12 June, 2024


Black July: Circumstances Leading To The Magistrate’s Inquest

By Rajan Hoole –

Rajan Hoole

Sri Lanka’s Black July – Part 14 – Welikade Prison Massacres:

The Emergency Regulations, the latest of which were gazetted a week before the violence, on the 18th of July, provided for the disposal of bodies without inquest. The circumstances of the inquest tell us something about the atmosphere. One factor that may have prompted the inquest is very likely that Jansz’s attempts to take the injured to the Accident Service had resulted in the bodies ending up in the Medico-Legal Mortuary. It is notable that the Army had been initially obstructing steps which, whether the victims were dead or injured, would have led to commencing a formal legal process with the Police having to record statements. Once in the mortuary it became awkward to dispose of the bodies under ERs without an inquest.

According to Jansz, it was Mr. Mervyn Wijesinghe, Secretary/Justice, who persuaded the powers that be that it was best to have an inquest. However, there was much confusion around. Mr. Keerthi Srilal Wijewardene, a bachelor of age about 41 years, was then Chief Magistrate, Colombo. As he records, Wijesinghe and Mr. H.G. Dharmadasa, Acting Deputy Commissioner, Prisons, informed him orally of the prison deaths and ‘requested’ him to hold an inquest.

Back in the Medico-Legal Morgue the 35 bodies had been laid out and policemen and jail guards were talking confusedly. The JMO, Dr. M.S.L. Salgado, asked the Police for the magistrate’s order to perform the post-mortem examinations. The Police tried to avoid the issue. Since the Magistrate’s telephone was not working then, Salgado went to his residence in Havelock Town and told him that he wanted such an order. While Salgado was in a hurry, Mr. Wijewardene seemed oblivious to what was going on in the world and particularly in the City. He asked Salgado to come in and have a cup of tea. This Salgado could not refuse. Further to his annoyance, Wijewardene asked his manservant to make sandwiches.

Wijewardene, a keen member of the Medico-Legal Society, started chatting about the problems of the young related to heroin abuse – something completely outside the immediate. He was in no hurry to face the present. Then Salgado reminded him that he wanted to go, and asked Wijewardene to accompany him. According to Wijewardene’s record: “Though I informed him that I would accompany him to the JMO’s office, I would not commence inquest proceedings unless and until the Police made an application seeking such an Inquest.”

Subsequently at the JMO’s office, OIC Borella and Mr. Hyde Silva (H.Y. de Silva), Detective Superintendent, Crimes, came to him with such an application. Then Wijewardene, still not sure of himself, a state of emergency prevailing, read Gazette Extraordinary No. 254/ 3 of 18th July 1983, to satisfy himself that a judicial inquest could be held under the circumstances. Having satisfied himself, he ordered the JMO to hold a post-mortem inquiry. But he had not finished with the JMO. He asked Salgado to accompany him to Welikade Prison. Salgado agreed to this unusual request. Salgado recalled, “I think he was scared.”

This brings us to a startling absurdity in the law. Emergency Regulation 15A of the Gazette Extraordinary made by President Jayewardene under the Public Security Ordinance, allows any gazetted police officer (i.e. not below ASP rank) or any other authorised officer, with the approval of Secretary, Ministry of Defence, to arrange for taking possession and disposal of any dead body, without reference to any other legal provision. It allows an official to decide when murder is not murder, even in such a blatant instance as the prison massacre.

Regarding this massacre the Government was anticipating, if not already being flooded with, expressions of concern from abroad. Groups in the US were already active with respect to the detainee Nirmala Nithiananthan who had her university education in the US. With the bodies already with the JMO, ER 15A had become a difficult proposition.

Then suddenly Secretary, Ministry of Justice (as distinct from Defence) popped up and wanted an inquest held. The Magistrate was naturally puzzled. Then the Police were waiting for the Magistrate and the Magistrate for the Police. The process of the law is deprived of its independence and impartiality when the executive is given the option of deciding when a crime is not a crime. When in an embarrassing affair the executive forgoes its option of outright suppression and requests a magistrate to hold an inquest, it comes with an unspoken, but self- evident, undertone to hush it up legally. Little wonder then that Magistrate Keerthi Srilal Wijewardene was an unhappy man.

