“I was an eyewitness to Kalu Thushara’s murder,” – eyewitness to 2012 Welikada Prison bloodbath W. Sudesh Nandimal Silva
In 2012, on 09 and 10 of November, 27 prisoners and inmates were killed at the Welikada Magazine Prison. Over 40 were wounded. Eyewitness to the State sponsored massacre, W. Suresh Nandimal Silva was a political prisoner at the time. A husband and a father, he during the years of 2007 and 2013, when he was incarcerated, lost both his parents. Currently employed at the Railways Department, he added that despite threats to his life, he is presently one of the only eyewitnesses willing to testify at any commission or Court about the bloody carnage of those two fateful days. He wants not compensation, seeks not retribution, but just, just, justice. This is his tale.
Here are excerpts of the interview:
Q : What is the background to your incarceration?
A : Since schooldays, I worked with leftist ideas. At the age of 13, I started working inside the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and engaged in a lot of activities. During the 1987 and 1988 period of terror, I was involved in various struggles inside school and faced a lot of problems and managed to escape death through much difficulty. We saw much social injustice and we decided to work towards the struggles of the oppressed class.
In 1994, after a process of self-criticism, we decided to quit the JVP after the JVP wanted to go to the Parliament and the JVP joined former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge’s caretaker Government.
In 1996, we joined the Railways Department and decided to form a railways trade union which culminated in the Railways Workers/Labourers/Employees Collective. I was initially the founding Treasurer and later I became the General Secretary. We started a newspaper called Wedabime Javaya – Akuna, which we brought to the level of being a national newspaper.
With former President Mahinda Rajapaksa coming into power we worked against racism. Racism is a harmful organism. We are forever against it. There is a connection between the Tamil people of the North and the Sinhalese in the South. We do not want to separate the two but bring them together. We are against war and terror. In Sri Lanka, war is the result of colonialism. We saw this and worked against it continuously. Whenever the Tamil people faced an injustice everywhere we too called it an injustice. We revealed them through the newspapers. We stood for the fact that the Tamils have a right to live. During Rajapaksa’s tenure we were engaged in such struggles including struggles to increase salaries. We were of the belief that the struggle for wages should be continued. President of the Government Nursing Officers’ Association, Saman Ratnapriya and General Secretary of the Ceylon Teachers’ Union, Joseph Stalin were also with us. During this period, on 05 February, 2007, the Government identified us, and understood that it is to our struggles that they should attack and they subsequently abducted us. First two were abducted. In front of the Ceylon Government Railways in Maligawatte, they abducted one of our brothers at the gate after asking him to come out. He was working at the time so once we came to know about it in the morning we launched a protest in Fort against the disappearance of our brothers with the help of the entire State sector, at which international organizations also participated. Due to this the Government did not kill those whom they abducted but said that they had been caught with firearms, adding also that there were others they were going to arrest. They suspended our work. On 30 April, they took me in, in a white van in Gampaha. They tortured me. At the time my wife, child, mother and father were there, so they informed human rights organizations and Leader of the Nawa Sama Samaja Party, Dr. Wickremabahu Karunaratne and as a result the Government did not kill me. The JVP attacked our houses. My wife was disturbed by the JVP when she was walking on the road. She was also arrested by the Police and released within 24 hours. Our arrests were the result of the JVP’s plan with the Government. The Government then charged us with attempting an uprising, revolt and insurrection against the State and collecting weapons from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). They placed us in remand prison and then imprisoned us. After one year we filed a fundamental rights application stating that if there were charges against us to file a case against us but if not to release us. Twenty seven of us were there, and out of this 11, including undergraduates like Ajith, teachers from the upcountry and lecturers like Udaya Tennakoon were brought much later and only five or six of us were taken by white vans. If they killed us it would have not been a problem as later they took in people who were not even involved with the parties. They then filed suit against 11 of us and the Attorney General’s Department released the rest. They repeatedly did not take up our cases and it is only after seven years elapsed that our cases were heard and we were released. I came out on 13 September, 2013. It was during this period as a political prisoner that the Welikada Prison massacre/riot took place.
Q : What happened?
A : Prison officials including the Police would routinely conduct searches once or twice a week to look for contraband and this would lead to various problems. At the time we (four of us who were political prisoners) were being rehabilitated. We drew pictures and engaged in other such activities like creating pandals.
