Prison bars no barrier for true love
It will be a bitter sweet day for Shamila Bueque who after a year-long battle against official apathy gains permission to marry Senarath Bandula Liyanarachchi serving a long term jail sentence
Shamila Bueque is getting ready for her wedding fixed for Thursday ( December 7). She plans to drape a white sari in Kandyan style along with a necklace of agate stones. Like any bride to be she is excited and anxious about the day but in her case, there is a lot more anxiety than what most others in her shoes would experience. For her wedding will not take place in a star class hotel, a wedding reception hall or even at her house but instead inside the Magazine Prison in Colombo. Her husband to be is 41- year- old Senarath Bandula Liyanarachchi, a man who is serving a 38-year jail term for a financial fraud. He is also a key witness in the Welikada prison incident of 2012.
Theirs is a relationship that has lasted for more than 10 years. The two had first met when Senarath was a free man. “I first met him more than 20 years ago and remembered him as a kind and considerate persons but we lost touch and I moved on with my life. Around 2006, I met his mother and heard from her that he was in prison. It was then that I decided to visit him,” she said.
The visits soon became regular and a relationship blossomed. Although it was mainly confined to letters and brief monthly prison visits, their bond continued to get stronger.
“The prison soon became as familiar to me as my home. During these monthly visits I realised there were many shortcomings in the manner in which prisoners were treated. This prompted me to get involved in the prisoners' welfare association and speak out about their problems,” she said.
In the past ten years, Senarath has been transferred to more than 10 prisons across the country and is now serving his sentence at the Anuradhapura Prison. He will be brought down to the Magazine Prison for the registration of their marriage for two days and taken back soon after.
Shamila said their decision to get married was not because either of them felt the need to validate their relationship by signing a piece of paper and getting a Certificate of Marriage, but was hastened by the ridicule and harassment she was often subjected to during her visits to see him.
They decided to get married the day a prison official asked her to show him the marriage certificate to prove she was his wife. “That was the day I made up my mind that whatever the practical difficulties in getting married to a prison inmate, I would somehow arrange it,” Shamila said.
As a woman, she has had to face her share of harassment by people at different strata in the prison administration system. “I call myself Senarath’s wife and fulfil the duties of a wife but in the eyes of many, such a relationship is not acceptable,” she said.
It’s taken her close to a year to get the necessary official permission. Prison authorities she initially approached were slow in processing her request. After several months of waiting for an answer from them, she wrote to the President as well as the Ministry of Prison Reforms to get the necessary authorisation.
“Finally when I visited the Prison Reforms Ministry and spoke to an official there I got the letter giving us permission to get married on December 7. The letter also requested the prison authorities to make the necessary arrangements to facilitate it,” she added.
At the age of 46, Shamila knows that getting married to man who is serving a long term prison sentence means they would have to live separately for many more years but it’s a price she is willing to pay.
"Once we are married, I will work to get clemency for him so that he can get an early parole. If he was a rapist or a child molester or a murder, I would not do it. He has committed a crime but during his time behind the bars Senarath has realised his mistakes and deserves a second chance in life,” she added.
So come Thursday, the two will register their marriage at the welfare center premises inside the Magazine prison. She has bought a gold band to put on his finger while her mother’s wedding ring which she treasures will be the one he will place on her finger.
“He will have to remove the ring and return it to me soon after I put it on as prisoners are not allowed to wear jewellery,” she said.
The witnesses at the wedding are two lawyers who work for the welfare of prisoners.
Lawyer Senaka Perera, president of the Association for the Protection of Prisoners Rights, will be one of them.
“Shamila is a courageous woman and has had to fight hard to get the necessary permission for the wedding,” he said.
While many couples will tie the knot on December 7, it being an auspicious day, Shamila and Senarath will exchange their wows inside the confines of a prison, which, though minus the glamour and glitter associated with most weddings, will be a very special day for them.
Shamila's husband to be Senarath Bandula Liyanarachchi was a key witness in the Welikada prison incident (file pic)