Shortly after he arrived at the prison about 4.20 P.M. (26th), in came Mervyn Wijesinghe, Secretary, Justice, with Mr. Tilak Marapone, Deputy Solicitor General, and Mr. C.R. de Silva, Senior State Counsel, ‘offering their assistance to this court’, as recorded by Wijewardene. It was hardly the kind of assistance to be rejected. We know how they led the evidence. Why were the counsels who were representing the victims and survivors not called? An Amnesty International statement a few days after the massacres in September ’83 stated: “The lawyers of the Tamil detainees are reported to have claimed that they were not allowed to bring evidence at the inquest proceedings which they allege would have implied participation of some prison staff.” We have had no independent confirmation of this so far. A lawyer who checked recently with C.R. de Silva, was told that if a lawyer representing the victims had applied to the AG, he would almost certainly have been allowed, but if he had simply come to the prison gate, he may have been turned off on grounds of security. It would have been a brave lawyer who would have tried under those condtions.

An incident during the inquest, which began in the evening and lasted through the night until the 27th morning, is revealing. The AJMO, Dr. Salgado’s assistant, a Tamil, Dr. Balachandra, was taking photographs of the bodies during the post-mortem examinations as was normal. There was alarm among the minor staff that a Tamil was taking photographs for use as propaganda. A jail guard came in alarm and informed DSG Tilak Marapone about it. Marapone telephoned Dr. Salgado from the prison to find out what was going on. Salgado assured him that the camera and film were his, and, it was he who had asked Balachandra to photograph the bodies. The proper thing was for Marapone to have informed the Presiding Magistrate if he thought something objectionable was going on. Such overbearing conduct by the Attorney General’s department men to the cost of the judiciary is now endemic to our system.

Again, everyone knew that the Tamil survivors were in no position to testify. Putting together what different survivors – all those in C3 – had seen, it was clear to them that some influential jailors were involved. One prisoner, Kandiah Rajendran (alias Robert), who was in a cell nearest to the passage entrance had witnessed what was going on in the lobby and had given a running commentary. He was killed in the second massacre. The accounts gathered by Suriya Wickremasinghe are largely based on Rajendran’s running commentary.

The survivors knew that Leo de Silva and Jansz had no part in what had happened, but also had no illusions about their ability to protect them. It is interesting that these survivors in C3 decided to seek an interview with Leo de Silva and ask him to unlock the cells and let them stay together in the passage. They had rightly discerned that they were more vulnerable locked up in ones and threes – a fact made clear in the second act of the drama. This request, if made, was not granted. That same night (25th), the Sinhalese radio news which spoke about the massacre was heard clearly by the C3 detainees from the jailor’s room nearby. They thought it was deliberate. No one testified at the inquest giving any names. The Magistrate observed, “None of those prisoners who could be eye witnesses… have volunteered to give evidence…”

At 3.00 P.M. in the afternoon of the 26th, Panagoda Mahesweran, Paranthan Rajan and Douglas Devananda went as representatives to meet Leo de Silva. At 1.00 A.M. on the 27th, the 28 detainees were woken up and taken to the Youthful Offenders Building (See diagram).These detainees were housed in 9 of the 10 cells on the ground floor, 3 each in 8 cells and 4 in one cell. The 9 detainees, i.e. the

professionals (Dr. Tharmalingam, Dr. Rajasunderam et. al.), who were in those cells were sent to the dormitory upstairs. This was done before the inquest was concluded.

With all the 35 post-mortem reports in, the inquest proceedings were concluded by Magistrate Wijewardene in the early hours of the 27th morning. He issued a formal order to the Borella Police to pursue investigations and produce any suspects before him. Then came more anomalies in the Law. The Magistrate conducting the inquest should normally have handed over the bodies to the next of kin. That had become awkward or difficult. At this point, Detective Superintendent Hyde Silva applied for possession of the bodies for disposal, under section 15A of the Gazette Extraordinary of 18th July 1983. Deputy Solicitor General Mr. Marapone, presumably representing the Attorney General, stated that he had no objection to the request. Magistrate Wijewardene perused the Gazette and agreed that it should be allowed in law. The relevant section however reserves such authorisation for Secretary, Defence, and not the Attorney General! How laws change according to need! When it came to taking badly injured prisoners to hospital, it was prevented by dubiously bringing clearance from Secretary, Defence.

