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Learning curve on both sides of the bars

KANDY (SE): Billed as the Mandela Shield, a debate between inmates at the Bogambara-Dumbara Prison in Kandy, Sri Lanka, and the prestigious law faculty of the University of Perandeniya on September 8, saw the prison team show there are talented people behind bars deserving the same respect and dignity as anyone else in society, and the students come away with a deeper understanding of the problems that exist on the other side of the law.

The debate was organised by the Human Rights Office Kandy and modelled on a standoff last year between Harvard University and New York Prison.

The organiser of the event in Sri Lanka, Father Nandana Manatunga, said that while the United States of America debate was a competition, in which the national title winning university team walked away from the prison with their tails between their legs, the one in Kandy was more an exchange of experience and views.

“The debate in Kandy chose to be a friendly and not a competition. It was targeted to raise awareness around the state of prisoners during Prisoners Week, which was commemorated in September,” Father Manatunga explained.

The students defended the thesis that the process of justice (police, courts and legislation) in Sri Lanka is effective, while the prison team disputed it. In the end, both teams agreed the exchange was a steep learning curve for them.

“One visibly moved law student declared that she did not want to use the word prisoners to refer to her opponents and felt like they were part of her own family,” Father Manatunga reported.

The students also reported that they found the debate lively and described it as sensitive, saying that they found it a wonderful opportunity to gain firsthand experience of the lives of prisoners and the problems that they face in fighting their legal cases and the injustices that they come up against.

He added that the most important aspects of the process of law that were discussed involved human rights and torture.

He said that the law students approached the matter from the point of view of the various legislations that exist in the country, whereas the prison team pointed out that while this is true, the police are not independent enough to enforce the laws.

The prison team highlighted the ineffectiveness of the Witness Protection Act, saying that with no independent organisation outside the police to enforce it, it is difficult for the national body responsible for its operation to keep witnesses and victims safe.

The students were extremely positive about the debate and the university has agreed to continue the process and hold such events regularly.

Father Manatunga said that his real intention was to shine the spotlight on the gaps in the justice system.

“It helped to realise that the system needs to do more to protect the vulnerable and live up to the common values of equality and fairness,” he said.

The prisoners had organised a speak-off among themselves to choose their representatives and at the show down mostly used recent reports from the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission to back up their claims, while the students came armed with the Penal Code and other legal documents.

“The prisoners also used their own personal experience, as well as those of their fellow inmates to highlight examples of where the justice system does not work and its practical implications for everyday life,” Father Manatunga explained.

He pointed out that three of them are under a death sentence and they used both English and Sinhala material in arguing their case.

“One who speaks English, also used international material in presenting his arguments,” Father Manatunga said.

Using their legal knowledge, the university team presented facts about the various avenues of appeal open to people faced with injustice, but the prison team countered with personal experience, saying that accessing these avenues is difficult and even when a way is found, they do not really function in the manner in which they are intended.

The prison team also stressed that money can be a problem as well, as few people in the country can afford to take on an experienced lawyer to represent them.

It brought up the example of the murder of a well-known politician, Bhartatha Lakshman Premachandra, in an ambush, noting that three men have been sentenced to death for the crime and nine others indicted, despite the fact that the crucial video evidence presented was inconclusive.

The chairperson of the judging panel, a lawyer, promised to follow up on the cases of injustice that were presented during the debate with the courts and other agencies.

Father Manatunga said that like the students from Harvard, the Peradeniya team walked away from the high security prison knowing at least that they had met their match amongst the orators from behind the bars.

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