Photo courtesy of Xinhua

In a landmark development in the pursuit of justice for the victims of the Mahara Prison riots, the Attorney General (AG), on behalf of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), informed the Court of Appeal that he was going to file indictments against the prison officers who were involved with the killings inside the Mahara Prison within three months starting from January 22, 2024. The next court date is April 22, 2024.

The AG’s decision sends a clear message that impunity will not be tolerated any longer and those responsible for human rights violations will be held accountable under the law. It reaffirms the judiciary’s commitment to upholding the rule of law and protecting the rights of all individuals, including those within the prison system.

During a riot that took place between November 29 and November 30, 2020 11 prisoners died and 117 suffered severe injuries. The brutality of prison officials, as revealed in the legal proceeding at the Welisara Magistrate’s court, drew widespread condemnation and raised serious questions about the treatment of inmates and the conduct of those entrusted with their care.

Despite the Welisara Magistrate’s order on April 26, 2023, which found prison officials guilty of using excessive force leading to a loss of life, justice remains elusive as the order sits unimplemented for nearly a year, which raises serious concerns about the efficacy and integrity of the justice system, leaving victims and their families without closure or accountability. The failure to execute the magistrate’s order not only undermines the credibility of the legal process but also perpetuates a culture of impunity within correctional institutions. It sends a distressing message that those responsible for upholding the law are themselves immune to its consequences. The prolonged delay in implementing such a significant ruling exacerbates the anguish of those affected and erodes public trust in the judicial system.

The riot at the Mahara Prison, sparked by the transfer of COVID-19 infected prisoners from overcrowded facilities, underscored the dire consequences of neglecting public health measures within the prison system. The unrest began as inmates voiced legitimate concerns over the lack of adequate COVID-19 testing and safeguards amid a surge in cases across the country. When 12 prisoners tested positive for the virus, tensions escalated as inmates demanded increased PCR testing and better containment measures to prevent further spread. The failure of prison officials to address these grievances in an effective manner fueled frustration and desperation among the prison inmates, culminating in the riots. The episode serves as a reminder of the importance of prioritizing public health protocols and safeguarding the wellbeing of all individuals, including those within the prison system, during times of crisis.

Mehenuwara Gedara Lasanthie, the wife of one of the deceased prisoners, along with the Committee for Protecting Rights of Prisoners, took a bold step towards pursuing justice by filing a writ of mandamus (a writ seeking an order from a court ordering a government official to properly fulfill official duties) in the Court of Appeal to compel the enforcement of the magistrate’s order. The filing of the writ marked a critical juncture in the quest for accountability and redress for the victims and their families. It underscored the resilience of those affected by the tragedy and their commitment to ensuring that those responsible are held to account for their actions.

The brutality and scale of the violence shocked the public and underscored the pressing need for comprehensive reform within the country’s prison system. Beyond the immediate loss of life and physical harm inflicted, the killings exposed deep seated issues of overcrowding, inadequate security and health measures and the failure to address the welfare of prison inmates. It served as a reminder of the urgent imperative to prioritize the rights and safety of prisoners, as well as the need for systemic changes to prevent such tragedies from recurring.

The road to justice remains fraught with challenges and the filing of indictments is only the first step in a long journey towards accountability. It is imperative that the legal proceedings are conducted diligently, transparently and in accordance with the principles of fairness and due process. It is also essential that measures are implemented to prevent similar violence from occurring in the future. This requires comprehensive reforms within the prison system to address systemic issues such as overcrowding, inadequate facilities and the lack of accountability for misconduct by prison officials. As the legal proceedings unfold, it is incumbent upon all stakeholders, including the government, law enforcement agencies, civil society organizations and the international community to remain vigilant and ensure that justice is not only served but also seen to be served.