Sri Lanka: Prison deaths must be investigated amid growing COVID-19 unrest 

Responding to the news that at least eight prisoners were killed and more than 50 others injured following an incident at Mahara Prison Complex in Western Province involving prisoner unrest related to COVID-19 and overcrowded conditions, David Griffiths, Director of the Office of the Secretary General at Amnesty International, said:  

“In the immediate term, there must be a thorough and impartial investigation into this incident and the use of lethal force – including firing live ammunition – by prison authorities.  

“The investigation must also address the underlying causes. Yesterday’s incident reflects the anxiety among prisoners about the threat of COVID-19 within severely overcrowded prisons and the inadequate measures in place to protect them. There is already a swelling number of inmates across the country who have tested positive for COVID-19. 

“The Sri Lankan authorities must implement their commitments to release hundreds of detainees to ease overcrowding and improve prison conditions. A failure to do so could see more infections, more prisoner unrest, and a greater likelihood of further violence.” 

Amnesty International is calling on the Sri Lankan authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners detained solely for the peaceful exercise of their human rights and, in order to decongest prisons to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading, consider all alternatives to custody, such as parole or early release, especially of detainees who do not pose a significant threat to the public. The authorities should ensure that all prisoners enjoy the same standards of health care that are available in the community, including testing, prevention and treatment for COVID-19. 

The authorities must also provide inmates with opportunities to communicate with their families since visits are restricted due to the pandemic, and provide opportunities for independent observers to monitor their wellbeing. 

The incident at Mahara Prison Complex is the third time this year that lethal force has been used against prison inmates in Sri Lanka since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the country. In March, two prisoners were killed and several others injured in Anuradhapura prison in North Central Province, following a protest related to COVID-19. On 18 November, a prisoner was shot dead while trying to escape from Bogambara Prison in Central Province, where more than 100 inmates had tested positive for COVID-19. 

Prison authorities must ensure an end to the use of unlawful and excessive force against prisoners agitating against their detention conditions during the outbreak of COVID-19 within prisons and ensure that force is only ever used against prisoners where it is strictly necessary and proportionate to a legitimate objective.