By Rajan Hoole –
Sri Lanka’s Black July – Part 26
Some Circumstances Concerning the Prison Massacres
In Chapter 8 we referred to the item in the Island of 12th June 1983 relating to proposed amendments to the PTA and the Criminal Procedure Code ‘in respect of terrorist suspects attempting to break jail or making a bid for freedom’. In the case of such a suspect being killed, a mere report to the AG’s department was to suffice. We argued that such a preoccupation, while Tamil suspects were being transferred from Panagoda army camp to Welikade prison, revealed, however tentatively, an intention regarding these prisoners. In saying that the proposals were before the Government, the report indicated that a draft had been made.
Such matters, including the 1978 constitution and the PTA, were, as we learn, entrusted to Athulathmudali, who then did little to hide his sympathy for repressive measures. In T. Sabaratnam’s book The Murder of a Moderate (p.304), he names Athulathmudali, Cabinet Secretary G.V.P. Samarasinghe and Legal Draftsman P.A.K. Rodrigo as those entrusted by Jayewardene to draft the 6th Amendment banning separatism after the cabinet meeting of 27th July 1983. We may also note that the Cabinet as a whole was geared towards approbation of extra-judicial action.
We also received testimony about another measure taken at Welikade prison after the Panagoda detainees were moved there. All prison staff considered to be on easy terms with the Tamil PTA detainees were reassigned duties which kept them away from the detainees (i.e.
hospital duty). Thus at the time of the massacre there were no Tamil staff about. The pretext for this reassignment is said to be that of a Tamil officer, a dentist according to some, from Trincomalee being caught passing on a letter to Kuttimani. Given the circumstance that these Tamil detainees were in practice only nominally under fiscal custody, the prison superintendent may not have had much choice in this.
There is then the stark fact about the two inquests into the massacres discussed in Chapter 10: The evidence was deliberately misled with glaring omissions in the choice of witnesses. The Magistrate, a man of ability, failed to ask questions an average layman would not have missed and drew conclusions strongly at variance with the testimony on record. To recapitulate:
a) Massacre of 25th July
- The army personnel it was claimed were unable to control the riot, while the testimony made it clear that they did not lift a finger and if anything encouraged the killers.
- The fate of the injured prisoners who were to be taken to hospital and then killed was ignored, leaving glaring gaps in the testimony on record.
b) Massacre of 27th July
- The apparent absence of the 3 most senior officers in prison despite warnings of trouble in the morning was not taken up.
- The failure to take the most routine security measures to protect life was not gone into.
- The reasons for the army personnel at the prison failing to come to the aid of Tamil prisoners under attack are patently fake.
- The factuality of a mass escape attempt was asserted by the Magistrate contrary to the evidence.
In both instances, there were three competent lawyers involved. The inquest showed no interest in identifying the culprits or in holding identification parades. If these were spontaneous prison riots as concluded by the Magistrate, the tenacity displayed in covering up becomes inexplicable. It suggests not merely complicity on the part of the State, but gives us a further indication that the State wanted these done. We may go even further. First, we examine some matters that have a bearing on the affair.
The Security Council & Army
The Security Council, which was meeting late afternoon on the 25th, was very much aware of the prison riot. Yet, no official was delegated to contact the prison authorities to find out the position and offer help. This was after all a singular incident where the State had a special responsibility. The Security Council meeting ended about the time when Acting Commissioner of Prisons, Mr. C.T. Jansz, having tried and failed to contact anyone in authority who could help him, left for Police HQ trying to get permission to take the injured Tamil detainees to hospital.
When Jansz, during the incident of the 25th, asked Lt. Hathurusinghe, who commanded the platoon at the prison for help, the latter almost certainly informed his high command as he was bound to, and appears to have received instructions not to interfere. The officer even prevented the Police from going to the assistance of the victims under attack. Despite the experience of the 25th, Lt. Seneviratne who was on duty on the 27th, showed no signs in his inexcusable conduct of having received instructions from the Army High Command not to let it happen again. The two officers must now be having the rank of colonel or brigadier.
