Sri Lanka and Pakistan face similar challenges when it comes to the regulation of their prison systems. Despite official prison guidelines being embedded in the law, the conditions of incarceration in Pakistani and Sri Lankan prisons remains dire. The situation is compounded by a persistent failure to consider alternatives to custodial detention.
Far from rehabilitating criminals, the prison system in the Sub-Continent serves most often as a potential breeding ground for criminal activity and disease. Most prisons in the region house more prisoners than they had been built for. Some even house prisoners in excess of twice their capacity. Sri Lankan prisons are highly congested with more than 26,000 inmates crowded into facilities with a capacity of 10,000. Unrest related to COVID-19 erupted in one of these prisons last year, and at least 11 inmates were killed and more than 100 wounded when guards opened fire to control the riot.
Overcrowding is the result of an inclination to detain under-trial prisoners, where penal servitude is considered the most effective punishment for offenders. In Pakistan, overcrowding also does not allow separation of prisoners according to the status of their cases. Convicted prisoners are often housed together with under-trial prisoners while adult female prisoners share space with juvenile females. Such conditions of detention not only ignore the dignity and the basic needs of inmates, they also serve as a barrier to genuine reform. There is also no indication that any substantial reform for the prison system in Pakistan is being contemplated in the near future.
Former MP Duminda Silva, who was sentenced to death over the murder of former MP Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra, was also granted
a presidential pardon
The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka conducted a prison study which reported the following findings: the system is overcrowded and under-resourced, the prisons system emphasizes correctional and punitive aspects, rather than the preferred rehabilitative model. Officials are well aware of the shortcomings in the system and are open to change. The last gives the Commission hope that although the system is overburdened, if effort is made to reduce prison populations and the focus shifts to a rehabilitative process, with adequate resources for the same, it could achieve the required standards. In this regard, one could say that the Prisons Department’s new Strategic Plan 2021–2025 A Right Based Correctional System for a Safer Society is a step in the right direction. This is the main difference between the reforms (or lack thereof) in Pakistan, versus what is happening in Sri Lanka.
In the first quarter of 2015, Pakistan resumed executions of all death penalty convicts, instead of just those convicted of terrorism offences. During this time, Pakistan became one of the states with the highest rates of executions in the world. The overwhelming majority of the individuals executed through the year were not ‘hardcore terrorists,’ against whom the executions had purportedly been resumed. This is why justice has always been a hotly contested concept in both countries.
Sri Lanka recently saw controversy because of a presidential pardon bestowed on 93 prisoners last week. These included 16 ex-Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) combatants. These former-combatants had been incarcerated under provisions in the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and 77 had been imprisoned for minor offences.
Controversy erupted when former MP Duminda Silva, who was sentenced to death over the murder of former MP Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra, was also granted a presidential pardon. This causing a huge furor, as many believed this pardon should not have been granted.
Pursuant to this, approximately 150 death row inmates in Sri Lanka had gone on a hunger strike to demand their sentences be commuted. Several inmates protested on the roof of a prison in capital city Colombo, holding up banners demanding equal treatment and bail consideration. “Grant pardon to us like you did to terrorists and notorious politicians,” one banner said in local script.
The former MP’s surprise release on Thursday after he was pardoned by the country’s president has drawn widespread criticism, including from the United Nations’ human rights office and the United States ambassador in Sri Lanka.
Duminda Silva is widely seen as a favorite of Sri Lanka’s ruling Rajapaksa family and had been sentenced to death over the murder of a rival politician from his own party in an election-related attack about 10 years ago. The hunger strike involved about 150 inmates sentenced to death who were demanding their sentences be commuted to life terms, prison spokesman Chandana Ekanayake said. Prison officials were holding talks with the justice ministry and their sentences have now been commuted to life in prison.
The UN human rights office said Silva’s case “is another example of selective, arbitrary granting of pardons that weakens rule of law and undermines accountability.” US Ambassador Alaina B Teplitz in a Tweet on Thursday said the pardon of Silva “undermines rule of law.”
This is not the first time a presidential pardon has caused controversy within the island nation, and begs the following question: what is the point of justice in a system where a solitary pardon can overrule years of investigations and fair trial? If Pakistan and Sri Lanka do not look deeper into improving the rights of those languishing in prisons for crimes they may even not have committed, while releasing convicted killers, they will soon see a rise in disdain from societies which are fast losing patience in the face of such blatant disregard for fairness and human rights.
The writer is a lawyer, teacher and political commentator based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. She can be reached on Twitter @writergirl_11