Impunity, a debilitating fixture in state culture

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25 years after Welikada massacre – by Rajan Hoole

-commemorative Article for Black July 83-

Colombo’s Welikada high security prison was the scene of two massacres of Tamil political prisoners during the communal violence of July 1983, first after lunch on July 25 claiming 35 prisoners and second, about 4.00 PM on the July 27 claiming a further 18. On both occasions Secretary of Justice Mervyn Wijesinghe asked Colombo Magistrate Keerthi Srilal Wijewardene to hold inquests with the assistance of Tilak Marapone and C.R. de Silva (the present AG) from the Attorney General’s Department. No culprits were identified and the case was hushed up.

The massacres made life a living hell also for those on the spot, who driven by moral aversion tried unsuccessfully stop them, but were not even allowed to clear their names.

The inquest
One of them, Superintendent of Prisons (SP) Alexis Leo de Silva, upon hearing the alarm on the 25th, rushed into the mob in the Chapel Section with ASPs Amarasinghe and Munaweera, followed by Deputy Commissioner (DC) Cutty Jansz, but to little avail. Leo felt very angry that the army unit at the prison headed by Lt. Mahinda Hathurusinghe, 4th Artillery, did nothing to stop the murder, and later also blocked emergency hospitalization of injured survivors. A lieutenant would hardly have dared to override DC Jansz and doomed the survivors, without prompting from Army HQ. While some prison staff protected Tamils, others, including a jailor, attacked the survivors in the compound.

At the inquest on the 26th, Leo wanted to place the truth on record. Magistrate Wijewardene left out chunks of his testimony. Leo’s son Lalanath de Silva recently told us, “An AG’s department counsel called my father outside the room where the inquest was being held and attempted to persuade my father to go along – pleading that the truth would place Sri Lanka in a very adverse position internationally.” At one point the Magistrate became so angry that he refused to take down Leo’s testimony.

The Police under Detective Superintendent Hyde Silva questioned the survivors on the 26th following the Magistrate’s order. To Suriya Wickremasinghe of the Civil Rights Movement belongs the credit for painstakingly seeking out survivors of the massacres, interviewing them and keeping the issue alive. She told us that survivor Manikkadasan in his statement to the Police, blamed two jailors of active complicity. A thin jailor warned him that mention of names might lead to similar jeopardy from inmates.


Suriya believes that the second massacre owed to earlier survivors being also eyewitnesses. On the 27th Lt. Nuvolari Seneviratne of Army Engineers commanded the platoon outside the prison. Hearing a commotion where the survivors had been re-housed, Nuvolari radioed the Duty Officer (DO) at Army HQ. He told the Junior DO who answered that he wanted authority to go into prison and disperse the mob. The Junior DO gave him a telephone number and asked him to phone the DO (a colonel). Nuvolari used the coin phone at the entrance to ring the number at Army HQ. The DO told him to stick to standing orders and stay outside prison, or would face court-martial if he went in. Nuvolari asked for the Army Commander. He was refused, being told the Commander was with President Jayewardene, and relief was being sent to deal with the problem. (Cutty Jansz had also phoned Army HQ.)

The relief, commandos under Major Sunil Peiris, promptly went in and saved 19 of the 37 prisoners. Nuvolari felt the deaths to be sheer murder, which his platoon could have prevented if not constrained by HQ. At the second inquest, the AG’s men, Marapone and de Silva, were keenly selective. Leo who was in prison the whole day, had at the first forebodings asked DC Jansz to expedite the removal of the survivors to safety. As if by design, the attack began when he went for a late snack in lieu of lunch, causing him to rush back. Neither he nor his ASPs were called upon to testify at the inquest.

The AG’s men and Magistrate tried to frame a jailbreak attempt that supposedly left inadequate resources to prevent the massacre. The AG’s men and Army’s lawyers importuned Lt. Seneviratne to tell the inquest that he was outside the prison controlling a jailbreak. He refused. The world had crashed around the 22-year-old sportsman from Trinity College who joined the Army with high hopes. Major Sunil Peiris stepped in saying not to harass Nuvolari and if he won’t, he won’t, and if their object was having someone from the Army testify, he would.

To a leading question, Major Peiris answered with professional precision, “I did not notice any prisoners attempting to break out. Therefore I gathered that the attempted mass jail break had been contained before our arrival!” Undeterred by Peiris’ refusal to perjure, the Magistrate summed up, “…prompt and efficient steps taken by the special unit of the Army under witness Major Peiris had effectively prevented the jail break … and helped quell the mob which might otherwise have caused [even greater death].”

