Sri Lanka’s prison minister resigns after alleged threats from inmates

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

The government minister in charge of Sri Lanka’s prisons tendered his resignation following public protests that allegedly threatened to kill two inmates belonging to ethnic minorities.

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

Ratwatte, minister of state for prison management and prisoner rehabilitation, was charged with 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 the Tamil prisoners after going to the prison in Anuradhapura. “He made two of them 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 said: “I am resigning because I do not want to cause embarrassment to the government in light of media reports.”

Tamil lawmakers called on the government to fire Ratwatte, who is a member of the ethnic Sinhalese majority, and arrest him. Tamil political parties said the minister wanted the inmates to confess their ties to the Tamil Tiger rebels, who waged a long separatist war that ended in May 2009 with a fierce military attack.

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 (HRC) in Geneva urged Sri Lanka to prosecute or release 78 Tamils ​​imprisoned for decades without being charged.

Ponnambalam, the opposition lawmaker, said: “The fact that a minister can behave in this way when the UNHRC has its sights set on Sri Lanka only shows how unflappable the state is towards the UNHRC.”

Amnesty International’s Director for Asia and the Pacific, Yamini Mishra, called for an investigation into the incident, saying that “there must be a swift, impartial and effective investigation and that the minister must be held accountable for his actions.”

Sri Lanka’s prisons are heavily congested, with more than 32,000 inmates crammed into facilities with a capacity of 11,000.

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

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