How Gun – toting State Minister Lohan Ratwatte Terrified and Humiliated Tamil Prisoners at the Anuradhapura Jail
Lohan Evindra Ratwatte is a Sri Lankan politician who is often under the media spotlight for the wrong reasons. The 53-year-old Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna(SLPP) Kandy district MP- known generally as Lohan – received a great deal of negative publicity last week over an incident in which he reportedly humiliated and terrified a group of Tamil youths incarcerated at the Anuradhapura jail. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa Government’s State Minister for Gem & Jewellery related Industries and State Minister of Prison Management & Prisoners’ Rehabilitation brandishing a pistol had forced the prisoners to kneel before him and had even placed his gun thrice to the head of a detained person. The incident caused shock waves nationally and internationally. Subsequently, Lohan Ratwatte resigned from the prison management and prisoners rehabilitation minister post but continues to remain the State minister for Gem and Jewellery related industries.
Efforts made to communicate with the State minister Lohan Ratwatte or senior officials of the Prisons dept and ministry for the purpose of writing this article were unsuccessful. However, with details gathered from a cross-section of informed sources, it was possible to piece together the basics of what had happened in the Anuradhapura prison.
Helicopter to Anuradhapura.
On September 12th 2021, Lohan Ratwatte accompanied by some Ministerial Security Division (MSD) officers assigned to the state minister’s security detail had flown by helicopter to Anuradhapura. The copter landed within the prison precincts at about 6 PM. The State Minister was visibly in an inebriated state having consumed a strong drink. Compounding the minister’s Bacchanalian state further was the intoxication of power he enjoyed as a powerful Govt member.
Announcing to prison officials that he had come on a sudden visit to meet Tamil prisoners being held under offences relating to the prevention of terrorism act(PTA), the state minister had ordered that the detained persons be brought before him. Ten Tamil political prisoners were moved from their cells and brought before Ratwatte. The state minister began addressing them in Sinhala.
At that stage, one of the prisoners protested saying that they did not know Sinhala. Ratwatte then got angry and began berating the Tamil prisoners for not knowing Sinhala despite living in a Sinhala country. He had abused them in filth using the derogatory term “Para Demala” and told them to go to India if they could not understand Sinhala.
Some of the key officials at the Anuradhapura prison acted diplomatically and pacified the minister. Prison officials fluent in Sinhala and Tamil were summoned to function as interpreters. Ratwatte then proceeded to address the prisoners in Sinhala and at times in English. His words were interpreted into Tamil.
Lohan Ratwatte told the Tamil prisoners that the Govt had released 16 Tamil political prisoners in June and would release some more in the future. The minister said that he himself was involved in this procedure as he wanted the prisoners to enjoy their freedom. However, the Tamil prisoners issue and the PTA issue were being raised in international fora by NGO’s and the Tamil Diaspora elements hostile to Sri Lanka. He said that the UN in Geneva was going to take up the Sri Lanka human rights matter the following week. Ratwatte warned the Tamil prisoners not to betray the country to the UN or NGOs’s or the Tamil Diaspora.
According to some contemporaries of Ratwatte at Trinity College, Kandy, Lohan was a mercurial personality given to fluctuating mood changes. This became very evident in Anuradhapura. Suddenly the state minister’s mood turned aggressive. He began scolding the prisoners harshly using choice epithets. Lohan Ratwatte then drew his pistol and began brandishing it. The state minister is well-known for showing off his protruding pistol strapped to his waist. He is a licensed gun holder.
Ratwatte then ordered the Tamil youths to kneel before him. Some prison officials signalled from behind to the prisoners to obey the minister. The terrified prisoners did so. After humiliating the helpless prisoners by forcing them to kneel at gunpoint. Ratwatte launched into a tirade of verbal abuse.