Taming scandals and condemning posterity
In July 2001, President Kumaratunge appointed the Presidential ‘Truth’ Commission on Ethnic Violence headed by former Chief Justice Suppiah Sharvananda, with S.S. Sahabandu and M.M. Zuhair. Suriya Wickremasinghe had repeatedly been thwarted in her efforts to obtain from the Police, testimony they received from the survivors of the first massacre. The Commission, which relied heavily on Suriya’s work, could have followed this up to further its investigations, but did not.

Tamil survivors named to us Jailor Rogers Jayasekere, Jailor Samitha Rathgama and Location Officer Palitha as the protagonists on the ground. Senior prison officials have indirectly affirmed Jayasekere’s culpability. His family were strong UNP supporter from President Jayewardene’s old Kelaniya electorate, shared in 1983 by Ranil Wickremasinghe and Cyril Mathew. Rumours charged that gangsters under Gonawala Sunil of Kelaniya UNP fame were brought into prison to assist the second massacre.

Vehicle check
Nuvolari Seneviratne’s testimony bears relevance here. His soldiers at the entrance checked the vehicles going into the prison to ensure they were the government’s. Jail guards just inside the entrance did the identity checks. The soldiers at the entrance told Nuvolari that some of the official vehicles entering took underworld figures, but exited without them. Asked who the underworld figures were, Seneviratne replied, “I did not see them myself and there is no way my men would have known them. But the jail guards knew them as persons in and out of jail. They told my men.”

During the second massacre, Journalist Aruna Kulatunga wrote recently, he saw airline hijacker Sepala Ekanayake coming out of the prison gates screaming “kohomada ape wede” (How is our job?), felled by a thundering blow from Major Sunil Peiris. Peiris had told me something more, that Sepala was carrying a severed human head.

Senior prison staff dismissed this as fantasy. I published it in my book Arrogance of Power, since I knew Peiris. I had checked back with Peiris, who, a little hurt, explained, ‘You know your Bible? It was like John the Baptist’s head on a charger’. It happened before Peiris saw the scene of crime. Peiris’ action makes sense only if Sepala’s utterance, reported also by Kulatunga, drew his attention to something revolting. Peiris’ testimony at the inquest speaks for truthfulness and accuracy that are hallmarks of a good officer. Nuvolari’s refusal to perjure again stands his testimony in good stead.

About when Peiris’ party arrived, Nuvolari’s men drew his attention to a fresh hole in the prison wall near the cricket ground. Upon inspection he saw an Air Force truck standing by. No words were exchanged. The Army’s legal unit also removed Nuvolari’s standing orders and the logbook with records of vehicles entering. On 27th, the Tamil detainees fought back, some attackers were mauled and soldiers shot some, but there is no account of casualties. SP Leo de Silva felt impelled by his honour to place the truth on record. His later investigations were stalled by an order from Commissioner Delgoda. Then Justice Minister Nissanka Wijeratne threw Leo out of service at the age of 56 by refusing a routine extension. The total cover up and a diversity of coherent testimony pointing to the nefarious deployment of broader resources, gives surely the lie to representing the massacres as an outburst of subaltern patriotism. No perpetrators were named and Sepala walks free. Is it not because they have beans to spill?

Whether or not directly intended, what our commissions and AG’s Dept. achieve is to protect the State’s inbuilt abuses that have gone over tolerable limits. The blame for its repeated crimes is invariably shuffled off to subaltern sectors. The routine official prevarication also leads to Sinhalese seeing the ethnic problem as Tamils making mountains of molehills, and the solution as being to knock them about, pat them on the head and give them sweets to suck.

Regrettably, few Sinhalese would be shocked that Attorney General C.R. de Silva guides important commission proceedings such as the ACF investigation. He, or Marapone, tried to stop Leo de Silva 25 years ago, pleading that ‘the truth would place Sri Lanka in an adverse position internationally’. Lanka would have redeemed itself had all such crimes been faced squarely long ago, rather than make fixers of truth a permanent feature of the State. On a further point, the prison murders of rising Tamil leaders Dr. Rajasundaram, Kuttimani and Thangathurai led to the fracture of the original Tamil youth leadership and the rise of Prabhakaran. That is another intricate story.

By – Prof Rajan Hoole (Curtsy: TransCurrents )


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