Leaked video footage of a group of unarmed inmates being beaten with batons by prison officials has surfaced, renewing the debate about violations of prisoners’ rights in Sri Lanka.

Footage from closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras in a new prison in the island’s south called Angunakolapelessa was filmed late last year, when the country had a constitutional crisis and lacked an active government.

Prison officials, led by a superintendent, are seen forcing inmates to crawl and walk on their knees in a prison yard. The video shows that those in remand custody were subjected to serious violence.

The Prison Superintendent, dressed in civilian clothing, is shown leading a group of 25 to 30 other jailers, guards and officials, chasing inmates from their cell blocks to open ground in the prison complex.

The footage shows inmates being continuously hit by long batons, kicked and thrown to the ground.

The video was leaked by unnamed individuals from Angunakolapelessa Prison, which opened in 2017.

When the new jail was being established, the government described it as a ‘super prison’ and the ‘most luxurious’ of Sri Lanka’s correctional facilities within a rehabilitation-based penal system.

The video footage obtained from two cameras, situated on either side of the yard, depicts prisoners being rounded up and assaulted from 8.56am till 9.18am on the morning of November 22.

The drama occurred during the height of the constitutional crisis and followed by a series of prisoner protests that erupted during the latter part of the year.

Groups of prisoners in various jails around the country held protests about the lack of basic facilities and deployment of Police Special Task Force personnel to prisons.

Previous protests

In August, a group of female inmates at Welikada Prison in Colombo, staged a demonstration to demand better sanitary facilities within the prison. They also protested about officials limiting food brought in by visitors.

A similar protest was staged at Angunakolapelessa prison in October in objection to the deployment of Police Special Task Force personnel.

The government had stationed the Special Task Force personnel at selected prisons island-wide to ensure security and prevent drug use.

The move was considered controversial by many due to the alleged involvement of the Police Special Task Force officers in a riot at Welikada Prison in 2012, which ended with 27 inmates killed.

Probe into ‘super prison’

The Committee for Protecting the Rights of Prisoners (CPRP) released the footage from Angunakolapelessa jail. On Tuesday, the general secretary of the committee, Sudesh Nandimal Silva, lodged a complaint with the Criminal Investigation Department about violence seen in the CCTV footage.

The CPRP also complained about the possibility of the CCTV “evidence” being deleted and erased by prison officials.

CPRP chairperson lawyer Senaka Perera said: “This is irrefutable evidence for the first time of prison torture and police brutality that has been observed since 1983.

“Then 53 prisoners were killed at the Welikada Prison Complex, [and] again 27 were murdered in 2012 at Welikada, and in 2018, when the limbs of an inmate were broken at the Kuruwita Prison in Ratnapura; the fact of torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment is taking place in local prisons.”

Further complaints were lodged by the Commissioner General of Prisons on Wednesday with the Prisons Department, the Human Rights Commission and the Ministry of Justice and Prisons Reforms, directing the Minister, Thalatha Atukorale’s attention to the matter.

Accusations were laid against Prison Superintendent AW Siridath Dhammika, Chief Jailer Pradeep Wasantha Kumara, Jailers ADS Samaraweera, Ajith Kumara and several other officials, who allegedly carried out the assaults on prisoners on the morning the footage was shot.

The prison superintendent has admitted that prisoners were punished by officials, but claimed the action was within legal parameters.

Dhammika did not dismiss the accusations but said the punishment was carried out to prevent clashes and other riotous behavior between inmates. He tried to justify the assault as “use of minimum force” to quell hostile behavior and to maintain ‘prison order’.

Incident report ordered

The assaulting of prisoners as seen in the footage is a violation of laws and regulations in regard to torture, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment.

It appears to violate Articles 11 and 13(4) of the Constitution; the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment Act, No. 22 of 1994; the Prisons Ordinance; the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which Sri Lanka has signed and ratified; plus the Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses Act, No. 4 of 2015.

After the CCTV footage was revealed, Justice Minister Thalatha Atukorale instructed the Prisons Commissioner General to appoint a three-member committee to provide a report on the incident by next Monday. Further action will be taken once that is received.