The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2011 – 2016 ( sinhala & tamil) as well as the full series of Sri Lanka Rights Watch are available at the Peace & Reconciliation Website.
Last week the Human Rights Commission held a consultation on the current situation in prisons. There was excellent attendance from all relevant agencies, except sadly for the Attorney General’s Department. This was disappointing, but I was not surprised, since the designated officer had failed also to attend the meeting on the same subject arranged recently by the Human Rights Action Plan Task Force.
Though initially the Department had been assiduous in attendance, and extremely helpful, recent developments confirm my view that a largely competent Department has some members who do not care enough about working to deadlines and plans, and cooperating constructively with other agencies for this purpose. This doubtless is why we also have several instances of cases being postponed endlessly, without reference to other stakeholders, as was explained to us passionately by the very competent representative of the Government Analyst’s Department who attended. I hope therefore that the Attorney General will remedy the situation, and take appropriate action, as the Secretary to the Ministry of Justice promised to do when one of her staff, having been designated for the Task Force meeting, failed to attend. Whether such discipline is possible now in Departments that were a byword for efficiency in earlier days is however a moot point.
The meeting began with a succinct introduction by the Chairman to the problem, based on a visit the Commission had undertaken to the prisons. I had been privileged to accompany them on part of the visit, organized very helpfully by the Prisons staff. I have written about this before, and the horror that a matter so easily solved, with moral and social and financial benefits to the country, is left in abeyance for so long.
The Chairman noted two basic problems, first that nearly half the prison population on any given date consists of remandees. This should be corrected, as also the fact that some people have been in remand for protracted periods, going up to 15 years. The very bright young representative from the Judicial Services Commission who attended thought these protracted cases related only to the Prevention of Terrorism Act, but I certainly came across a number of youngsters remanded for drug related offences for a couple of years when I spoke to those in the Neanderthal block which houses remandees at Welikada. In any case, the question is easily resolved by instituting a mechanism, not at all complicated in these days of computerization, to record all those in remand for over a fortnight, with specification of the next occasion on which their case will be taken up.
The second area of concern was those who have been convicted. A large number of these are because of drugs or failure to pay fines. It would make sense to provide alternatives to incarceration for such, rehabilitation or community service, but the system does not at present allow ready recourse to this.
The Chairman’s introduction suggested several interventions that might help the situation. These include –
To limit the numbers of remanded
- Legislative changes to expand the number of bailable offences
- Guidelines to police to work in terms of bailable offences where possible and recommend bail
- Guidelines to magistrates to allow bail whenever possible
- Guidelines to magistrates to ensure that records are kept of all those remanded, with reminders of when they should be produced again, and rulings that limit contining remand for no good reason
- Guidelines to magistrates not to allow postponements except for good reason, with the jSC maintaining records of statistics of case completion by magistrates
- Guidelines to police to proceed expeditiously with investigations, with provision that bail must be permitted after a limited period unless a threat to society is shown to be likely
- Better coordination between agencies responsible for prosecution (Attorney General’s Department, Police, Government Analyst) so that cases are not postponed for lack of material that could be expedited – and also to limit the wastefulness that occurs when for instance the Government Analyst travels miles only to be told that other government agencies have asked for postponement
To deal humanely and productively with those convicted of offences
- Legislative changes to promote rehabilitation and community service as alternatives to incarceration
- Guidelines to police and the Attorney General’s Department to pursue such alternatives
- Guidelines to magistrates to use such alternatives, and to ensure records of subsequent processes
- Strengthening of rehabilitation mechanisms – the experience of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation with regard to former combatants should be taken into account, and also the very helpful suggestions made by the Drugs Control personnel who attended the meeting
- Development of psycho-social interventions, both for those being rehabilitation and also for those incarcerated (for whom also rehabilitation mechanisms should be put in place)
- Development of education and training facilities for those who have been incarcerated as well as those in rehabilitation (again the experience of the CGR could be employed for this)
- Establishing a Reintegration process for those who have been rehabilitated (as well as for those incarcerated) to track their progress and assist if necessary when they are back in society
None of this is difficult. It does however require coordination, and commitment to move swiftly. With regard to the latter area, obviously coordination should be by the Ministry of Rehabilitation and Prison Reforms. Sadly, despite the inspired title of this Ministry, and the recommendations made by the President in this regard, most recently in his budget speech last year, nothing has been done in the last few years to advance the suggested ideology systematically. I hope therefore that, with the inspiration provided by the Human Rights Commission, we will see some changes soon.
With regard to the former area, the Ministry of Justice as well as the Judicial Services Commission will need to be involved. Structures to ensure independence for either, despite the need for interdependence, are however necessary, and I will return to this.