Sri Lankan prison minister resigns after alleged inmate threats

Lohan Ratwatte was accused of entering a prison north of Colombo and attempting to force confessions from Tamil inmates at gunpoint.

Sri Lankan prisons are highly congested, with more than 32,000 inmates crowded into facilities with a capacity of 11,000 [File: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters]

The government minister in charge of Sri Lanka’s prisons has submitted his resignation following public outcry after he allegedly threatened to kill two ethnic minority prisoners.

Lohan Ratwatte tendered his resignation to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Wednesday and acknowledged his responsibility for both incidents, the president’s office said in a statement. Rajapaksa accepted his resignation, it added.

Ratwatte, state minister of prison management and prisoners’ rehabilitation, was accused of entering a prison in Anuradhapura, north of the capital, Colombo, on Sunday and threatening to kill two Tamil prisoners.

Tamil minority lawmaker Gajen Ponnambalam said Ratwatte summoned Tamil prisoners after going to the prison in Anuradhapura. He “got two of them to kneel in front of him and pointed his personal firearm at them and threatened to kill them on the spot,” Ponnambalam tweeted.

Ratwatte’s resignation letter did not confirm or deny the allegations, but he said, “I resign as I do not want to cause embarrassment to the government in view of the media reports.”

Tamil legislators asked the government to sack Ratwatte, who is a member of the Sinhalese ethnic majority, and arrest him. Tamil political parties said the minister wanted the inmates to confess to links with Tamil Tiger rebels, who fought a long separatist war that ended in May 2009 with a fierce military onslaught.

Separately, local newspapers reported that a government minister forcibly entered the Welikada prison in Colombo to allow a group of friends to visit the gallows.

The newspapers did not identify the minister, but the president’s office said Ratwatte acknowledged responsibility for the incidents at both prisons, The Associated Press news agency reported.

The controversy comes as the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva urged Sri Lanka to either prosecute or release 78 Tamils incarcerated for decades without being charged.

Ponnambalam, the opposition legislator, said: “That a minister can behave in this manner when the UNHRC’s gaze is on Sri Lanka only shows how unperturbed the state is with regards to the UNHRC.”

Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director Yamini Mishra called for an inquiry on the incident, saying “there must be a prompt, impartial and effective inquiry and the Minister must be held to account for his actions.”

Sri Lankan prisons are highly congested, with more than 32,000 inmates crowded into facilities with a capacity of 11,000.

A dozen inmates were killed and 100 others injured last November during a riot by inmates at a prison on the outskirts of Colombo.

Source: News Agencies