25 September, 2022


Prison Massacre And The Alitalia Hijacker Sepala Ekanayake

By Rajan Hoole –

Rajan Hoole

Sri Lanka’s Black July – Part 28

He has been identified as an assassin in the second massacre by some of the surviving Tamil detainees and was the leading attacker to enter the Youthful Offenders Building. Independently, Major Sunil Peiris who led the rescue team confronted him carrying an object in his hand, and apparently thinking that the commandos had come to admire their work, told Peiris, “Sir, how is this job?” Repelled by what he saw, the officer delivered a blow while passing Ekanayake, which found him flat on the ground. The object concerned was a human head, about which more will be said below.

The prison authorities had later identified him as one of those involved, and all those so identified were transferred to Mahara prison. On the other hand, Suriya Wickremasinghe had found some other Tamil survivors disbelieving Ekanayake’s role. Their experience of him in the Chapel Section was quite different. In a sign of goodwill, he used to greet them with “Vanakkam” (“Greetings”) in Tamil and had words of solidarity for their cause. In turn they used to greet him with “Ayubowan” in Sinhalese. Those who had not actually seen him in action on the 27th found it difficult to shake off their earlier impression.

Ekanayake, this country’s only hijacker so far, had made legal history. The saga had started apparently with the Italian embassy in Colombo refusing him a visa to join his Italian wife Anna and little son Free. According to him, he first warned the Italian Ambassador in Colombo that he would take drastic steps. He then went to New Delhi, boarded an Alitalia flight to Bangkok on 29th June 1982, and informed the crew and passengers that he would blow up the plane with the explosives said to be on his person if his demands were not complied with. These were that his wife and son should be brought to him, that he should be paid USD 300,000 in cash (as compensation according to him for what the Italian embassy did) and that he should be given a pledge to be left untroubled. He returned to Colombo on an Air Lanka flight with USD 300,000 in cash, his wife and child, and a promise from the Sri Lankan Ambassador in Bangkok that no action would be taken against him.

He arrived in style and booked into Hotel Intercontinental, Colombo, but the management asked him to move out when foreign customers objected to the hijacker. He deposited USD 299,700 in the Bank of Ceylon on 3rd July after which he was arrested by the Police on the Italian Ambassador’s complaint that he was in possession of stolen money. In the meantime, the local press had been eagerly reporting Ekanayake’s own version. This was that he had got his own back on the emissary of a powerful Western nation, who had tried to separate him from his wife and child, thus giving him little choice. He repeatedly asked, “What wrong have I done?” This made him something of a folk hero.

Understandably, pressure mounted on the Government. The International Federation of Pilots Associations for example, threatened to boycott Sri Lanka unless the hijacker was arrested and punished and the money returned. Sri Lanka had no law against hijacking. This was the first case in Sri Lanka where legal proceedings were, for the lack of local laws, resorted to on the basis of international law. A pronouncement was made that skyjacking an aircraft was an international crime and was an offence under international customary law. In preference to extraditing a local hero for trial in Italy, Parliament on 26th July 1982 passed a law making skyjacking an offence with retroactive effect. This was made possible by an ambiguity in Fundamental Rights legislation. The article concerned on FR was qualified by: “Nothing in this article shall prejudice the trial or punishment of a person for any act or omission which at the time it was committed was criminal according to the general principles of law recommended by the community of nations”.

Ekanayake’s trial commenced on 30th June 1983 in the Colombo High Court. He was given a simple life sentence for hijacking and 3 years RI for the possession of stolen money. The money was returned to Alitalia by court order. This verdict was contested in the Appeal Court by Dr.Colvin R. de Silva. Dr. de Silva argued that Ekanayake was being tried for something that was not an offence at the time it was committed. The Appeal Court however held that by having pleaded not guilty to the charges, Ekanayake had submitted himself to judicial examination. But the Court reduced the life sentence for hijacking to 3 years RI and that for the possession of stolen money to 2 years RI on the grounds that the prosecution had not proven the charge of his having possessed explosives during the hijack. The two sentences were to run concurrently. Dr. Colvin R. de Silva contested the matter further in the Supreme Court on the grounds that Alitalia was not a registered company in Sri Lanka. Ekanayake’s prison term was to end on 14th December 1989, but he was released on licence nearly 9 months earlier from Mahara prison on 22nd March 1989. Evidently his involvement in the prison massacre had no effect on his release. On his release, he got good mileage out of the Press as a seven-day wonder.

At one level, this native of Matara was naive. He grossly underestimated the gravity of skyjacking and the reaction to it. But he had a shrewd knack for winning public sympathy for himself. As a commentary in the state media put it then, he “played no mean role in attempting to fashion public opinion in favour of a hijacker”. His whole approach to the hijack drama, coming home with the money, checking into Hotel Intercontinental and thinking that he could live it up instead of having quickly gone underground, shows that he thought it was so simple and easy. In prison, he had become a dramatist. He understood the public appeal of soap opera and was the type who could not resist playing the hero when it appeared simple and easy. As much as the Press adulated him, senior prison officials were not impressed. He was thought of as a ‘schemer’. With this background in mind, we try below to reconstruct the background to the 2nd prison massacre.

