The government is now giving top priority to tackling the key issues of laws’ delays and congestion in jails as looking afresh at how justice works within Sri Lanka’s prison system is of critical importance, says Justice and Law Reforms Minister, Milinda Moragoda.
"We should not only think in terms of new buildings for prisons, but also assess how meaningfully justice plays its vital role within the prisons system in the country", he stressed.
The Minister was addressing a series of meetings in Jaffna, where he visited the prison, the Jaffna and Point Pedro Courts complexes and later participated at the closing ceremony of the Legal Literacy Program for members of Mediation Boards, at the Jaffna Public Library, last Friday.
"We should look at the real situation in our jails", he said. "It is only then that we can get down to resolving the critical issues confronting us in this sphere".
At the Jaffna prison, Moragoda visited the cells and spoke to the inmates, including three army soldiers and five Indian nationals, and inquired into their wellbeing.
"We have a lot of work on our hands to sort out these problems", he told The Sunday Island after seeing for himself how 404 inmates are being incarcerated in crammed cells within the limited space available.
The Minister asked Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Palitha Fernando and Justice Ministry Secretary Suhada Gamlath, who were amongst the top officials accompanying him on the tour, to look into the grievances of the inmates.
A soldier, H. M. Chaminda Janaka Herath, held for an alleged accidental blast of a grenade told the Minister that his case had been dragging on for the past fifteen years.
He claimed he was interdicted over the incident, which killed two of his colleagues at a bunker in Pooneryn, but three months ago – after a lapse of 15 years – was directed to appear before the Mallakam Magistrate and remanded.
Another soldier, Chaminda Lakmal said that he was being held in connection with an alleged misfire of a firearm and despite a lifeless arm, he was being denied medical treatment.
"They say I cannot be treated without my military medical card", he complained showing his affected arm". "I need medical attention".
ASG Fernando personally spoke to the inmates and jotted down the information to ensure justice. He even gave his official address so that they could write to him.
The Indians, small-time textile merchants, are being held for over-staying their visas by a month. The Minister asked why they cannot be deported without continuing to detain them.
Moragoda also visited the women’s section where an inmate told him that she is being held for three years after a claymore mine was found in the vicinity. There were also two small children born to inmates within the premises.
The Minister also discussed with Jaffna prisons superintendent, S. Indrakumar and his officers the problems they faced in carrying out their duties.
He said that providing new buildings and other facilities for prisons cannot be done overnight as substantial funding is required. "I have put up Cabinet papers but we need time to sort out these issues".
A new six-acre prison complex for Jaffna is on the cards, he said, thanking Ms. Shantha Abimanasingham, PC, for the initiative taken.
Responding to a question by a citizens committee member at the Jaffna public library meeting, Moragoda said that everybody should join hands to work towards easing restrictions placed on the civilian population in the North.
The citizens committee member said his father refused to eat and died one month later after being moved out from Valikamam North area which encompassed the High Security Zone (HZS) in Palaly.
"I know there is an emotional aspect to it, but it takes a lot of trust, confidence and hard work to gradually resolve these issues. Otherwise, the sacrifices made by the security forces will be in vain. Let us work together on this", the Minister explained.
Paying a glowing tribute to Rehabilitation Commissioner-General, Maj. Gen. Daya Rathnayake and Prisons Commissioner, Maj. Gen. V. R. de Silva, Moragoda said he is fortunate to have two of the best soldiers to help him in his task.
"I have not come here to make empty promises, smile and go back. There are practical realistic plans, but they cannot happen overnight".
He assured the government would re-double its efforts on the language issue and make it better with the passage of time. The police are unable to record statements in Tamil due to a dearth of Tamil-speaking officers.
On the non-availability of government forms in Tamils, Legal Draftsman, Ms. Thirani Rajjumala said the translations are available but the Government Printer is not printing adequate numbers for distribution.
Accompanying the Minister were Justice K. Sripavan, Jaffna High Court Judge R. T. Vignaraja, former MP, R. A. D. Sirisena, Government Analyst T. R. N. M. Liyanarachchi, Justice Ministry Additional Secretaries Kamalani de Silva (Law), A. K. D. D. D. Arandara and Assistant Secretary W. A. Senaratne.