Lohan Ratwatte also singled out the prisoner numbered 141 who had objected earlier to the minister speaking in Sinhala as they only knew Tamil. Upon making inquiries., it was revealed that prisoner 141 was 34-year old Mathiyarasan Sulakshan from Karnavaai North in the Vadamaraatchy sector of the Jaffna peninsula. Ratwatte then got somewhat excited and began interrogating the prisoner fiercely.
Sulakshan is one of three persons against whom an indictment (2491/13)was filed at the Vavuniya High court in July 2013. Rasathurai Thiruvarul, Mathiyarasan Sulakshan and Ganeshan Tharshan are being tried for allegedly killing 18 Navy and 8 Army personnel in the final phase of the war. The Navy and Army personnel were allegedly being held prisoners by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) and were executed by the three suspects on the orders of tiger intelligence chief “Pottu Ammaan”.
Originally the indictment was filed in 2013 against Mathiyarasan Sulakshan and Ganeshan Tharshan only. Rasathurai Thiruvarul was not charged initially. Almost four years later an amended indictment was filed in June 2017. In the amended indictment Rasathurai Thiruvarul was named as first accused with Sulakshan and Tharshan as second and third accused respectively.
Lohan Ratwatte now began interrogating Sulakshan demanding to know how many security persons he had killed. Ratwatte also issued blood-curdling threats. At different times he placed his pistol on the forehead, ear and chin of Sulakshan and threatened to kill him. The minister was tactfully dissuaded from proceeding further in that direction by the MSD personnel.
Ratwatte also ordered Ganeshan Tharshan to come forward. 32-year-old Tharshan hailing from Nawalapitiya in the Central Province was also imprisoned for the same alleged offence as Sulakshan. However, Lohan was not as harsh towards Tharshan as he was with Sulakshan. The State Minister kept pointing his firearm at Tharshan and told the prisoner that he could shoot him if he wanted to and nothing could stop
Gradually the MSD officers and prisons officials managed to defuse the volatile situation. Gradually Lohan Ratwatte was persuaded to return to Colombo. After much coaxing and cajoling, the state minister left the Anuradhapura prison at 7.30 pm.
Welikade Gallows Visit
Mercifully none were killed or injured by the lawless, gun-toting state minister at the Anuradhapura jail. The Tamil prisoners though terrorised and humiliated were physically unharmed. The incident however had a shocking effect on the nation and the Gotabya Government was under immense pressure.
Incidentally Lohn Ratwatte along with some friends – all of them in a drunken state- had entered the Welikade jail premises on September 6th. Lohan had brandished his gun and abused prison officials for trying to prevent the group from visiting the gallows. Since the objective of this article is to focus on the serious crime committed by Lohan Ratwatte in Anuradhapura I shall not write at length on the Welikada incident. Besides the Welikade episode has received much media exposure when compared to Anuradhapura. However, an unconfirmed report states that Ratwatte had first gone to Welikade on Sep 12 in search of Tamil prisoners held under PTA offences and then proceeded to Anuradhapura.
Lohan Ratwatte’s flagrant abuse of power at Welikada and Anuradhapura was exposed in part in sections of the media. It was the less serious Welikade incident that received more coverage presumably due to the allegation that a beauty pageant winner had driven the vehicle in which Lohan travelled. A beauty accompanying the beast news angle is naturally a magnet to draw in readers. From a media perspective.
The Anuradhapura incident was first exposed in detail on Twitter by Tamil National Peoples Front (TNPF)Leader and Jaffna District MP Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam. This was followed up by the TNA spokesman and Jaffna Parliamentarian MA Sumanthiran. Thereafter the matter was raised by several political leaders including Opposition leader and SJB chief Sajith Premadasa and Tamil Progressive Alliance leader Mano Ganesan MP called for action by the Govt. Lawyers of the JVP led National Peoples Power, as well as activists of the Frontline Socialist Party, also held media conferences on the misconduct of Lohan Ratwatte.
