Sunday, May 20, 2012

Condemned! – Rejected Human Beings

By Niranjala Ariyawansha

The female ward of the Welikada Prison Complex houses convicts local as well as foreign
Q: Who are condemned
A: Well, do you know what condemned vehicles are?
Q: They are vehicles unsuitable for use.
A: That’s right. Condemned prisoners are those unsuitable to enter civil society, expelled from society and simply totally rejected human beings.
These responses come from Asoka Hapuaarachchi, Deputy Commissioner of Prisons, sitting in his cozy office inside the Welikada Prison Complex.
However, on the outer side of the high walls, large bold letters declare: Prisoners are also Human Beings!
One wonders at the fate of these prison inmates who are condemned to live under officials who consider the prisoners as ‘rejected or unsuitable for civil society. Some may view the comparison as ‘absurd’. While I view the whole process as abhorrent, it is interesting to note the novel interpretation the Dy Prisons Commissioner comes up with regard to human life.
Readers may wonder what all this fuss about technical terms. The issue is not about terminology. It’s about the final analysis in the interpretation. How the subject of humanity has been assessed; and the interpretation they themselves provide for humanity, which they themselves had placed on a high pedestal.
There are 854 such ‘condemned’ men and women in Welikada, Mahara and Bogambara prisons as at April 30, 2012.  They have been convicted by court for murder and other such serious crimes.
For some time, they have been making one single demand. That is that they be executed, or convert their death sentence to life imprisonment. They have been making this demand since 2001as it is the year they had been condemned to this ‘No Man’s Land’.
Death by hanging has been suspended since June 5, 1976 and those sentenced to death that year had their sentences converted to life imprisonment. Life imprisonment lasts about 20 years, but according to the Prisons Ordinance, those who fall into the category of Good Conduct could be freed in 12 or 14 years enabling them to enter civil society. That was the procedure followed since the death sentence was converted to Life Imprisonment since 1976.
Life Imprisonment was terminated on May 26, 2002 and ever since, the condemned prisoners are in a serious dilemma resulting in severe mental stress. A. Dissanayake, Secretary to the Ministry of Prisons and Prison Reforms explains the reasons behind the decision to terminate the death sentence.
“There was a reason to stop life imprisonment for condemned prisoners in 2001. A judge sentenced an accused and his sentence was converted to life imprisonment. After being released from prison, he again committed a crime and was produced before the very same judge who sentenced him earlier. The judge made a statement declaring it a dangerous precedent. It was after that incident that the conversion of death sentence into life imprisonment was suspended effective May 26, 2001.
In Sri Lanka, after the death sentence is pronounced in courts, the sanction of the head of state is necessary to carry out the  sentence. Although the death sentence was suspended since 1976, it has so far not been abolished. The sanction of the Head of State comes in the form of declaring the date that the execution should be carried out. In such circumstances, what is the fate of the condemned prisoner? Before 1976, the condemned prisoners were aware that they would be executed. Later, when the death sentence was converted to life imprisonment, there was a definite change in that assumption realizing that some day they would go free. During those passing years, there was the possibility of them repenting for their past crimes and prepare themselves to come back into the civil society. Despite the fact that had committed serious crimes, the prisoners do have used the time spent in prison to come back to the right path.
However today, these prisoners are totally uncertain of their future. Uncertainty seems to extend to eternity and they vehemently demand that their sentences be converted to life imprisonment or they be executed.
Sri Lankas are quite used to long queues of various sorts, but this segment of Sri Lankans are languishing in a entirely different kind of queue… a queue that ends in certain death!
There are certainly criminals involved in most heinous crimes. They are those who wrested the right to life from fellow human beings. As such they should certainly be punished. But this writer is totally against killings and executions, both legal and illegal.
However, the cause for concern is in the uncertainty of their sentence. A jailor employed in the Welikada prisons, who wished to remain anonymous has this to say:
“They are all criminals. There’s no doubt about it. They should serve a long prison term for their crimes. But it is also a crime to keep them in suspense without carrying out the death sentence or turning their sentence into life imprisonment.  They always ask us what their fate is. We have no answers, for we ourselves are unaware of their fate.”
According to prison officials, of the 854 who had received death sentence, 498 have appealed against the conviction. They claim that the other issue is that it would take at least five years for those appeals to be reviewed.
Commenting on this issue, Ministry Secretary Dissanayake says that to date the number sentenced to death is very high. With the escalation of crime by the day, the situation would worsen, he added.
