Written By NAFSO on Monday, November 25, 2013 | 11:17:00 AM
By Leon Berenger
A group of 105 Sri Lankan fishermen are restricted to a single meal of rice with cooked ash plantains per day while living in appalling conditions in an over crowded jail in Chennai, an international maritime trade union said yesterday. Ranjan Perera of the International Transport workers Federation (ITF) told the Sunday Times that fishermen were clad in the same clothes from the day they were arrested by the Indian Coast Guard for allegedly poaching in that country’s territorial waters.
The fishermen were arrested in separate batches over the past few months after they drifted across the International Maritime Boundary Line between the two countries. The plight of the fishermen was made known to Dinesh Fernando – an ITF representative from Sri Lanka who made a visit to the jail earlier this month and met with the Lankans as well as officials in Chennai.
Mr. Fernando said that the fishermen alleged that there was not a single visit by officials of the Sri Lankan Consulate in Chennai and that they were without any legal defence and left to the mercy of the Indian judiciary. The fishermen are currently being held without a court date and they fear that they will have to stay behind bars for a considerable period of time, Mr. Ferenando said.
He said that the ITF with the assistance of trade unions in Chennai was able to provide the Sri Lankans with basic needs such as fresh sarongs, soap, medicines, footwear, etc. “However this is a limited assistance that we could have provided as a trade union and it is up to the State to make a bigger initiative in coming forward with some kind of relief and assistance in this regard.
”We were told by officials at the Sri Lankan Consulate in Chennai that they had made several written requests to the prison authorities in Chennai to allow a visit but there has been a zero response,” Mr. Fernando added. He also said that local officials of Chennai had said that the matter could be solved only between the two governments since it was a diplomatic issue.
External Affairs Ministry Secretary Karunatilleke Amunugama said that under the Geneva Convention the host country was obliged to provide consular assistance if a prison visit was sought through diplomatic channels. “If this has not been the case regarding the fishermen in Chennai then the matter will be taken up with the Indian High Commission in Colombo in the strongest possible manner and at the very earliest.
“Furthermore Sri Lanka has a diplomatic right to visit its nationals held in a jail in a foreign country and India must take note of this,” Mr. Amunugama added. “For our part, we have provided access to Indian diplomats to visit Indian fishermen held in local jails and have provided them with whatever assistance is required, and the case should be the same on the other side as well,” he said.