Shortly before dawn, the bodies were taken in a prison truck wrapped in white sheets to the Kanatte Cemetery, where a huge pit had been dug. The bodies were thrown onto the ground by the prisoners assisting the authorities. There was dead silence, in sharp contrast to the two tumultuous days that preceded it. Not a soul was about. Dr. Salgado, driving home after a tiring night of post-mortems, stopped by to have a final look at those whose remains had passed through his hands. A police inspector asked an army officer and soldiers who were standing by to help them by fetching more logs. A highly offended army officer protested that they were there only to give them security. The funny part was lost amidst tempers being frayed. In the circumstances, it was as though the army officer was referring to security against ghosts. DSP Hyde Silva quickly stepped in to settle the quarrel.

The flames from the pyre leapt up against the glimmering dawn, as the dead were turned to ashes. However, unknown to the army officer, those above him, and the highest in authority, the ghosts of these victims were to haunt this land for a generation and more, denying it any prospect of peace. Dr. Salgado driving home heavy with sleep was in for another strange encounter. On a lonely road, a policeman stepped out of the shadows and stopped him for driving on the wrong side! The tribe that was conspicuously off the streets during the mayhem of the preceding days seemed not totally out of business.

Part one – Sri Lanka’s Black July: Borella, 24th Evening

Part two – Sri Lanka’s Black July: What Really Happened At Kanatte?

Part three – Black July: ‘Api Suddha Kara’ – JR’s Failure To Declare Curfew

Part four – Sri Lanka’s Black July: The Cover Up

Part five –  30th July 1983: The Second Naxalite Plot

Part six  – Black July: The Testimony Of Lionel Bopage, Then General Secretary Of The JVP

Part seven – Black July: Thondaman & Muttetuwegama

Part eight – What Was Behind Tiger Friday – 29th July? -The Significance Of The Pettah

Part nine – Tamil Merchants In The Pettah – Post July 1983

Part ten –  Sri Lanka’s Black July: A Family’s Tragedy In Colombo

Part eleven –  Sri Lanka’s Black July: The Question Of Numbers

Part twelve –  Welikade Prison Massacres: The First Massacre: 25th July 1983

Part thirteen –  Welikade Prison Massacres: Testimonies Given At The Magistrate’s Inquest

*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..

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Latest comments

  • 0

    There was no Black July. Look at Colombo. Tamils everywhere.

    There were 2 Black Augusts in 1977 and 1990 by Tamilians against Sinhalese and Muslims. Look at Jaffna. Not a single Sinhalese or a Muslim.

    This is proof no Black July only Black Augusts.

    • 0

      Muliyawaikkal by another name?

      Tho I disagree with the criminalisation in some European countries of Holocaust denial, I feel sick to the stomach whenever someone denies the horror of July ’83.

      However, I have also noticed that a number of people blogging under Tamil names (their own or pseudonyms) rarely speak against the current targetting of our Muslim community.

      But even I was caught off the hook for a while, when I received this in a letter from someone abroad who keeps in touch with our situation:

      ‘I’ve been sorrowfully following the ongoing anti-Muslim pogrom in Sri Lanka. The pogrom against the Tamils in 1983, and the earlier one against Muslims in 1915, are further examples of Sinhala intolerance in that star-crossed country – it’s very reminiscent of Rwanda.’

      POGROM! RWANDA! SRI LANKA!….How can mention the first 2 words in connection with this blessed isle! Land like no other!

      No, no, the writer (an extremely well educated, professional, who has benefitted from living for long periods in several diverse cultures) has gone just a bit too far, was my reaction.

      But then I looked up the word ‘pogrom’.

    • 0


      You are definitely Sinkalam and not Muslim, But if you are no wonder BBS are giving it you and hope when they do it they will be singing 3 times a lady.

    • 0

      There is no attacks on Muslim Mosques or upon Muslims in any part of our country. Look everywhere, Muslims are Everywhere.

      • 0


        Say that to the Fat “mama” above and put some sense into her empty cranium.

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