After the attack on the 25th, the Army at the highest level appears to have decided that the injured detainees should not obtain medical relief. The injured were not taken to Army Hospital even as the Acting Prisons Commissioner was prevented from taking them to the Accident Service under prison escort.
Jansz obtained permission belatedly from the Army Commander who already knew about it, and, besides, took no tangible measures to prevent its recurrence.
As for the agents who operated on the ground, Suriya Wickremasinghe had drawn attention to the failure at both the inquests to summon the jailors on the spot – the responsible officers – to testify, and raises questions about their role in these events. We mentioned the name of Jailor Rogers Jayasekere, who has been named as the chief executor on the ground by several sources. We do know that there was some kind of an internal inquiry in the Prisons Department. Scores of prisoners were identified as having taken part in the massacres and were transferred to Mahara prison.
Sepala Ekanayake was one of those transferred. Asked if these names were given to the Police, a former Commissioner said that he thought so. Rogers Jayasekere, we learn, later retired as Jailor Class I. We now try to fill in some of the missing links.
Mr. Rogers Jayasekere (RJ)
Rogers J hails from Kelaniya and is now in retirement there. During his career he was identified as a strong UNP supporter both in the Prison Service and in Kelaniya, and was proud of his connection with J.R. Jayewardene. Rogers J’s father had worked for Jayewardene when he contested the Kelaniya seat in the 1940s and became its MP by defeating E.W. Perera. He started his career as a jail guard and went up the ranks as storekeeper, overseer and finally jailor. As an overseer he impressed his superiors and had an easy rapport with both the senior staff as well as minor staff. He was English- speaking, well-mannered and was depended upon by his superiors in maintaining order.
Opinions about Rogers J differed. A Left politician (twice MP) who was in Welikade prison in the early 70s described him as a “ruthless man and a strong UNPer”. In the mid- 70s, Rogers J was posted at Weeravila detention centre in the Hambantota area for surrendered JVP insurgents from the 1971 rebellion. Some of the inmates described him as one who was very friendly with them. But his ruthless side was also known or suspected by some of his superiors.
In 1977, the UNP came to power. Kelaniya had become a major centre for the UNP’s rough tactics with Mathew and Jayewardene’s relation and protege Wickremasinghe in charge. There was bound to be plenty of work for a man with Rogers J’s connections and talents. Although his name is obscure today and perhaps hardly ever got into print, to senior journalists who covered events in the late 70s and early 80s, it was something of a household name that cropped up in discussions and exchanges of information. His name was mentioned as one of those behind- the-scenes actors in attacks on Kelaniya University students in 1978. Rogers Jayasekere’s name has been associated with JRJ’s son Ravi Jayewardene’s in the latter’s attempt to set up Sinhalese settlements in the North with convicts during 1984 (see Chapter 20).
Where Jayasekere’s involvement in the prison massacres is concerned, we said that testimony to this effect came from former prison staff, one of whom had joined the service with Jayasekere and knew him closely. Another of them spoke to us in fear after being assured by a third party that we will not reveal his name. Rogers Jayasekere, Jailor Samitharatne (real name probably Samitha Rathgama), who was young, tall, on the dark side, and Location Officer Palitha, who was about 25 years, fair and on the shorter side, were named from the testimony of Sinhalese prisoners in an EPRLF document. The document was published in India after the escape of survivors from Batticaloa Prison in September 1983. Unfortunately, these allegations have never been examined in a bona fide inquiry. Whenever the massacres were brought up, such as in mid-1988 during the Indo-Lanka Accord, Athulathmudali and other officials took cover behind Magistrate Wijewardene’s inquest reports and declined to proceed further.
The late Fr. Singarayar had pointed out Jayasekere as the main culprit to others who were with him in Welikade Prison after September 1983. By continuing to be in prison Fr. Singarayar would have had the opportunity to compare notes from various sources. The former JVP General Secretary Lionel Bopage told us that he was told of Jayasekere’s role in the massacres when he was in Magazine Prison in 1985. Bopage was told this by prison officers who had become friendly with him during his earlier prison stint in the 70s.
