22nd death anniversary of the Sri Lankan slain Journalist-Richard de Zoysa falls on 18th February
By Leel Pathirana –
The freedom of The Fourth Estate has become a widely spoken issue in the post war Sri Lanka at present. Murder case of Lasantha Wickramatunge the Editor of Sunday Leader moving at a snail’s pace and the authorities have so for failed to find out who’s behind his assassination.
Some media organizations in named 25th of last month as Black January in order to stage protest against series of attacks against media personnel in recent years. Where many prominent media personnel were either murdered, disappeared or attacks against media institutions, say the organizers.
Richard de Zoysa (aged thirty two at the time of death) is the first Sri Lankan Journalist to pay from life for the sake of safeguarding courageous Journalism in Sri Lanka and he became an Icon of the Sri Lankan media industry. Richard was an unbiased Journalist, poet, playwright, actor, author, human rights activist and a broadcaster. He was the youngest to be assigned then as the bureau chief of the IPS (Inter Press Service) newly opened office in Lisbon, just one week before he was killed.
Richard Manik de Zoysa was born in Colombo on 18th March 1958 to a parents belongs to mixed ethnicity. Richard’s farther Lucien de Zoysa comes from the majority Sinhalese and his mother Dr. Manorani Sarawanamuttu comes from minority Tamil population in Sri Lanka. But, both are from the Colombo elite, the well-off westernized English speaking upper class in the post independence (Ceylon) Sri Lanka. Having born to Colombo elite, he could have led an extravagance life, instead he chosen Journalism and Art. Probably, his socialist ideas echoed among the common people and he spoke on their behalf.
I still remember his role as Malin (A radical youth who believe socialism) in the movie Yuganthaya directed by Dr. Lester James Peries. Leading the Laborers strike and discussing them to form laborer union in a tiny room and subsequently fighting for their rights.The role of socialist Malin Kabalana in the movie later closely mirrored de Zoysa’s own beliefs.
In late 1989 and early 1990, then the UNP Government-backed death squads are believed to have murdered tens of thousands of students and other civilians suspected of sympathizing with the JVP. After the top JVP leaders were killed under suspicious circumstances at Operation Combine office cum Torture chamber located at Havelock Road Colombo in November and December 1989, the organization was widely considered crushed. Yet death squad killings of suspected JVP sympathizers continued. In what has become one of the most publicized cases of death squad activity in Sri Lanka in 1990, was Richard. He was the Colombo correspondent of Rome based IPS (Inter-Press Service) an international news agency focused on a Third World issues. Richard’s critics and reporting the human rights violations committed by the Premadasa’s regime became a huge challenge for Ranasinghe Premadasa.
Eeverybody had known Richard since he was the English TV news broadcaster, outstanding journalist with remarkable skills and of course of his charisma being an Actor in Cinema and the TV. But the abductors didn’t know his whereabouts and first, they went to Malwatta Road Rajagiriya where Mr/s. Honters resided. Mrs. Noeline Honter was a colleague of Richard and she was working at Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation and in ITN (Independent Television network) the abductors had asked for Richard’s address. When Mr. Kenneth Honter had told them that he did not know, they had threatened to kill his son pointing a gun at his neck taking him hostage. However by going through the telephone directory they had got the number of Arjuna Ranawana who worked for the Rupavahini (TV) Corporation and calling him they had got the directions to Richard’s place.
Richard lived with his mother in Colombo Welikadawatta and with an associate A.V. Karunarathne. In the midnight of February 17, 1990, an armed group broke into their home, and forcibly removed de Soyza and drove off without explanation while his Mother protested. She got in front of him and hugged him as tight as she could because she knew they were there to take him. They dragged him out of her arms and that was all she saw of her son. They dragged Richard de Soyza down the stairs and took him away in a vehicle.
The police team was led by Inspector Ronnie Gunasinha and at that time he was a senior security officer of the late president Premadasa and reporting him directly. The second accused was ASP Lal Sriyantha Darmasiri Ranchagoda, at then OIC Fort police station, the third accused was OIC Crimes Bodeniya Gamlath Gedara Devasurendra at then slave Island police station and the fourth accused was Sergeant Mahawedikkarage Sarathchandra.
The following day 18th February de Zoysa’s lifeless body washed ashore and at Lunawa Beach Moratuwa, some 12 miles south of Colombo. He was tortured and his body was mutilated, the jaw was broken. He was shot in the head and the throat. The speculation is that his dead body was dropped from a helicopter flying at a certain height with the expectation that the body would sink to the bottom of the sea and never be found. He was killed one week before he leave from Sri Lanka to be at the IPS bureau Chief at Lisbon office.
Richard’s body was denitrified by Taraki. It should worth to have noted that back in 1989, when The Island newspaper needed a political analyst, De Soyza suggested Darmarathnam Sivaram, a Tamil Journalist. The Island editor, Gamini Weerakon, proposed tharaka or star in Sinhalese for Sivaram’s pen name but the sub-editor accidentally printed Taraki instead, giving birth to Sivaram’s nom de plume. Sivaram experienced the same fate on 28th April 2005 and his body was found Colombo with gunshot injuries. He was then the Editor of the Tamilnet, the unofficial web portal of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam).
