Launch of “Pre-trial Detention in Sri Lanka” highlights need to reform country’s bail system and uphold the right to a speedy trial

14 Feb 2012

A new publication, “Pre-trial Detention in Sri Lanka: Reforming the System of Bail and Upholding the Right to Speedy Trial,” aims to draw attention to the concerns of remand prisoners in custody for long periods of time without bail. Published by Lawyers for Human Rights and Development (LHRD) with support from the Equal Access to Justice Project (A2J) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), nationally implemented by the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration, the publication highlights the existing bail and remand procedures in the country and the urgent need for policy reform to strengthen Sri Lanka’s pre-trial detention system.
Chief Guest at the publication launch on February 14, 2012 was Justice N. K. Udalagama, Retired Judge of the Supreme Court. The publication argues that the operation of the Bail Act could be significantly strengthened. Bail, for example, is often set prohibitively high making it difficult for poorer suspects and resulting in them remaining in custody for years until their case is concluded. Also, the exceptions to the Bail Act for drug and terrorism related cases facilitate prolonged and unnecessary pre-trial detention. As a result, suspects are generally detained pending trial rather than being released where appropriate.
In addition, the overcrowding of Sri Lankan prisons is also addressed. In the past 15 years the Sri Lankan prison population has increased to 27,823. With prisons now holding almost three times their carrying capacity, detainees are forced to live in very difficult conditions.  Over 50% of all prison inmates are remand prisoners. As at 2009, 35% of remand prisoners have spent more than six months in remand custody while 10% of all remand prisoners have been detained more than two years pre-trial. Further, 284 remand detainees have languished in custody for over 5 years without being charged or without being brought to trial. Many of them are detained on the allegation of involvement in trivial offences punishable with a penalty far less than the time they have already been in custody. Reforming the system of bail and remand could drastically reduce the prison population and contribute towards the improvement of prison conditions.
In this context, the report highlights key aspects including the right to a speedy trial, long term custody pending trail, the Bail Act and its applicability, different methods of release under the Bail Act, sureties, quantum of bond and excessive bail, grounds for refusal of bail and bail pending appeal, among others. The report presents a series of recommendations on improving prison conditions and the efficiency of the criminal justice system, the need for greater flexibility when interpreting bail, bail conditions, and the need to explain in full the grounds and reasons for refusing bail.
The report was conceived by LHRD with technical and financial support from the UNDP Equal Access to Justice Project. Commencing work in mid-2011, the report is the culmination of a long term partnership between A2J, LHRD and several NGO partners to address the pre-trial detention situation and ensure that where appropriate suspects are released into the community pending trial.