|Rioting inmates on the roof of Colombo's Welikoda prison|
There could be some reprieve for prisoners on death row as well as for those serving life sentences, if the Govt. accepts the recommendations of a special Task Force (TF) appointed by the Cabinet to look into congestion in prisons.
The report of the TF tabled in Parliament this week by Chief Government Whip, Parliamentary Reformss and Mass Media Minister Gayantha Karunatileka, proposed that, the Govt. consider commuting death sentences to life imprisonment, and consider parole for those serving life sentences according to the existing laws.
"As capital punishment had not been carried out since 1976, and due to the moratorium on the death penalty, the Govt. has to consider alternative action to manage overcrowding of prisons, as life sentenced and death penalty prisoners contribute greatly to overcrowding. To date, there are a total of 1,082 persons on death row, 726 cases remain under appeal, while Life sentence prisoners total 555, with 463 cases under appeal," the report said.
The TF recommended that Govt consider commutation of death penalty prisoners' sentences to life sentences. Life sentenced prisoners' sentences can be commuted according to existing provisions of law" and to make Presidential pardons available to long term prisoners who are rehabilitated and are able to re-integrate into society, and to consider a system of parole for detainees who are identified as eligible by a Parole Board.
Among the key findings of major contributory factors for prison overcrowding are underutilisation of existing provisions of law, misuse of existing provisions of law and socio-economic reasons. "Based on the data collected by the Prisons Dept, the number of remand prisoners equals the number of convicted prisoners held in custody."
The UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or Punishment, who visited Sri Lanka last year, in his report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in March, also spoke of the appalling conditions within Sri Lankan prisons and made several recommendations.
The UN official has recommended that the Govt. adopt and implement measures to significantly reduce overcrowding, including overhauling the prison system, to reduce the number of detainees and increasing prison capacities in more modern prison facilities; accelerating the judicial process and reviewing sentencing policies by introducing alternatives to incarceration (bail and electronic surveillance for pretrial defendants; non-custodial sentences for non-violent offenders and juveniles; parole and early release for the convicted) and design a criminal justice system that aims at rehabilitating and reintegrating offenders, including by creating work and education opportunities.
Sri Lanka's prison population at present stands at around 17,000 (7,496 convicted prisoners, 8,351 remand prisoners and 1,143 prisoners whose cases are under appeal).
Source: The Sunday Times, April 9, 2017
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