Welikada prison murders
“BASL should clarify its position now”
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The chairman of the Committee for the Protection of Prisoners’ Rights, lawyer Senaka Perera said his team would soon urge the Supreme Court to oppose the acquittal and dismissal of Inspector Neomal Moses Rangajiva, the first accused of the Welikada prison murders.
The civil society activist, in a brief interview with The Island, over the weekend, said that the relatives of those who perished in the violence in the Welikada prison compound on November 09 and 10, 2012, had asked him to pursue this case.
Last Wednesday (12), the Colombo High Court Bar Trial sentenced former Welikada Prison Chief Lamahewage Emil Ranjan to death for the Welikada murders. He was the second defendant in the high-profile case, while Rangajiva, then attached to the Narcotics Police Bureau (PNB), was acquitted and cleared of all charges.
Attorney Perera said that since the verdict was delivered by a trial at the bar, the appeal should be taken to the Supreme Court. The Trial Bench consisting of High Court Judges Gihan Kulathunga (President), Pradeep Hettiarachchi and Manjula Thilakarathna were unanimous in their decisions.
The trial at the bar said the prosecution failed to prove its case against the PNB officer beyond a reasonable doubt.
Responding to questions, Senaka Perera said that had there not been a trial at the stand, his group would have moved the Court of Appeal. Senaka Perera explained, “We intend to write to Attorney General Sanjay Rajaratnam, PC, in this regard. We are of the opinion that the AG should appeal the acquittal and release of Rangajiva. However, if the GA fails to do so, the Committee for the Protection of the Rights of Detainees will accept responsibility.
Regarding the trial proceedings on the stand, the eight inmates who were killed in the incident are Kankanmalage Malinda Nilendra Pelpola alias Malan, Attapattu Sangakkara Nirmala Atapattu, Mohammed Wijaya Rohana alias Gundu, Chinthamani Mohottige Thushara Chandana alias Kalu Thushara, Asarappulige Jothipala alias Ponna Kapila, Harshan Sri Manakeerthi Perera alias Manju Sri, Raigamage Susantha Perera alias Mala Susantha, Devamullage Malith Sameera Perera alias Konda Amila.
However, lawyer Senaka Perera said that a total of 27 detainees were killed after the deployment of the Special Task Force (STF) and the army inside Welikada prison. According to official records, in addition to the 27 deaths, at least 43 other detainees were injured. The then Minister of Prisons, Chandrasiri Gajadeera, informed Parliament of the deaths of 27 inmates.
Police spokesman at the time, SSP Prishantha Jayakoday, said the inmates sparked violence as the STF searched for drugs and mobile phones inside the prison.
The Attorney General has filed indictments against IP Rangajeewa, Lamahewage Emil Ranjan and Indika Sampath, an officer attached to the Prisons Intelligence Unit on 33 counts including murder, conspiracy to commit murder after having been members of an unlawful assembly.
The Court proceeded despite the third defendant Indika Sampath who has managed to evade the police so far.
The human rights activist recalled how Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya, PC, appointed a trial at the stand to hear the Welikada case at the request of Rajaratnam’s predecessor, Dappula de Livera, PC. The latter made the request at the end of June 2019. Rajaratnam succeeded de Livera at the end of May 2021.
The Department of Prisons and the Ministry of Justice could not absolve themselves of responsibility for ensuring the safety and security of those in their care, attorney Senaka Perera said. Those who have been remanded and convicted may be serious offenders and some may even deserve the death penalty, but under no circumstances should the state resort to extrajudicial measures, the public litigation campaigner said.
Lawyer Senaka Perera said he believes the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) should look into the Welikada case and make its position known to the public. “Perhaps the BASL should also consider moving the SC against the acquittal and discharge of the first defendant,” the lawyer said.
Lawyer Senaka Perera said that before the former attorney general’s intervention, progress in the investigations had been slow. In fact, real progress has been made since 2017, two years after the change of government following the 2015 presidential election, the lawyer said, alleging that the power in place continually obstructs investigations.
According to attorney Perera and other sources, there had been four separate investigations at different levels, beginning with the one launched by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) immediately after the Welikada killings. Subsequently, the then Minister of Prisons, the late Chandrasiri Gajadeera, appointed a three-member team to investigate the Welikada murders. The committee comprising retired High Court Judge Bandula Atapattu, retired DIG Gunasena Thenabadu and Ministry of Prisons lawyer Lalith Andrahannadi produced two reports in February 2013 and November 2013. ordered by the then Head of Prisons, PW Kodipillai, and the Human Rights Commission. .
Lawyer Senaka Perera said the four investigations undertaken under the Rajapaksa administration should be reviewed. The lawyer stressed the importance of assessing the investigations as the trial at the stand said progress had only been made since 2017.
In addition to these four investigations, another report had been prepared by the three-member committee consisting of retired High Court Judge Wimal Nambuwasam, retired senior DIG Asoka Wijeyatilleke and senior civil servant SK Liyanage. Appointed on January 22, 2015, less than two weeks after the presidential election, the committee delivered its report to then-Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC on June 09 2015, as the latter named it.
Attorney Perera said the former head of the prison claimed that the inmates, after breaking into the prison’s armory, seized weapons, including machine guns.
The activist pointed out that the 2012 incidents were the worst since the 1983 massacre of Tamil terrorist suspects. The public has lost faith in law enforcement and political leaders, regardless of which party is in power, the lawyer said. There could be no better example than the way the current dispensation handled then-Minister of State for Prisons Lohan Ratwatte’s “raids” on Welikada and Anuradhapura prisons in September of last year.
The report prepared by retired High Court Judge Kusala Sarojini Weerawardena on the incidents involving Ratwatte should be made public as the police have yet to at least record the Minister of State’s statement, lawyer Perera said .