The Massacre of 27th July

Sepala Ekanayake and his mates in Chapel A3 had a good view of the massacre of the 25th from the passage or at least came to know in fair detail what happened during and after the massacre in the afternoon. The army personnel watched approvingly and went off, the prison staff did ‘nothing constructive’ and some of them even killed off the injured and the Magistrate, the AG’s department and the Police came and covered it up. If they did not know already, they would have easily found out who were the prison officers behind it. From what they knew of what was going on in the country, killing Tamils was the easy way to hero status. It was too simple and easy, the very thing after Ekanayake’s own heart. From what we know, those in A3 probably remained locked up in the wing during the first massacre, and having seen everything, were itching to go. It was easily arranged.

On the 27th, the SP, two ASPs and two jailors who had been active in trying to curb the violence on the 25th seemed to be absent. The Chief Jailor who was left in charge seems to have been scared, willing or incompetent.

Even after reports of a possible attack, the most dangerous criminals in A3 were left in the passage even while the door was opened for serving food. Meanwhile the Tamil suspects were locked up in their cells at the YOB despite their having notified the authorities of the enhanced danger from being looked up, and all the keys were left with a guard outside. The easy access the attackers had to weapons was brushed off at the inquest after mentioning some broken locks and cupboard doors. These weapons were not used in the first attack, and these weapons from the woodshed seem to have been taken possession of in a very short time, even while apparently armed guards were about the place.

Now the object which Ekanayake was seen carrying by Major Peiris – ‘like the head of John the Baptist in a charger’ as described by him. This particular phenomenon has not been corroborated by prison officials and does not appear to have figured in post mortem reports. But then, even to this day, prison officials are very guarded in what they have to say about those events. What then happened is the sort of thing they do not want to remember. During the earlier inquest, a fuss had arisen over the photographing of the corpses. But on the other hand, Major Peiris had nothing to hide about his own actions during that period. On this occasion the Tamil survivors were unreserved in their praise for his action. Throughout his career in the Army, journalists who had dealt with him, have been impressed by his professionalism and directness and are willing to back what he says.

Take Ekanayake on the other hand, a man wanting to be a popular hero. If he had made his way out with something in his hand to flaunt before what he expected would be a cheering crowd, what else could it be? Seeing that in view of resistance from the Tamils the job was not plain sailing, Ekanayake, who was the first to enter the YOB had contented himself coming out with what he needed for his melodrama. The fact that his name had not transpired at the inquest after his uninhibited performance, tells us much about the state of things. We will not speculate further on this point. But we had pointed to the possibility that one or more of the attackers too may have died. Could this explain why the headless corpse was apparently not among those sent for post-mortem?

To be continued..

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

Part fourteen –  Circumstances Leading To The Magistrate’s Inquest

Part fifteen – Welikade Prison: The Second Massacre: 27th July 1983

Part sixteen – Welikade Prison Massacres: Chief Jailor Observed Army Commandos Coming In

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 – Events Of 24th July – The Eve Of The Holocaust: Who Wanted A Military Funeral?

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

Part twenty five – Black July: Ranil Wickremesinghe, Gonalwela Sunil And The Kelaniya University

Part twenty six – Black July: Army Hathurusinghe Prevented Police From Assisting Prison Victims Under Attack

Part twenty seven – Black July: Justice Of Peace Gonawela Sunil And The Killings In Prison

*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

    Major Peiris was heck of an officer. His brother is Eksath Peiris, an Airforce Officer who died in a Para Jump Demonstration exercise. His father was the Principle of either Thurstan or Issipathana. If I may recall, then Lt. Col Peiris and his unit were kept standby to pounce on VP as the Army had cornered his group in the North. Alas, Indian intervention stooped this plan.
    He would make an Ideal Defense Secretary.

  • 2

    sickeing to say the least, as a young man i witnessed the horrendous crimes committed against tamils and how racist was the southern regime and how brutal sinhala Buddhist were. Regarding Sapala he is a crook and deserved punishment, he still cheats people by reading palms!

  • 1

    Dear Professor Hoole,

    I have seen your writing many times. Here in this article, you are describing about some incidents and one signle alleged or convicted criminal. But I have not seen that you are writing against many alleged criminals, profesisonals and professors who live in western countries like USA, Enland and Australia who still support the LTTE. The LTTE killed many thousand innecent civilions than this uneducated convicted criminal. Is this story important to Sri Lankan citizens?

    Sunil Dahanayake.

    • 1

      Sunil, You ask is this important to Sri Lankan citizens. Yes it is and please let Rajan continue. He has taken the trouble to put together FACTS on the 83 riots and it is necessary that all citizens particularly the younger generation read it because the Govt of the day took great pains to cover it up and consequently set the stage for what came later. The LTTE crimes have received and still receive, quite rightly wide publicity and that is bound to continue for a long time.

    • 1


      What is your point mate. LTTE was your creation and no one denies that there were no excesses but that was nothing compared to what you did to Tamils which we will forget. It was a Freedom Struggle and fight for survival so stop this rubbish.
      Since independence you ruled the country controlled the army , navy, police and the air force.
      But what you couldn’t control was your racist attitude and that is why are parting company.

  • 0


  • 0

    [Edited out] In this case the truth is when Sepala Rkanayaka tried his best to protect tamil prisoners other aggressive prisoner and officers pushed him and he has fallen.He has shouted not to beat or do any harm to them because in the prison all ate prisonrrs not sny other else.This was the truth and this is the truth.To get rid of this insident at that time Sepala was popular as a hijacker so they spreaded this like this to escape.

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