There was another speculation that De Zoysa had helped produce a satirical play that was
savagely critical of Premadasa, who has been so sensitive to personal criticism. The controversial play was called “who is he and what is he doing?” but the curtain never went up before their debut. Producer called one Lakshman Perera and openly critical of member of Premadasa’s ruling United National Party disappeared and believed to have been murdered.
At the inquest the following day, Dr. Saravanamuttu stated that she could identify two of the abductors. Three months later, she saw the main abductor on television. He was a high-ranking police officer who led the team was Ronnie Gunasinha, she subsequently informed her lawyer who brought it to the notice of both the Magistrate conducting the inquiry into the incident and the police.However, the suspect was not arrested and the lead was ignored. Both Dr. Saravanamuttu and her lawyer, Mr. Batty Weerakoon, subsequently received death threats. Police officers assigned to guard Batty Weerakoon have also received similar threats. Meantime, Government banned the international TIME magazine 23 April 1990 issue which carried out an investigative article about Richard. Imported copies of the Magazine were seized at the custom itself.
Giving evidence to the police A.V. Karunaratne who was then living in Richard’s house as an associate said that they dragged Richard de Soysa and forced him in to a vehicle parked outside. He further added that 17th July 1989 he got married to an aide working in Dr. Manori Saravanamuttu’s former residence located at Col. Jayawardene Mawatha, Colpetty. After marriage the couple had lived at Mahindarama Road, Etul Kotte.
Later Dr. Saravanamuttu had moved her residence to Welikadawatte Road, Rajagiriya. This had been a two storey house belonging to a person named Ellepola who occupied the down storey while Dr. Saravanamuttu and her son had lived upstairs. After getting married I started working at Inter-Press Service as a mail distributor in the latter part of 1989. Then my wife and I went to live at Dr. Saravanamuttu’s residence in Welikadawatta Rajagiriya. It was a three bed roomed house. myself and my wife occupied one room while Dr. Saravanamuttu and Richard de Soyza occupied the other two. This residence had two gates and the light in the living room and the porch were left switched-on in the night out of habit.
On the night of the 17th of February 1990 I went to sleep around 10.00 p.m. Dr. Saravanamuttu was at home then but Richard wasn’t. Somewhere between 2.00 and 3.00 a.m. that night I heard the bell ring. I looked out of the window in my bedroom and saw some people near the gate. One person was dressed in police uniform and the others in civilian clothes. I asked through the grill in the living room who they were. The man dressed in police uniform said that they were from the police and that they wanted to search the house. By then Dr. Saravanamuttu had also come in to the living room. I knew that Richard de Soysa had come home because I could see his motor bike parked outside.
When Dr. Saravanamuttu asked for their identity cards they said that they were from the police and therefore did not need any. They also said that they had searched other houses nearby. One amongst them threatened to shoot if we didn’t open the door. I went inside to tie the dog. By the time I returned Dr. Saravanamuttu had opened the door.
They came up to the staircase, by now the lights in the bedrooms, the living room and outside were switched on. The person dressed in uniform remained near the door while the others came inside. One wore shorts with a light blue colored T-shirt and part of his face was covered by a cap. The others wore black or grey trousers with T-shirts. All of them had weapons. They remained in the house for about half an hour during which time they searched our bed-rooms. First, ours and then Dr. Saravanamuttu’s and last Richard de Soysa’s who had been asleep all this time.
When they were going in to Mr. de Soysa’s room I tried to follow them but one of them thrust a gun at me and stopped me. They asked Dr. Saravanamuttu who he was she told them that it was her son Richard. They woke him up and bought him to the living room he was wearing only a sarong and a pair of spectacles.
One of the men said we need to speak to you about a certain matter let’s go downstairs. Dr. Saravanamuttu said that there was no need to go down stairs and to speak matters there itself. Mr. de Soysa too refused to go down stairs. The second accused then went downstairs and commanded the others to bring Mr. de Soyza down. The others tried to drag him down the stairs but he held on to the banister. At one point he pulled up his sarong in a move to kick them but they dragged him downstairs and then on to the road. I followed them to the gate and heard a vehicle start it’s engine. A dark green Mitsubishi Pajero jeep (plate number 32 sri 4748) stopped about 5 feet from the gate. Richard de Soysa was pushed in to the back seat of the vehicle by force and the others got in with him. I saw the number plate of the vehicle and noted it down on my palm.
Dr.Saravanamuttu went downstairs and informed the people there and also Waruna Karunatilleka and Arjuna Ranawaka. Two or three hours later she made a complaint to the Welikada police with the number plate of the vehicle and the witness told the court that he recognized the three accused as those present amongst the abductors on that night.