Other important individuals and organizations also got into the act. The UN Resident Representative in Colombo Hanah Singer tweeted on the issue. Former Sri Lanka Human Rights Commissioner Ambika Satkunanathan posted several relevant tweets. The Committee for Protecting Rights of Prisoners (CPRP) conducted enlightening media conference in which the whole issue was delved into and explained in great detail. The CPRP also said they intended to file a Fundamental Rights (FR) petition in the Supreme Court on behalf of Mathiyarasan Sulakshan, the Prisoner threatened at gunpoint by Ratwatte. Two illuminating media statements issued by Amnesty International and the Centre for Policy Alternatives(CPA) called for action by the Govt on the matter.
Bar Association of Sri Lanka
The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) which seems to have been emboldened after the election of its new president Saliya Pieris PC also issued a hard-hitting statement in this regard. The BASL said that they are deeply disturbed at the reports of the alleged criminal conduct on the part of State Minister Ratwatte which seriously call into question his eligibility to hold office in the Government any longer.
“The allegations against him are such that Ratwatte can no longer command the trust or responsibility of not only a Government State Minister charged with duties in respect of prisons but also as a State Minister holding any other portfolio and as a Member of Parliament. Such acts of impunity are ones that should be investigated fully and impartially, and if proved, be visited with penal consequences. It is imperative that independent and impartial investigations into these alleged criminal acts be conducted expeditiously. The State has a duty to protect prisoners in their custody,” the statement noted.
The BASL also called on all the relevant authorities including the Attorney General (AG) and the law enforcement authorities to act forthwith in dealing with these serious acts of impunity allegedly committed by Ratwatte.
With pressure mounting on the Govt, there were news reports that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa who was on an official visit to Italy had telephoned Lohan Ratwatte and asked him to step down. The Premier had also telephoned President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and requested him to accept Ratwatte’s resignation.
On September 15th Lohan Ratwatte in a letter addressed to President Rajapaksa submitted his resignation as State Minister of Prison Management and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation. “Having performed all tasks of this ministry quite successfully so far, and with the intention of not putting the government in a difficult position in light of reports appearing in the media at the moment regarding the ministry, I voluntarily request your acceptance of my resignation as State Minister of Prison Management and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation as of September 15, 2021,” he said in the letter bearing the ministry letterhead.
The President’s Media Division said in a statement that the president has accepted the resignation letter.“Lohan Ratwatte, State Minister of Prison Management and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation has tendered his resignation, acknowledging his responsibility for the incidents that took place at the Welikada and Anuradhapura Prison premises,” the statement said.
Despite the President media division statement that the state minister had “tendered his resignation, acknowledging his responsibility for the incidents that took place at the Welikada and Anuradhapura Prison premises” and that the “president has accepted the resignation letter”, Lohan Ratwatte engaged in a futile exercise amounting toa concealment of a whole pumpkin in a plate of rice. Ratwatte in an “exclusive” interview to the “Daily Mirror” accepted that he had gone to Welikade and Anuradhapura but denied all the charges against him.
“Daily Mirror” Interview
Here are relevant excerpts of the interview.
“State Minister of Gem and Jewellery Related Industries Lohan Ratwatte who has pushed the government into a hot soup over allegations that he threatened a group of Tamil prisoners over the weekend, yesterday denied all accusations levelled against him saying he was ‘not stupid’ to resort to such action.
Breaking his silence for the first time since being forced to resign as the State Minister of Prison Reforms and Prisoners Rehabilitation, Ratwatte told Daily Mirror that he had not threatened the prisoners at the Anuradhapura Prison and had in fact visited the prison on a routine check only.
However, Ratwatte accepted that he had visited the gallows at the Welikada Prison but that too was for a routine check and denied allegations that he was intoxicated or visited the gallows with his friends including a female accomplice. He said he was alone.
“As a minister, I can walk into any prison at any time. I do not need anyone’s permission. I had 29 prisons and two rehabilitation centers under me and I could walk into them at any time, day or night. I would do this without informing anyone because I really wanted to know what was happening inside,” Ratwatte said.
