The debate organized by the Human Rights Office Kandy, called it the ‘Mandela Shield Debate’ and according to its lawyer, Suren Perera, who wanted to prove that, “prisoners too were talented and as everyone else and deserved the same dignity and respect”. This debate between law students and prisoners was fashioned after a famous debate between the Harvard Debate Team and a debate team of New York Prison inmates in 2015. The debate rose to much fame as the prestigious Harvard team which had earlier won the National title, lost to the team of inmates at the debate.
The prisoners also chose to use their own personal experiences as well as those of their fellow inmates to highlight examples of when the justice system did not work and its practical implications in their everyday life.
“Three of the prisoners are serving a death sentence for murder. They had both English and Sinhala material and there was one prisoner who could speak in English. He chose material from English books to argue. The prison had debates within prison to choose the best orators for the team,” explained Suren Perera.
“We had two rounds and the prisoners wanted more time to speak. The first round had five minutes each. The second, we gave each speaker three minutes,” he said. The law students who used their legal training, in the meantime, spoke of the various laws and avenues the prisoners had when faced with an injustice, but the prisoners had pointed out that accessing these avenues was difficult for them and even when they did, it did not work in reality.
The prison debate team which was also up to date on their current affairs, used the most recent example of the murder of Wasim Thajudeen and the inability to decipher video footage as a serious flaw in the system. Ironically, on the day of the debate, the verdict on the murder of Bharatha Lakshman, was delivered and this too became a highlight in the arguments used by the prisoners.
The Human Rights Office, Kandy, also stated that the law students who had attended the debate, found the debate to be a lively and sensitive one where they were able to gain first-hand experience on the lives the prisoners, the problems which occurred during legal cases, and issues when dispensing justice through the system.
The debate also brought up the need to treat prisoners and those who have been rehabilitated and released as part of society and not as outcasts. A prisoner speaking on his own experience said that due to the stigma of his being in prison, his child found it hard to get even a Grama Sevaka certificate.
At the end of the debate, a visibly moved law student had declared that she did not want to use the word ‘prisoners’ to refer to her opponents and that she felt that they were part of her own family.
The debate ended on a high note. Given its success, the University has agreed to continue such debates and discussions with the prisoners and law students in future. The Chairman of the judging panel, a lawyer also chose to speak further with the prisoners after the debate and promised to pursue the injustices they faced within prison with the courts and other agencies.
The debate, however, was a spotlight on the gaps in our justice system. It helped realize that the system needed to do more to protect the vulnerable and live up to the common values of equality and fairness.