A former senior prison official referred to ‘malicious rumours’ about some prison staff being involved. When the name of Rogers Jayasekere was put to him, he did not commit himself, but spoke of RJ’s Kelaniya connections and his general bearing. He also said that when asked by prison officers about reports of his involvement in the massacres, RJ had replied that during the first riot attacking prisoners had locked him up in a cell. Asked whether he believed that there was any substance in these ‘malicious rumours’ where Rogers J. was concerned, the official replied, “I will put it this way. He is not incapable of it”.
Another former senior prison official who referred to RJ’s reply to the charge of his involvement, was more forthright in his opinion. The official said, “He said he was locked up. But no one else has testified that he saw RJ locked up or had let him out!”
RJ’s denial also suggests to us that he was one of the jailors on the scene whom the first inquest failed to name besides failing to record his testimony. He may also have been one of the unnamed jailors on the scene during the second massacre, but it is not essential that he was. Its planning and execution had been made much easier by the State giving a clear message by its handling of the first. This is why even after army commandos had intervened to cut short the carnage on the 27th, the attackers were still straining to go at it again and finish the job.
We take Rogers Jayasekere’s involvement as established beyond reasonable doubt. The attack was thus instigated and planned well in advance. RJ was a man with a good position, was careful to the point of not revealing his hand openly and it was most uncharacteristic of him to get involved in an affair of this nature without ensuring that he was well-covered. If the idea were his own and he and a few other staff had gone about instigating on the 25th July itself, a good deal could have gone wrong and he would have been exposed. We note the manner in which Jansz was handled when he rushed in. He was surrounded by prisoners swinging some object above their head, without, however, manhandling him, while at the same time keeping a distance. No one from the prison staff was hurt. This was, far from being ad hoc, well planned, taking into account contingencies like Jansz and Leo de Silva rushing in. It was not a riot.
The circumstances further suggest that assurances had been given to the planners in advance that the army platoon at the prison would not intervene and that there would not be a bona fide inquiry. The Government had armed itself with Emergency Regulation 15A of the Gazette Extraordinary published a week earlier. We pointed out that the inquest and post mortems probably resulted from Jansz’s persistence on the 25th, which resulted in the corpses ending up in the morgue, although his original intention was to convey the injured to the Accident Service. It also appears, as pointed out, that the Army’s preventing Jansz from taking the injured out and sending him running in circles as it were, came from a decision to avoid any legal entanglements and to use ER 15A. Even prison staff attacking the injured prisoners in view of several onlookers points to a determination to finish the job under a guarantee of impunity. The impunity with which the organisers operated is further exemplified by the fact that they went on to organise a second massacre 50 hours later, where the attackers were better armed and the three senior-most prison officers were absent.
We are thus left with little doubt that the planning for the murderous onslaught in Welikade prison is rooted in Rogers Jayasekere’s powerful UNP connections in the Kelaniya area, who were also the President’s most trusted lieutenants. This leads us to the next item.
To be continued..
Part four – Sri Lanka’s Black July: The Cover Up
Part five – 30th July 1983: The Second Naxalite Plot
Part seven – Black July: Thondaman & Muttetuwegama
Part nine – Tamil Merchants In The Pettah – Post July 1983
Part eleven – Sri Lanka’s Black July: The Question Of Numbers
Part fourteen – Circumstances Leading To The Magistrate’s Inquest
Part fifteen – Welikade Prison: The Second Massacre: 27th July 1983
Part seventeen – Welikade Prison Massacres: Postscript
Part eighteen – July 1983: Planned By The State Or Spontaneous Mob Action?
Part nineteen – July 1983: Ranil Wickremasinghe Followed Cyril Mathew
Part twenty one – Events Of 24th July: What Were The Army’s Orders?
Part twenty two – Black July: Further Evidence Of Advance Planning
Part twenty three – Black July: The JSS Goon Squad Regime
Part twenty four – Institutional Implications Of The JSS And Black July
*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To be continued..