The Sri Lankan government on Monday ordered a thorough probe into a riot by inmates over rising coronavirus infections at a prison outside the capital Colombo that left at least eight prisoners dead and 37 injured. Defence Secretary Major General (Retd) G D H Kamal Gunaratne has instructed Inspector General of Police (IGP) C D Wickramaratne to conduct a special investigation into the tense situation reported at the Mahara Prison on Sunday.
Issuing a statement, the Defence Ministry said the directive was issued on Moday after it was noted that several inmates had reportedly attempted to escape the prison premises demonstrating unruly behaviour, the Colombo Gazette reported. The latest clash at Mahara Prison started when some inmates protested against prisoners infected by the COVID-19 virus being transferred from other facilities to Mahara jail.
Police spokesman Ajith Rohana said inmates created unrest at the Mahara prison, located about 15 kilometers north of Colombo, and prison officials took steps to control the situation. The incident comes as pandemic-related unrest has been growing in Sri Lanka's overcrowded prisons. Inmates have staged protests in recent weeks in several prisons as the number of confirmed COVID-19 positive cases spiked in the country's overcrowded jails.
"The incident was started by a set of remand prisoners when they tried to force open a door and escape following which the authorities had to use force," Rohana said. He said during the entire incident at least 37 more, including two jailors, were injured and all of them were transferred to the nearby Ragama hospital.
The residents near the prison said smoke was coming out of the premises due to fire. Prisons authorities said the rioters had set fire to the kitchen and a record room of the prison.
An attempt by the rioting inmates to take the jailors hostage was thwarted, officials said. Rohana said the detainees wanted them to be transferred elsewhere as the Mahara Prison has detected over 175 COVID-19 infections among the inmates.
Following the Defence Secretary's directive, IGP Wickramaratne instructed the Criminal Investigations Department to conduct a full and immediate investigation into the unrest at the Mahara Prison, the report said. Meanwhile, Justice Minister Ali Sabry too appointed a five-committee to probe the riot at the Mahara Prison. The committee will be chaired by former High Court Judge Kusala Sarojini Weerawardena.
The committee, which has been tasked with investigating and proposing long-term recommendations on the unrest, has been instructed to submit an interim report to the Justice Minister within a week and a complete report by the end of one month, it said. Earlier on Monday, State Minister of Prison Reforms and Prisoners' Rehabilitation Sudarshini Fernandopulle told Parliament that a committee headed by the Ministry Secretary has been appointed to investigate the incident.
She further said that the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) too has been requested to investigate the unrest, the report said. From the mid of this month, prisons across the island went into a lockdown as infections were reported both among inmates and guards.
Over 1,000 cases have been reported among those connected to prisons. In a similar unrest last week, an inmate was killed. Another prisoner died in March.
Sri Lankan prisons are highly congested with more than 26,000 inmates crowded in facilities with the capacity of 10,000. Sri Lanka, which has been taking tough measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus, has reported 22,988 cases and 109 deaths due to the contagious virus, according to Johns Hopkins University.