Tamil prisoners in Sri Lanka’s Anuradhapura prison petitioned the country’s Supreme Court on Thursday in a fundamental rights violation case. The prisoners sought relief from a ‘gun-wielding’ Prisons Minister who allegedly threatened them a fortnight ago.
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Safety Concerns; Prison Minister Steps Down from Post
The detainees expressed concern for their safety, requesting relocation to a prison in the Tamil-majority Northern Province. According to media sources, Jaffna MP and senior lawyer M.A. Sumanthiran will represent them in the lawsuit.
Following the filing of the fundamental rights petition against him, Lohan Ratwatte, State Minister of Prison Management and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation stepped down from the ministry on Sept 15. The move came amid intense pressures against the minister’s actions. Mr. Ratwatte remains a junior Minister in the Rajapaksa administration, heading the Gem and Jewellery ministry. He has retained his place in the administration despite demands by government critics for his firing from all positions. Critics have said that the reported incident has provoked widespread public indignation, making his removal necessary.
The prisoners said in their appeal that the Minister asked them to form a semi-circle, directing them to “kneel before him”. He then began abusing them in Sinhala. He further claimed that His Excellency the President had granted him complete authority over PTA detainees and that he could either free or kill them. According to the petitioners, he was holding a pistol and seemingly inebriated. Following the petition, the Minister’s office denied that he had done anything illegal.
Sri Lanka’s Controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA)
The eight Tamil prisoners were arrested under Sri Lanka’s infamous Prevention of Terrorism Act, and have been detained since. They have asked the Supreme Court for redress through Colombo-based lawyer, Moahan Balendra.
For years, human rights groups and Tamil political leaders have called for the repeal of the PTA, citing administrative exploitation of the law to persecute dissidents or jail “terrorist suspects” without charge or trial.
The country’s Human Rights Commission launched a suo moto investigation shortly after the violent event at the jail complex — purportedly involving the Prisons Minister — was reported in the media. International human rights organizations were swift to condemn the minister’s actions. According to Human Rights Watch, the episode highlighted “the administration of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s contempt for human rights, and in particular the vulnerable position of persons held under the PTA.”