In connection with the “Prison week” the Human Rights office in Kandy, Sri Lanka organized a debate on the 08th September 2016, for the students from the University of Peradeniya, Law Department. Debates were not uncommon to these law students, but this time, they were speaking at a high security institution - Prison and their opponents were none other than the sentenced prisoners at Bogambara- Dumbara Prison.
The topic of debate was “how effective is the process of justice (police, courts and prison) in Sri Lanka”. The law students who are being trained to defend and uphold the justice system of the country and the prisoners who at times have become victims of this system argued the pros and cons of its everyday realities.
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 debate in Kandy, however, chose to have a friendly debate and not a competition. It was targeted to raise awareness around the state of prisoners and prisons on ‘Prisoners week’ which was commemorated in September.
The Human Rights Office Kandy, which explained what took place, said the prisoners used material published by the Asian Human Rights Commission to strengthen their case while the law students used the Penal Code, Constitution and other legal documents to support their arguments.
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 law students showed that the Constitution had guaranteed the Fundamental Rights of all citizens and that they had the right to file a Fundamental Rights petition when they felt that their rights have been violated. The prisoners, however, said that there were problems when submitting such a petition and that it was hard to get an experienced lawyer for a fee which ordinary people can afford.
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.
Many important aspects in the arena of human rights too were discussed; the law students who spoke of the law against torture in Sri Lanka pointed out that there were several legislations against torture. But the prisoners said that even though they had made several complaints regarding torture, the police was not independent enough to enforce the law. One of the most important arguments revolved around the Victims and Witnesses Protection Act No. 4, 2015. The prisoners pointed out that with no independent organisation outside of the police to help enforce the Act, it was hard for the national body responsible for such an Act to keep the victims and witnesses safe.
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.
The Peradeniya University students in the end, similar to students from Harvard, walked away at the end of the debate, knowing that they had met their match amongst the orators behind bars
Tamil political detainees in Kandy Bogambara remand prison who joined the hunger strike launched by the prisoners at the Welikada prison on the 13th October ended their fast on Saturday the 17th October 2015, respecting the promise made by the President Maithripala Sirisena who had directed the Justice Minister to formulate a mechanism to look into their issues and finish the process between October 31 and November 07.
The 13 political prisoners, demanded their immediate release as they have being in remand for the last 08 years. Fr. Nandana Manatunga, the director of the Human Rights Office Kandy along with his staff and Fr. Reid Shelton Fernando, Fr. Ananda Fernando and the members of the Alliance for Justice visited the prisoners, explained the promise made by the president and requested the prisoners to end their fast. Addressing the Media Fr. Nandana & Fr. Reid said that the prisoners demand either general amnesty or rehabilitation if required for a short period.
The HRO has assisted the political prisoners since 2008 and managed to release 12 remand prisoners held under the PTA challenging the so called “confessions” for which the suspects were forced to sign after severe Torture.
Human Rights Office Kandy worked in collaboration with the Prison Welfare Union at the Bogambara - Dumbara prison and the open prison at Pallekelle in organizing various activities for the prisoners during the week held from the 07th-14th September 2015.
The focus was on building “Hope during challenging times”, the organizers called this special to support and raise awareness of the needs of prisoners, their families, victims of crime, prison staff and volunteers and those working for the welfare of the prisoners.
“Justice would not be served until those who were unaffected are as outraged as those who are”- Benjamin Franklin. According to Francois-Marie Arouet, it is better to risk saving a guilty person than to condemn an innocent one.
“In Sri Lanka there are people languishing in jail for years without being able to furnish heavy cash bail ordered by the High Court. In 2012 there were 486 remand prisoners who had been in remand custody for more than 03 years with 136 of them having languished for more than five years in remand custody” Fr. Nandana remarked at the opening of the prison week and further said, there are also others in remand prison because they are poor and powerless and have no sureties acceptable to Court.
On the first day of the prison week, the 07th September 2015, a value education programme was organized by the Human Rights Office for the prisoners in Open Prison - Pallakelle and around 500 prisoners took part in event. A vibrant, timely input was given by Prof. Attanayake M. Herath with the invitation of the HRO.
Religious Observances of all the major religions were held on the second day at the Bogambara - Dumbara Prison on the 08th September 2015.
On the third day of the prison week, a medical clinic was organized by the Human Rights Office for the Prisoners at the Bogambara - Dumbara Prison on the 09th September 2015. The group of medical experts consisted of 03 dentists, with the dental mobile unit of Peradeniya dental faculty, 02 doctors from the orthopedic unit of Peradeniya teaching hospital, 02 general physicians and 02 nurses from the Lakeside hospital. The staff of the HRO and few members from the HRO support group facilitated the medical camp. All most all the sentenced prisoners amounting to 236 were seeing by the physicians, including those sentenced to death.