“Over the weekend I went to the Anuradhapura Prison only to check as I did with the other prisons. I never broke in and I never threatened any prisoner. That is not my job. That is not me,” Ratwatte said.
The Minister reiterated that he never took anyone to see the gallows inside Welikada Prison but he went alone for an inspection visit. He further said he visited the Anuradhapura Prison on Sunday but had not even touched the prisoners as alleged. “Nothing like that ever happened this is absolutely false,” Ratwatte said.
Ratwatte who now faces pressure over the allegations with several parties calling for his arrest says it is now up to the President and Prime Minister to realize the truth and added he will continue his duties and work as the State Minister of Gem and Jewellery Related Industries.
MP’s Visit A’Pura Prison
In spite of Ratwatte’s denial of the “Daily Mirror,” the truth relating to the A’pura jail incident was further confirmed after several Parliamentarians visited the A’pura prison. Cabinet Minister Namal Rajapaksa visited the jail to meet Tamil prisoners following an invitation extended on their behalf.TNPF Parliamentarians Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam and Selvarajah Kajenthirn also went to Anuradhapura and met with prisoners including Mathiyarsan Sulakshan. Colombo district MP Mano Ganesan along with Gampaha district MP Dr.Kavindha Jayawardena and Anuradhapura district MP Rohana Bandra also went to A’pura and met the affected prisoners.
In addition to these Parliamentarians, three regional coordinators of Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission also went to the Anuradhapura jail and recorded statements from Prison officials and eight Tamil political prisoners. Thus the reality of what had transpired at Anuradhapura became widely known in spite of Lohan Ratwatte’s blatant denial which in effect was an insult to the collective intelligence of the Sri Lankan people.
Currently, there are three inquiries being held into the A’pura incident. One is by the Police CID. Another by the Human Rights Commission. The third is by the Prisons Dept itself. There is however widespread doubt as to whether the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Govt would allow a free and fair investigation to be conducted. In the first place, Lohan Ratwatte continues to maintain that nothing wrong happened and that media reports are wrong. He is continuing to function as Gem and Jewellery minister. In the words of his colleague Wimal Weerawansa, Lohan will remain state minister of Jewellery as long as he does not get involved in a jewellery robbery.
Furthermore, there is immense suspicion of a massive cover-up attempt. Already there are reports that prisons officials at Anuradhapura have adopted an attitude of “saw nothing and heard nothing” in their statements to the HRC. Also, it is being said that no CCTV cameras were installed and therefore no footage. It is also of importance to note that the two topmost officials in the Prisons department had denied knowledge of any incident at the jails concerning Lohan Ratwatte when there were media queries. One even cast aspersions on the media. Subsequently when the incident was confirmed by Ratwatte’s resignation and acceptance by the President the two worthies became inaccessible.
The Ratwatte rampage at Anuradhapura has brought into question the safety and security of Tamil prisoners being held under the PTA in Sri Lankan jails. In a classic instance of the proverbial saying about the “fence devouring the crops” coming true the minister in charge of Prison management has violated all prison-related procedures and also broken the law. Jailers whose paramount duty was to protect prisoners in their charge have allowed them to be endangered. What would have happened if Ratwatte had fired his gun and killed a prisoner or prisoners? After all the precedents of the Udatalawinna massacre of Muslim youths or the killing of Papua New Guinea rugby star Joel Pera cannot be forgotten. Would the report have been that a “terrorist”[risoner seized the minister’s fire-rm and shot himself?
What next? Will concrete disciplinary action be taken against Lohan Ratwatte or will he be allowed to function as state minister for Gems and Jewels in a business as usual manner?
Will all evidence of what happened in Anuradhapura be destroyed and Prison officials and prisoners be silenced through carrot and stick methods?
Will an eye-wash inquiry be conducted with the farcical conclusion that a sober and responsible minister had only discharged his duties diligently?
And finally will the media – favourite whipping boy of the ruling elite – be blamed for getting it all wrong?
D.B. S.Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com