Sri Lanka lost seven lives in a matter of minutes on February 27 when a prison bus was attacked in a typical gangland style seen only in Hollywood flicks.
The attack was well planned out and well executed which left the police and the prison officials baffled and confused.
The dead were mostly prison inmates, including prominent underworld figure Aruna Udayashantha alias ‘Samayan’, and two prison officials.
The attack occurred when they were on the way to the Kalutara Courts.
The incident has brought into public focus many questions pertaining to the protection of suspects, witnesses, and the efficiency of the police in protecting the suspects when transporting them.
In the past we have come across several instances where suspects have died while in police custody or while being taken to the prison, court, or to identify places or persons. Many questions have been raised over the suspicious nature of these deaths and the police have been placed in an embarrassing predicament over the matter.
There have been several moves to ensure the protection of witnesses and suspects. However, a proper mechanism is yet to see the light of day.
Most importantly, the protection of witnesses who have to travel to court on their own has also to be addressed.
It is indeed a difficult task to formulate a strategy for their protection. But, it has to be done. Otherwise justice will be impaired as witnesses will, out of fear, may not be forthcoming to come forward or truth itself can be thwarted.
The authorities, soon after the recent attack, have looked at possibilities of strengthening protection when the suspects are transported to and from the prisons.
Accordingly, the Ministry of Prison Reforms is scheduled to hold key discussions with the army and the Special Task Force, to work out a strategy to provide extra security to the notorious and prominent suspects who are likely to be attacked.
However, the security apparatus should also take into account that these attacks are carried out when other suspects are also in the bus. There are also innocent bystanders in the vicinity that they need to look into.
The other aspect which is a matter of concern is the attackers. The attackers are said to be members of a rival underworld gang.
Weren’t the police alerted? A policeman has to be alert 24/7. Was the convoy from prison to courts given or not given police protection? Was the request made by the prison for a guard? Why it was not provided?
It was reported that the attack was carried out in a manner that the prison guards could not react. This cannot be an excuse.
Sri Lanka is the only country which defeated terrorism. Our security and intelligence apparatus is one of the strongest. Is not strong anymore? Or is the security situation taken for granted?
We often see VIPs escorted by security personel who clear the way when they travel. Not a soul is allowd to move when the convoy comes closer. If the security convoy of a VIP could be alert all the time, why can’t prisoners also be provided with proper security? The prisoners have the right to be protected. On the other hand, if they could be attacked while under protection, what about a citizen walking on the road?
This is in no way to criticise the police. But these are questions that have been raised following the attack.
The worrying factor is the failure to curb underworld activities. These attackers had it well planned. They even disguised themselves as police personnel and confused the police. The government has to take this seriously. Here is a group which has professionally mapped out the entire attack, and successfully carried out the operation. Scary is it not? All lives matter.
Published in the Nation on March 4, 2017