“The number in the Death Row has increased to 854. We are indeed sensitive to their plight and a committee headed by a judge has been appointed in 2011that includes officials of the Ministry of Justice and Prisons Department. The report of that committee has been handed over to the Presidential Secretariat. The committee has recommended that the sanction of the Attorney General and the Justice Minister is needed to carry out the death sentence. In addition, the sanction of the President is also necessary. Also there are recommendations that each and every conviction be reviewed on an individual basis. According to our information, there could be more chances to obtain a presidential pardon.”
According to the Ministry Secretary, as a May 2012, there were about 25,000 inmates in various prisons and detention centres in the island and Rs. 318 is spent on each prisoner per day including meals amounting to about Rs. 7,950,000 per day. The total annual expenditure of the Prisons Department amounts to Rs. 3.9 billion, said the Secretary Dissanayake.
Rs. 271,572 is spent daily on the 854 in the death row totaling Rs. 99,123,780 per year.
However, an official at the Welikada Prison, who did not wish to be named, said that some inmates who had been in the prison for between 10 to 30 years can contract various diseases.
The ‘Chapel’ building at the Welikada Prison has 352 cells. However, these 352 cells have only 17 toilets. As of May 15, 2012 there were 4,146 inmates at the Welikada Prison. The ‘Chapel’ building had 2,500 inmates as of that same date.
Around 585 inmates at the prison who are on death row do not have toilet facilities and have to make do with whatever is available in their cell. For this purpose they have been supplied with a plastic bucket, and that plastic bucket remains in the cell for a full 24 hours.
An inmate who is on death row can be kept in a single cell or three inmates on death row can be kept in the same cell. Under prison laws two people on death row cannot be kept in one cell. The reason for this is that if two people are in one cell and one person commits a crime against the other, there is no witness to provide evidence.
The prison official said that in a cell where only one prisoner or three prisoners can be kept, there are six prisoners. There is no room for them to even move about. There are also six buckets-one for each of the use as a toilet. This situation is not for a short period, but remains round the clock.
Over the past fifteen years the Minister in charge of prisons, the secretary to the Ministry, the commissioner general of prisons or any other prison official have not inspected the poor conditions in the cells, the official said. “Karalliyadda so far is the best commissioner general to have been appointed. After he left the current Minister, secretary or Kodippili have not set foot in the cell areas so far”, the official said.
This official also said that Asoka Happuarachchi and the prison commissioner instead of looking at the welfare of the prisoners are instead having various events in the prison premises thus hiding the true conditions of the prison.
In a country with a population of over 21 million by the year 2012 there are at least 854 people sentence to death for various crimes. As such, the society too has a responsibility to ask the question whether they are to be brought back to civil society or let them languish in the death row for eternity?
Sri Lanka, down the ages, have been nurtured by a number of religions and today they all have been placed in a high pedestal by society.  As a result, our mindset too is based on various religious leanings much more than scientific thinking. One begins to wonder whether our religions have failed? In such circumstances, it is to be assumed that solutions that could not be found in religions could be sought within the legal system.
According to the secretary to the Ministry a presidential pardon is likely for most of the people who are on death row. However, we should not assume that all 854 people on death row will be released. As President Mahinda Rajapaksa takes the Miracle of Asia concept forward there is nothing stopping him from pardoning those 854 people. If he does that then that concept will see light faster.
Prisons deputy commissioner Asoka Happuarachchi says that the 854 inmates on death row are at Welikada, Bogambara and Mahara. All those who are facing charges before the law are still citizens of this country. However, although they have been sentenced to death, one should not forget the fact that they too are citizens of this country. ‘According to law humanity is given preference over anything else.’ However, today we live in a society the Rajapaksa regime is providing hilarious interpretations to humanity, law and order and various other ideals.
Source: Sunday Leader online edition:  Last access 20 May 2012
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Information for sale
Deputy commissioner Asoka Happuarachchi, when contacted regarding some of the issues in the prison, said that he will get back to us and took this reporters mobile number. He then called back from his office phone and provided some information regarding the conditions in the prison.  Excerpts of the conversation: Asoka Happuarachchi: The information I have given you now is worth between 200,000 and 300,000. How much will you get for this story? Reporter: What I get is only my monthly salary.

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