At least 11 people have died and dozens were left wounded following a prison riot in Sri Lanka this weekend prompted by fears that authorities were doing nothing to contain the Chinese coronavirus.
Violence broke out on Sunday when guards opened fire to contain unrest at the Mahara prison near Colombo. Prisoners demanded release after hundreds of inmates tested positive for the coronavirus and were not moved to isolation.
The Police Criminal Investigation Department announced that it launched a probe into Sunday’s clashes. Justice Minister Ali Sabry said on Monday that he will appoint a five-member committee to investigate the matter.
Human rights groups have expressed concerns that the majority of the deaths were the result of lethal force by authorities, accused of ignoring inmates’ concerns about lack of testing and adequate isolation facilities.
“We can’t say it for certain but most of the deaths and injuries appear to be due to gunshots,” said Ajith Rohana, a senior police official investigating the incident.
Amid the surge in cases, the main concern among the country’s 30,000 inmates is the issue of overcrowding. Sri Lankan prisons are currently running at three times their recommended capacity. The country as a whole is also experiencing a rise in cases, recording around 500 new infections on a daily basis.
On Tuesday, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s announced his intention to pardon 637 convicts and Sabry also confirmed the government was seeking to expedite the release of thousands of prisoners with the aim of freeing up space.
In a statement Monday, Amnesty International warned that the unrest “reflects the anxiety among prisoners about the threat of COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus] within severely overcrowded prisons and the inadequate measures in place to protect them.”
“The Sri Lankan authorities must implement their commitments to release hundreds of detainees to ease overcrowding and improve prison conditions,” it continued. “A failure to do so could see more infections, more prisoner unrest, and a greater likelihood of further violence.”
Sunday’s riot was the most severe outbreak of prison violence since police commandos fatally shot 27 inmates following clashes at Sri Lanka’s main Welikada prison in 2012. The worst riot before that also took place at Welikada in 1983, when 53 prisoners died after racial tensions boiled over into a full-blown massacre against inmates belonging to the country’s Tamil minority.