On the 04th day of the Prison week, a Legal Clinic was organized by the Human Rights Office for the prisoners in Bogambara – Dumbara Prison on the 11th September 2015 with 09 Practicing lawyers, 08 law students, HRO staff and few members of the HRO support group.82 prisoners who needed legal advice and assistance, consulted the lawyers and the documentation was done by the law students to follow up the and assist the prisoners.
On the final day of the Prison week, 14th September 2015, a Family Day was organized and family members of 236 Prisoners in Bogambara – Dumbara Prison visited the prison and it was a very emotional reunion. The family members amounting to more than 800 family members brought, food and other items to their loved ones detained in prison. At the opening of the family day the prisoners bowed down with respect before their parent as a gesture of requesting pardon and reconciliation.
An awareness programme was launched by the HRO with the flags day organized by the prison welfare unit. The flags were distributed in schools both in Kandy and in Colombo, parishes and temples in Kandy.
The attempt of the HRO of the “inside-outside” approach making outsiders aware of the insiders-prisons and prisoners being brought to the awareness of the outside world was successful. Further HRO discovered several innocent persons, serving death sentence and life imprisonment due to the defects of the justice system. Hence the execution of the capital punishment would risk of executing innocent persons.
The Human Rights Office Kandy Organized a workshop for the prison families. It was held at Fatima Retreat House Lewella Kandy recently, with two ex-prisoners and 30 prison family members participating in the 03 day workshop. The prisoner families were mainly composed of Political prisoners who are still being detained.
The word “Prison” comes from Latin carcer. When a person is incarcerated, a manifestation of survival occurs that one has to “adjust” to the climate. “Adjustment” is part of the manifestation. With this manifestation, it causes an incarcerated person to be, if he so happens to manifest, labeled as having a ‘prison mentality’ or to be ‘institutionalized’. At the onset of the workshop we found the family members feeling heavy with tension and stress, sadness, anger and revengeful thoughts and feelings, a typical reflection of the imprisoned mentality. The focus of the workshop was to empower the family members by strengthening the coping skills they are endowed with.
The complete workshop made use of drama therapy techniques such as narra-drama, story-telling, doubling, role-reversal, empty chair and role playing. Also miniature wooden figures were used to enable the participants to build their story through a spectrogram; to visualize how they faced their problems and what changes are required in their lives.
The session started with a game at warm-up phase to help the participants to understand the nature of their mind set being caught up in imprisoned mentality. They were asked to build a circle which is metaphoric of ‘mind’ according to Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, and they understood that the mind is another prison from which one cannot easily escape. They found that all fears and sorrows are results of the strong attachments that demonically disturb them.
The movements and scripted scenes helped the participants assimilate with characters related to the issue. It was a turning point slowly changed their outlook and their behavior dramatically distancing them from their anxiety, pain, and their irresistible demand of their cry to get their husbands and sons released.
The participants took part in an active exploration of their problematic areas though role plays and dramatic forms. In the process of role playing and role reversal the participants learned to perceive their problems from another point of view.
Cooperation among players in discovering, devising and acting out their own conflicts further enhanced the process of their own values and their ability to contain, daring, which in turn make the imprisoned loved ones develop a sense of values in the process of doing discovery.
They discovered a felt meaning in performing rituals for the benefit of their loved ones in prisons. Objects like stones, coconuts, and tree leaves were symbolically employed as part of a Ritual that helped the participants to relieve of their trauma. The whole atmosphere breathed a breath of optimistic relief when the performance of sacred wishful ritual was over.
At the closure there was a personal in-depth sharing and a reflection portraying their understanding ….
that “We are all prisoners, but some of us are in cells with windows and some without.” - Khalil Gibran
It was an emotional moment as everyone knew that it would be the last event celebrated at the Bogambara prison. Built in the year 1876 the Bogambara Prisons is a maximum security Prison for Prisoners. It is the 2nd largest prison in Sri Lanka, situated in the Kandy Central Province. Built by the then British Colonial Government, and Inspector General of Police Mr. Saunders. The building is an archaeological landmark of Sri Lanka. The gallows is also housed in Bogambara, although it is not used now. The building is like a fortress or Bastille with walls going round it and high security towers which look like ancient battlements.
The long standing Bogambara prison will be closed by the 15th February 2014 and already many of the prisoners were shifted to other prisons in elsewhere. Early 2014 sentenced prisoners staged a protest at Bogambara by climbing to the roof calling the authorities to send them to a place where there is enough room for them to breath.