Sri Lankan man held in asylum is freed after 50 years

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P P James is making up for a lot of lost time. Fifty years ago he was arrested for a crime he did not commit, locked up in a Sri Lankan asylum and all but forgotten about. But for an illness that needed medical treatment, Mr James would not have now been freed at the age of 84 – let go with just £2,500 in compensation and released into a world he no longer recognises.

Mr James, born in a village 50 miles from the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, suffered an accident as a young man that left him prone to fall into what he described as trances. His family dismissed him as a "madman" and, after he pulled out of a marriage with a local woman, they largely disowned him.

Then one night in 1958, Mr James was walking past his father's house and thought he saw blood on the grass. Believing his father had been attacked, he ran to the nearest house, which happened to be where the woman he had spurned as a bride lived. Her father called the police, and told them that Mr James was mad. They seized him on suspicion of having attacked his father and placed him before a judge who – without so much as a bail hearing – ordered that he be placed in an asylum.

Mr James was given injections, pills and electro-shock therapy until the doctors said he was cured. But even then he was not released, the hospital authorities saying they needed permission from the prison service, and prison officials saying they needed a ruling from the court, which had lost his file.

"This is part and parcel of our system here, patients who have been brought in and forgotten about," Dr Neil Fernando, a hospital psychiatrist who took on Mr James's case, told the Associated Press.

Late last year, Mr James required treatment for his eye. Forced to transfer him to another hospital for treatment, officials began to question why he was being held. He was finally released on bail earlier this year, and his case has been dismissed.

Though his case has become a cause célèbre in Sri Lanka, Mr James spends his days working in the paddy fields. While many younger workers stop to rest, he tells them he has been resting for long enough. He does not blame the judicial system. He simply says: "I should have fought harder to get myself out."