We were at the Temple Ward where various programmes were conducted. At this point we came to know that the Special Task Force and the military specifically the Army was coming in to the Prison to conduct a search operation. This was at about 1 p.m. in the afternoon of 09 November, 2012. When we went forward we could see that an argument was taking place near the entrance with the Prison officials. Prison officials did not allow them in. The Prison officials had stated that firearms (pistols and Type 56 assault rifles) could not be brought inside a prison as it was banned and that an order was required. Yet the military were not heeding them. The military then said that there was nothing to do because this was an order from the former Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and that they were going to come in whether the Prison officials liked it or not. There was a person in Army fatigues called Ranawala also involved. At the time there was an officer called Indika Sampath, who is now an Assistant Superintendent of Police, but was then attached as a jailor to the Intelligence and Security Division in the Prison. He intervened and told to send the military in, stating that he would look after things.
The military went to the L Hall Ward where imprisoned suspects who are remanded were kept. While searching, in order to anger the prisoners, they assaulted them. While we were watching, those officials who came from the L Hall Ward and the Visit, came and told us what was happening. Even though they were being assaulted, they did not leave, for the reason that they were suspects. They were afraid of having another case filed against them, which would lead to further time inside. They were not those who had been found guilty and convicted yet or been punished. When these efforts failed, the security forces came towards us again, to the Chapel Ward, which is a big building near the L Hall. It is in front of this that the Temple Ward is located. The Army had surrounded the perimeter and were everywhere and armed, and their bags contained other weapons too including tear gas canisters. From down where we were, we could see people going hither tither, shouting and being assaulted. Those remanded who were being thusly treated shouted to those prisoners who were outside the building that they were being killed. The prisoners outside then picked up stones and started throwing them. The military then fired tear gas everywhere, even inside closed cells to make the prisoners uncomfortable. Prisoners could not bear this and some fell unconscious. The prisoners continued throwing stones at which point the military left, but on the way out they broke not the wooden plank door but the main entrance gate which has iron bars and rods. This gate could be folded, but we saw them remove it forcibly, pulling at it with their hands and kicking at it.
They went out and started shooting towards inside the Prison and also used tear gas. Two got hit with one being badly hit. The prisoners started chasing, throwing stones, until they reached the armoury. We were later told that the door was open, and the prisoners after taking weapons from the armoury, started shooting outside. The two who got hit were being brought to the surgery to receive medical treatment. The prisoner who was going to give medicine had only two more days left prior to being released. He applied medical treatment, but stated that one of the two who got hit was in critical condition, and that he should be taken to a hospital immediately. He and another group got into a three-wheeler belonging to an officer that was parked outside, to take the person hit, whom they were at the time lifting together, to the hospital. They did not expect to be shot at from both sides by the military.
There was light but it was past 6 p.m. It is a problem when prisoners get hands on weapons and this was a problem to us too as we did not know which way this thing would turn. There was a chief jailor called Kudabandara, to whom those in the Prison listened to. He intervened at a time when there were only three or four officers left, as the other officers had left out of fear. He gathered the other officers also and managed to get the prisoners under control. Those who were carrying arms gave them back. Kudabandara also got us to where he was as he suspected that there could be a problem to us in terms of our safety. When things were just about reaching a semblance of normalcy, from outside tear gas and shots were being fired. Again things flared up.
