How many Harshis do we need before remand prisoners get justice?

Human rights activist Harshi C. Perera
by Pearl Thevanayagam

(December 24, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) Human rights activist Harshi C. Perera continues to highlight in Sri Lanka Guardian the abyssmal treatment of prisoners in Lankan jails and the insouciance of the judiciary and the police in turning a blind eye to remand prisoners and detention of prisoners for long periods without being produced in Court. Her voice is but a cry in the wilderness and yet it keeps reverberating.

Her narratives are full of horrendous injustices meted out to often hapless victims and those who fall foul of the police and politicians. Yet no action appears to be taken by the prison authorities despite her stark revelations. The plight of remand prisoners held in custody without trial is nothing new to our country.

Harshi should do well to liaise with Prisoners of Conscience in the UK to further champion her cause and make a change in the failure of our judiciary.

Way back in 1990 I visited Magazine prison for a story on remand prisoners and was appalled to find eight women to a cell. I managed to talk to a woman prisoner who knifed her husband for infidelity and was languishing in remand prison for 10 years! She said she was never produced in court.

The chena cultivator Silindu in Leonard Woolf’s poignant novel, Village in the Jungle, later made into a film by Lester James Pieris, suffered a similar fate and died in custody all because he spoke no English and there was no one to plead for him. His crime was to have killed a man who betrayed his daughter Punchihamy. Set in the outback village of Baddegama, a hamlet beset with wild animals belief in demons who dictate nature’s behaviour be they drought or famine, the novel details the paucity of the justice system which prevailed under British rule and Woolf wrote the book based on his experience as the Government Agent in early 20th century.

A decade is closing in in the new millennium and as 2011 approaches we still have not been able to overhaul our judiciary. The law can be an ass and lawyers churned out of our law colleges jackasses who while charging merciless fees for hapless seekers of justice would not budge an inch to allow merciful hearing for those who have no recourse to private funds.

Adding insult to injury the President, through the hastily passed 18th amendment to the constitution, vested within himself the judiciary and the Police Commission in November this year while basking in the glory of winning the war over separatist militants. Thus his audacity in bypassing popular vote of the masses and amidst the impotence of parliamentarians passed through without a hitch he successfully circumvented the norms of democratic principles and paved the way for a pseudo-monarchic rule which would have caused mass insurgency in a living democracy.

Typewriters are still used in Courts and police stations. Technology clearly has not permeated into the most important government institutions where it is needed most and instead we see a backlog of cases pending in Courts or not reaching the Courts and as a result many are held in custody for indefinite periods depleting resources from the treasury for prisoners’ upkeep and security.

While politicians who are convicted of murder, high class madams running brothels for VIPs, drug lords and human traffickers cum politicians who fleece vulnerable people seeking greener pastures in far away places and asylum-seekers charging millions of rupees to be set sail on shaky decrepit ships and then abandoned in Western airports if they survive and ministers who send thugs to beat up student demonstrators are roaming freely, those who commit petty crimes or those who kill in self defence are incarcerated in prisons indefinitely.

Here in the UK even a terror suspect has recourse to legal aid. Deportees in detention camps have appeal rights up until the minute they board the plane which would return them to places they fled from for their lives. Drug users who commit crimes, teenage criminals and other prisoners have rehabilitation programs and training for jobs.

Prisons reforms come under the purview of the Justice Minstry which is directly under the purview of the President. And the President is a law unto himself and only answerable to his siblings and not to the masses. Whether God can save Sri Lanka from the blight that has befallen it only time will tell.

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