of the people in Sri Lanka was lost since 1956!! Wanton killings, robbery, rape, burning houses, started and continued from 1983 and is still continuing!!

  • Pro Bono Publico

    well said David couldn’t agree with you more they were dangerous and did fire at passers by but fortunately none got caught

    • A journalist — technically a civilian — was shot.

  • Truth

    How did get to the prison armory? This must be a “staged’ shoot out to “silence” some of the prisoner by some powerful people!!

  • justitia

    There are reports that some prisoners were handcuffed and shot dead.
    There are supposed to be two ongoing inquiries & I hope the verdicts will be published and not hidden like many before.
    What STF did in 1995 is quite relevant – it shows their mindset towards civilians.They went unpunished by the state.Thus the climate of impunity was born.STF fought the LTTE in the eastern province and what they did to civilians is well known.
    Prisoners are citizens and have same right to life.
    This was murder,most foul.

    • Can you link to any “reports” of these handcuffed prisoners?

      If you’re looking for attitude towards civilians, the ’95 incident is hardly applicable, since the dead were Tiger suspects. The STF isn’t particularly better or worse in attitude than the rest of the military, and given the extent of the riot and the necessity of military action by some unit (if not the STF), what exactly is your point?

      In the context of this riot and attempted breakout by hardened murderers and rapists, is it really the attitude of the STF to civilians the greatest concern, or the attitude of these criminals to socirty? You need to review both your priorities and your morals, Justita.

      Convicted criminals most certainly do not have the same right to life as civilians when they choose to take up arms and destroy life.

      You may label it murder if that somehow makes you feel better, but I fear it is your moral compass that has gone afoul; putting down armed animals is not murder; it is a great service to society. It is in fact a pity that only 27 of these criminals were killed.

      • truth

        If as you say killing LTTE”suspects” is within the law, then how come some suspects are enjoying holiday abroad with the tax payers money? If that is the case, half the parliament should be empty!! Some “suspects” are globe trotting, some are adorning the parliament, ambassadorial positions!!!

        According to the “Jungle law”, if you do not like someone else’s face you are free to “suspect” him without any foundation, do whatever you like with him!!!If the person has some “power” then this person can commit any crime, he will not be “suspected”, and the victims have to suffer in silence!!!

        We all know this is what was happening and is happening in our “dharmista”, but surprised to see that in print!!!

        • I didn’t say killing Tiger suspects was within the law; just that those killed may not have been civilians, as Justita claims.

          If by “globe-trotting suspects”, you mean ministers such as Karuna, he has renounced his separatist cause and come in out of the cold. In Britain, the crown was quite happy to appoint Martin McGuiness — a former PIRA terrorist — a minister while sending the SAS to gun down unarmed PIRA suspects in Gibralta. It’s how the game is played. My question is, what has all this got to do with suppressing a prison riot?

  • justitia

    All victims of the armed forces are convenianly labelled “Tiger suspects”. Even “Tiger suspects” have to be convicted before execution. STF cannot be ‘judge,jury & executioners’.Why did not STF attend courts? Why were there no arrest warrants?
    STF were vicious on citizens & were replaced by the army in the eastern province.
    Do you have access to case profiles of those killed,to label them?
    Read stories on the web – they rioted after STF went into the prisons and threatened & shot a few after handcuffing them.
    All citizens have a ‘right to life’ until sentenced to death by a court of law.
    Your calling them ‘animals’ is wrong. They were human beings.
    After 16 were killed on the riots day evening,police had come early morning and called out names – the eleven who responded had been taken out and shot in cold blood – survivers have testified to the media.
    Relatives who had come early morning,had found the bodies still warm.

    • No, not all suspected Tigers have to be produced in court before they may be killed. The military may fire on and kill suspected Tigers in a combat situation. It is after the Tigers are taken into custody or made POWs that there physical safety must be assured. So the circumstances of the deaths must be made clear at the outset.

      The STF was replaced in the East by the Army only when Tiger attacks had escalated to the conventional level. The STF isn’t equipped or trained for conventional warfare; it is a special ops unit. During the CFA, the Tigers pushed for the STF’s withdrawal from the Amparai and Batti areas, not because of problems with civilians, but because the STF was so efficient at counter-insurgency warfare that they were preventing illegal Tiger operations. A conventional Army infantry unit isn’t always as good at that job. So this replacement had nothing to do with its attitude to civilians. If you wish to put forth such theories, do back it up with credible reports on them.

      It is amusing that you ask for case profiles on the Tiger suspects of ’95, but ignore the official records of the murderers and rapists killed at Welikada. Why this double standard?

      Do link to any credible reports that the STF shot or killed anyone in the prison prior to the violent rioting, and/or that they did so after the riot had been suppressed. I am not interested in combing the web for evidence that you cannot provide.

      Citizens lose their right to life when they attempt to take the life of another. A police officer is well within the law if he kills a criminal engaged in the act of murder.

      I am touched by your empathy with these unrepentant murderers and rapists who you label “human beings”. It is a pity that you cannot empathise with their victims nor the police officers and soldiers injured in their duty to prevent these “human beings” from continuing to murder and rape in society. As I said before, your moral compass needs to realign itself with true north.

  • Keynes!


    All your finer points are taken. However, you discount the possibility that the operation may have been conceived as an attempt to justify the use of unprecedented force. Maybe it was to manipulate public perception so that the fear of terror itself would become a social rationalistion for the process.

    When one looks back, a pattern seems to be emerging. From Roshen Chanaka at the FTZ to Anthony Warnakulasooriya in Chilaw to what happened at the Vavuniya prison to the events at the Jaffna University to the protests organised against the CJ. It seems like you want to give the miss and not see the forest for the trees.

    Are you are the scoundrel from Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, who takes advantage of the Emperor’s vanity, by promising to make an outfit that is invisible to anyone who is too stupid and incompetent to appreciate its quality?

    Or maybe you are the naked emperor himself from the tale. Perhaps you would care to reveal to the readers here to the the scoundrel who sold you the farce.

    • I’m not discounting possibilities, but neither do I see any point in elevating possibilities to probabilities without any reason.

      The FTZ and Chillaw protests were a completely different matter, and the military shouldn’t have been called out to quell a protest. The prison riot was by armed and dangerous convicts who had already shot and wounded the police and prison officials. There was nothing unprecedented about using riot police against student demonstrations; it has been frequently done in Colombo. As for the CJ, what force are you talking about?

      Don’t worry yourself too much about fairy tales, nor which role to assign me; let’s stick to the real world 😉

  • Roy

    Welikada prison massacre: The re-appearance of dictatorship
    Please see the link.
    We should remind the world again and again about the people who authorised the terrible crime.