He sent those in the L Hall to cells and shut them in. By this time it was 11 p.m. in the night, when the military started firing again. Again things escalated cyclically. While he was closing things gradually, at 12 midnight the military stormed in. We do not know whether those outside ran, or disappeared or most probably died, but the military came in firing. Lester, a prisoner who was talking in front of Kudabandara got hit and fell down dead. If Lester did not get hit, it would have hit Kudabandara. We who were there, lay down on the floor. The military started shouting. Kudabandara explained that we were the ones who had protected the buildings without allowing any damage to happen to them or allowing them to be broken. We could see what was happening outside and we were later told that prisoners like Kapila, Manjushri (incarcerated on charges of killing two monks with a sword) and Marlon, were brought in. We heard them shout ‘Ammo’. They were assaulted and then taken to the M Ward and shot. There should have been a reason as to why they were killed because in Prison they did nothing. We heard the gunshots. The Y O cell was closed. They opened it and took out Wije Rohana alias Gundu, Susantha and Atapattu. It was an officer called Rangajeewa from the Police Narcotic/s Bureau, wearing civil clothes, decked in a yellowish t-shirt who came with the military, armed with a list of names and a pistol who took them out. We learnt in the aftermath that Rangajeewa had many human rights cases against him, and that the prisoners who were taken were ones who had problems with him. We heard the gunshots. The three of them had been killed. At 4 a.m., I saw Thushara alias Kalu Thushara who was hiding under a desk in the welfare office, which was near where I was. There were several Prison officials including Commissioner General of Prisons, P.W. Kodippili at the time when Rangajeewa came with several Army personnel shouting and asking after Thushara and demanding that he be shown, and that he would kill the officials too otherwise. A Prison official then told that there could be problems to the other officials as well if they did not comply and then he himself proceeded to show Thushara in his hiding place. Rangajeewa grabbed a hold of Thushara like someone who saw something he liked to eat – “Me inne bande”. Thushara was then assaulted. Thushara then shouted, “Mr. Rangajeewa (Rangajeewa mahaththayo), do not kill me.” The military present hit him with the butts of their firearms. We could see through the door, him being dragged on the floor and being shot near the industrial factory building gate. We only saw the light of the gunfire going off. He was shot in the neck below the ear. At 6 a.m., Amila alias Konda Amila with plastic handcuffs was taken in front of us. He was shot. Another was found dead near the Temple Ward and someone inside another ward had also been hit. The Prison was under the military until about 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. This was militarization in action.
The inmates were without water until evening.
Q : What are your thoughts about the atrocity that was committed?
A : This was deadly and shocking. Those in prison have committed wrongs, but the judiciary is there to give them a punishment. Law can be considered to have gone to the dogs, if this process is not followed and people can be killed on the whims and fancies of Rangajeewa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa. This is base, unfair and a violation of fundamental rights and an injustice, the kind of which I have never heard of anywhere else in the world.
We learnt later that there had been an idea floating around to remove the Prison from its location and to sell the land to a multinational. This could have been a conspiracy to show the public that this was an unsafe location and to show as to what ilk the prisoners were of.
We will take all actions possible against those wrongdoers involved in this matter to take them to Courts to be punished.
I was an eyewitness to Kalu Thushara’s murder, so I am willing to give evidence before any Court or commission.
We cannot look away. Immediately when I was released I wanted to do something but there was no conducive environment, as if I had attempted anything, I would have been taken in a white van somewhere and been killed.
Now is the time. I have faith in this Government that they will punish the wrongdoers and that it will not become a mere media spectacle as is also happening now, and we will continue this struggle until justice is done.
We have already filed a case at the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. We filed a case at the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). We will protest. We will inform international human rights organizations.
Although I am one of the only eyewitnesses, we have powerful evidence in our possession.
The leopard may change the forest but not its spots, so it is the same leopards who are still roaming free and therefore there is definitely a threat to my life but we must face such things when fighting for people’s rights.
Q : What about the Committee that was appointed to investigate the matter?
A : This was appointed to sweep the matter under the carpet. We have no faith in it. The new Government has appointed a three member committee, but it is our fight that will make them open their eyes. We are willing to testify before it anytime, provided that they are going to punish the wrongdoers.
The few death certificates that were issued stated that persons had died as a result of fatal gunshot wounds. Most have yet to receive death certificates.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, former Minister of Rehabilitation and Prison Reforms Chandrasiri Gajadeera and Kodippili have to take complete responsibility for this and must be brought to book for this massacre.
When all the Prison officials were against this, Kodippili could have stopped this and protested against the bringing in of firearms into the Prison.
A store which contained prisoners’ belongings including jewellery which are to be handed over to the prisoners upon release had also disappeared and it is the security forces who came from outside that are responsible for this theft.
Other things of value to the Prison too were stolen.
Q : Did Gajadeera talk to you all afterwards?
A : No. He did not come.
On the following day (11 November), Kodippili, the Police and the Army were there inside the Prison.
The bodies were inspected.
We have heard of rackets in Prison but never seen such transactions take place even with the aid of Prison officials, which is the case even outside. We have read in the newspapers that Prison officials have been caught, transferred and imprisoned.
Prisoners are not born criminals. It is social disparities that have led to people ending up in prisons.
Prison officials were harmonious with us.
In the aftermath of the riot, the CID questioned all Prison officials, inmates and prisoners. When I was questioned and when we were asked what happened I told them what I saw. They did not write or note down what we said. They told us to go as what we were telling them was not in favour of their side. We also did not go to talk to the security forces much as there were threats to our lives.
To be continued…..
Part – 1