Colombo Telegraph

Police Under CBK: The Ponnambalam Murder

By Rajan Hoole

Dr. Rajan Hoole

Law Enforcement and the Security Services: Politicisation and Demoralisation – 7

Under the PA, as during the preceding UNP era, there is well-founded suspicion of Police connivance in attacks on individuals and even killings. We have mentioned allegations against a section of the PSD. The EPDP’s deputy leader N. Ramesh was murdered on 2nd November 1999. His recent writings that were widely read promoted the LTTE, and it was well known that the EPDP leader was finding him a thorn in the flesh. He was gunned down in broad daylight by assassins with automatics, in a well-policed Colombo suburb. There seems to be a lack of interest in finding the killers who could act with such brazen impunity within the City. This furthered suspicion of state-complicity when Tamil Congress leader Kumar Ponnambalam was murdered by a gunman in the same Wellawatte area during the morning of 5th January 2000.

The complicating factor is that the key figure ‘Shantha’ who was instrumental in the murder had been planted on Ponnambalam some months in advance and had been communicating with him. On the fatal morning, Ponnambalam went out alone with him on his request at very short notice, after deciding to spend the day at home. This incautious behaviour is inexplicable in an experienced criminal lawyer. The dealings of Ponnambalam with ‘Shantha’ remain a mystery and were not those of a lawyer with his client.

Kumar Ponnambalam

Whatever the truth behind Ponnambalam’s murder, it has become more embarrassing for the Government after the manner in which the Police handled the investigation. For a start, the Police kept on giving theories that the murder was an LTTE job. These received publicity in the government media. There were also some contrary indications, such as a reported pick-up vehicle for the assassin having tinted glasses, thus pointing to some influential connection. Victor Ivan, the editor of the Ravaya, said that they had reported a tip-off from a police investigator that they had identified the killer as Moratu Saman, an underworld figure. Later, upon hearing that Saman was in police custody, Ivan telephoned SSP Bandula Wickremasinghe, director CDB, and told him about his paper’s reference to Saman. Ivan added that Wickremasinghe angrily dismissed his allegation.

Thereafter, in a sudden change of line, SSP Wickremasinghe, who was in charge of the investigation, claimed revelations from one Ranasinghe in a dramatic telephone call to the Police on 14.6.2000. The Police picked up another underworld figure Ajith and Ranasinghe surrendered. The Police then treated the media to supposed confessions from these underworld figures, claiming both the Rohana Kumara (editor of Satana) and Ponnambalam murders to be contract jobs for a private party or an obscure patriotic group. The Ravaya visited Saman in remand prison and reported him telling them that he killed Ponnambalam, but not Kumara, and claimed that the latter’s murder had been ordered by a powerful figure.

An intriguing factor is that Ponnambalam’s relations with the LTTE had latterly become tense. The previous June, lawyers in Jaffna were feeling vulnerable over representing the disappeared victims’ families at the internationally supervised excavations at Chemmani. Through an intermediary, they sounded the LTTE on getting Kumar Ponnambalam down from Colombo to represent them. The LTTE firmly vetoed it. Just before the December 1999 presidential election, Ponnambalam was having consultations with several Tamil parties to stand as a common Tamil candidate and make a point. He suddenly went silent and hinted privately that the ‘big fellows’ had vetoed it. The speculation that ‘Shantha’ was an LTTE contact fittedneatly, and putting all this together, there was a firm belief in Jaffna that the LTTE had killed Ponnambalam.

However, some basic considerations militated against this. Ponnambalam had spoken on LTTE platforms in Europe and there was a high likelihood that the State watched him and tapped his telephone. But ‘Shantha’ had been visiting him and speaking to him on the telephone. Moreover, he had gone to Ponnambalam’s house on the fatal morning just after a suicide bomb explosion near the Prime Minister’s office, when there was a security alert. Further, the following versions of the murder come from disparate sources in Colombo.

The editor of a popular weekly is clear that a prominent minister was behind the murder, and identifies ‘Shantha’ as an underworld figure connected to the minister. He is confident that his sources are very good. A foreign correspondent said that a top Government figure told him that the murder was ordered by someone in the Government as reprisal for the LTTE’s attempt on President Kumaratunga some days earlier. A senior journalist in the company of leading Tamil businessmen heard them talk of it being well known that the son of a leading minister used underworld contacts to commit the murder. A trishaw driver in Nawala passed on to a customer underworld gossip of a minister using his contacts for the murder. A senior gazetted police officer who kept his ears open, said after some time that he believed the Police to have had a hand in the murder. One could go on. One may dismiss these as rumours, but if so they are not rumours orchestrated from one or two sources. Where someone high has been pointed to, it is the same person. Those who have pointed to the LTTE have no more than surmise.

A further problem in the Ponnambalam affair is that while the confessed killer Moratu Saman has languished in prison for more than 6 months, without any legal proceedings against him, Mr. Ponnambalam’s party, the Tamil Congress, has also been silent. If the Government was suppressing the investigation, the Party, with its experienced lawyers and parliamentary representation has not made a noise. Nor, as far as we know, have human rights groups with a worldwide coverage been told by his party that they are under threat. It is for the Government to clear itself, and if it has the killers in custody, it has the means to do so.

In so far as there was a Tamil public figure living in this country, it was Kumar Ponnambalam. Even if some of his late public statements were abrasive and unfair, including the letter written to the President a few days before he was killed, it was how many Tamils in Colombo felt. That deserved a political response. As long as the belief that the Government killed Kumar persists, without an attempt by the Government to address it, it will continue to face a debilitating problem of credibility. In a police investigation of such urgent public interest, the Deputy Minister of Defence, who is in charge of the Police, should have made a statement in Parliament a long time ago. More so while having in custody a man admitting to the murder, who has neither been charged nor released.

Although one may have an opinion, it is becoming harder to make a sharp qualitative comparison between the PA era and the preceding UNP era. Unlike after the murders of Anada Sunil and de Zoysa, the Press may feel freer to write about political murder under the PA. One might also feel much safer to be stridently anti-government under the PA and point to the number of journals attacking the President. These assessments however are subjective. Perhaps Kumar Ponnambalam and Rohana Kumara too felt that way and failed to ask where the line was. One might also like to feel that President Kumaratunge is not responsible for miscarriages of the law, but it is rather some members of her circle taking personal advantage or acting out of mistaken zeal. But that too does not help. The President is the source of authority. She is answerable for police investigations being systematically miscarried. Only she can clear the mess and the reputation of her government. The resulting atmosphere and the desultory polemics it engendered, told badly on the morale of the security services by early 2000. Cynicism of a similar kind crippled the security services during the Premadasa era.

As long as there is an arm of the State that could resort to extra-legal action with impunity, the worst could yet happen again. It is in the interest of every government and the public alike to ensure that the integrity and impartiality of the Police are placed above board.

*To be continued.. Next week – Political Patronage of Criminals and Police Dilemmas

*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here

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