Families of prisoners are human – Groundviews
Photo courtesy of Xinhua
In December 2008, the Kandy Human Rights Office (HROK) began presenting human rights awards in celebration of International Human Rights Day. I was among those who received an award and others recognized included two doctors, a priest, a nun, an army officer, a police officer, survivors of rape and torture and several wives and mothers of victims of torture. The majority were women. Since then, HROK has continued this tradition of celebrating Human Rights Day by presenting human rights awards. After 2008, a prison official, a journalist, lawyers, human rights activists and several other survivors of rape and torture as well as a group of families of disappeared from the late 1980s were awarded by the HROK. The winners include Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim men and women from different parts of the country.
Since 2008, I have regularly attended Human Rights Day events organized by HROK as well as many other human rights programs organized by HROK. The director and his small, passionate and efficient team have been a major inspiration in continuing my own activism. I learned a lot from them, especially their holistic approach and their very human, loving and caring attitude towards survivors of rights violations, families of victims, activists and struggling journalists. Working with prisoners, former prisoners, their families and prison authorities has been one of their most important jobs.
Also this year, I was looking forward to attending the annual Human Rights Day event in Kandy, scheduled for December 11. Several young activists and journalists had planned to join me. The theme âEnsuring detainees their dignity and human rightsâ was something that attracted us and with which we identified. Guests at this year’s event included former prisoners, families of prisoners, religious clergy, lawyers, UN staff, police and prison officials. I was particularly keen to attend this year’s event because tokens of appreciation were to be presented to the families of prisoners in recognition of their contributions to promoting fair trials and the rule of law.
Court order and its impact
I was very surprised and disappointed when I learned that a court order had been issued prohibiting the holding of the event by the Kandy Additional Magistrate at the request of the Kandy police. The court order cited Article 106 (1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which empowers a magistrate to order a person to refrain from a certain act if the magistrate considers that such a directive is likely to prevent or tend to prevent obstruction, discomfort, or injury, or risk of obstruction, inconvenience or injury to any person lawfully employed, or danger to human life, health or safety, or a riot or brawl. However, the reason given in the court order dated December 9 was that the event could cause disunity between different ethnic communities. The next day, December 10, the HROK had filed applications with the district court and met the Deputy Chief Inspector General (SDIG) of the police in charge of the central province, explaining the nature and context of the ‘event. However, the court order was not withdrawn and, unfortunately, the event did not take place. Police apprehensions, according to HROK, were not that their event was illegal but that some foreigners unhappy with the event could cause disruption and tension.
The biggest dilemma faced by the director and the generally cheerful staff was how to explain this sudden change to the families of the prisoners who were eagerly awaiting the event. It was the first time they had received such appreciation. Some had bought new clothes, some had started their journey from afar and had to turn back and some were about to begin their journey.
Some of the media reports that followed were extremely unprofessional and biased. They contained false and misleading information which could provoke hostility or violence towards those chosen to receive reviews, HROK or its director and staff. These media institutions and journalists did not even follow basic journalistic ethics in asking HROK for its side of the story. These media reports had increased the distress and trauma caused to those chosen to receive expressions of appreciation. The daughter of a prisoner was in tears after seeing a report in a popular Sinhala daily. She had asked if her child would also face discrimination and stigma because her grandfather was in prison.
Recognize the struggles of the families of detainees
âPrisoners are human beingsâ is an important slogan displayed on the walls of Sri Lanka’s largest prison. Although the realities inside prisons fall far short of this slogan, it is an important principle. But given the challenges faced by families of detainees, there may also be a need to popularize the idea that families of detainees are human beings.
After visiting prisons, interacting with several former inmates and working with some families of inmates, I realized the many challenges they face and admire the courage and determination they have shown in their struggles in so many. spheres such as family, neighbors and society. , media, legal and political.
The majority of inmates in prisons are suspects, presumed innocent until proven guilty in accordance with our constitution and international standards. Many suspects are jailed because pre-trial detention is the norm and bail is the exception and when bail is granted, the inability to post bail. Many are also jailed because they cannot pay the fines for minor offenses. Another reason for the prolonged imprisonment is the several years it takes to start and conclude the trials. Media reports indicate that a detainee under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) was acquitted as not guilty by the courts a few days ago, after around 15 years in prison. There have been numerous cases of PTA detainees released or acquitted as not guilty after prolonged detention. There are of course some convicted of more serious crimes, including life imprisonment or the death penalty.
Children, spouses, parents and family members should not be penalized for crimes that have been committed or alleged to have been committed, but they also end up being victims of those crimes or allegations. Whatever the reason for being a prisoner, family members face many challenges. Visiting prisoners is a nightmare, with long journeys for a few minutes to meet, most prisons lacking procedures for human interactions between prisoners and families. COVID-19 has resulted in the cancellation and restriction of family visits. Families are also desperate to know how the prisoners are doing, especially in times of crisis, like the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, assaults like the one earlier this week in Badulla prison, and killings, like to Mahara in 2020 and Welikada in 2012. Many prisoners were the breadwinners and families are suddenly forced to seek other livelihoods in order to survive. Family separations also cause emotional distress. Social stigma, especially when detainees are linked to crimes such as drugs and terrorism and belong to ethnic and religious minorities, takes a heavy toll on families. Elderly parents and children are severely affected. As the majority of detainees are men, women face multiple challenges, including sexual harassment.
Significantly, 21 of the 22 people who were to receive tokens of appreciation at the Human Rights Day event were women, including mothers, wives and daughters and supporters. Presenting appreciations for such an exceptional group of people would be an affirmation of their inherent dignity and recognition of their contributions to their own families and to society in general. Although they belong to different ethnic groups from different parts of the country, this group has worked together for several years and is an example to promote ethnic unity in the society at large.
Human rights perspective
Just three days before the court order, on December 6, 2021, the Supreme Court ruled that the arrest and detention of a spouse or family member or any other relative of a suspect are violations of constitutional rights and must be condemned and discouraged by the courts (SC FR 531/2012, citing SC FR 9/2011). This reflects a broader principle that family members should not be held responsible or penalized in any way for crimes that a person may have committed or suspected of having committed. If those chosen to receive marks of appreciation were denied this opportunity because of crimes committed or alleged to be committed by members of their family, this would appear to constitute a violation of this principle.
Hosting a Human Rights Day event is an exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and assembly guaranteed by our Constitution and international human rights law. If any person or group planned to disrupt such a socially important and legitimate event through illegal means, it is the duty of the police to prevent such disruption, to take legal action against potential or actual disruptors. and create a conducive and safe environment for the event. go forward.
I hope that the police and the relevant authorities will ensure that the event takes place without interruption at a future date and I look forward to participating in it to appreciate the struggles of the families of the prisoners and to promote the idea that the prisoners and their families are human beings.