Arjuna Ranawana, came to know that Richard had been abducted and murdered through the newspapers. Later he had given a statement to the CID and he was shown some photographs of police officers during his evidence before the Colombo High Court.
A.V. Karunaratne, a person who lived with de Soyza told Colombo High Court that he can denitrify those accused at the court hearing. The witness Kenneth Arthur Honter identified the photograph of the second accused, former Crime OIC attached to Slave Island Police station, B. G.G. Devasurendra as the one who had entered his house in the middle of the night with a gang of armed policemen and had asked for Richard De Soyza’s whereabouts with a gun pointed at his child.
Reserved police constable who had worked at Slave Island Police station during the period of Richard’s murder also gave evidence. RPC M. A. M. Ananda Gunasiri giving evidence said that former OIC Crimes of Slave Island police station B. G.G. Devasurendra clad in a white short and black colored jacket and a cap came to the police station late at night on the day before the murder of Richard De Soyza. The witness said that he was on night duty on 17th February 1990 and after mid-night he came out of the police station as he felt sleepy. While he was waiting outside, two jeeps had entered the premises of the police station and a group of men had got down from one. The RPC said that he recognized someone resembling, the accused B.G.G. Devasurendra who was then OIC Crimes at the slave Island police station. The witness said though he had not worked under the accused he had seen him regularly coming to the police station in the said dress he was wearing on the said night.
Witness, Sub Inspector H. W. Sumathipala who was attached to the Fort Police station gave evidence before the Colombo High Court. The witness was attached to the Fort police station and was on night duty on 17th February 1990, and had met the first accused, ASP, Dharmasiri Ranchagoda who was then OIC Fort police station. Sub Inspector H.W. Sumathipala stated that he was on duty at the entrance to the Police Commissioner’s Department at the Police Headquarters and at 2 am on February 18, 1990 the accused had come in a jeep there and had signed in his (witness) pocket note book (PNB). The book was later taken into custody by the CID and was produced before the court. The witness denitrified the signature.
Dr.Manorani Saravanamuttu will be remembered as one who symbolized the mothers of the disappeared who rallied to demand justice. She saw her son’s death as part of a wider phenomenon: the collapse of the Sri Lankan society then, rule of law and morality. Though by family and by profession she was a medical doctor belonging to the elite of the country, as a mother Manorani transcended the class barrier at the moment she lost a son. During the last 11 years of her life she played a very strong part in raising fundamental issues regarding the Sri Lankan society which will remain valid until these problems are finally resolved. In the days of intense terror she courageously and fearlessly worked throughout the country, in solidarity with tens of thousands of mothers who lost children in similar circumstances to her. She became a powerful spokesperson. The following are her words:
“Whether they know why they are doing it, I do not know. Whether they have been told today is the night for so and so. They probably do not question why we are doing this. What has this fellow done to us that we should go and take him, and kill him. That I do not know. But they come. They come with their eyes that are empty of everything. They come with their guns. They come with their assurance that they will not fail in their missions.
They come and knock at doors. Ring bells and they look at you, and frighten you, and threaten you….. If I had thought for one moment that they had come to take my son I would have died there at the door…..It’s the women who bear the brunt, and its the women who are the strong ones, because, when you lose a child you lose yourself ”
It is the most devastating experience to have a child pulled out of your arms. My boy ‘disappeared’ and 48 hours later his mutilated body was found. Since then I have received numerous threats, anonymous letters, telephone terror and I am also certain that my telephone is tapped. I want to pursue my son’s case. Many friends and colleagues have asked me to stop: “the one who seeks the battle should not complain about the wounds”. But I know there are tens of thousands of relatives who have been affected by the violence. I will never advise the women I work with to forget, I will tell them that they must speak.
Not unexpectedly, a court-ordered investigation by the police into the charges against their colleagues made little headway. At a hearing before the court representatives of Attorney General Mr.Sunil De Silva reported that there was insufficient evidence against Gunasinghe to proceed against him. Gunasinghe remains active on duty. Her lawyer, Mr. Batty Weerakoon, charged that police have done nothing to trace them.” They just want to cover this whole thing up,” Weerakoon said. “It’s right from the top. Attempts to press for an independent inquiry into the De Soyza abduction and murder had been unsuccessful. The police officers identified by Dr. Saravanamuttu have brought a defamation suit against her.
De Soyza’s case went up to 16 years numerous hearings and was handled by several judges. The judiciary proceedings were very weak to persecute the culprits despite the eyewitness accounts. Dr. Saravanamuttu, who was more popularly known as Richard De Soyza’s mother (fondly known as ‘Babia Mami’ to some of her close families) was not lucky enough to live and she passed away on 14th February 2001.
In 2005, Assistant Superintendent of Police Lal Priyantha Darmasiri Ranchagoda, Officer in Charge Bodeniya Gamlath Gedara Devasurendra and Sergeant Mahawedikkarage Sarathchandra were indicted for de Zoysa’s murder. They were acquitted of all charges on November 9, 2005 by Colombo High Court Judge Rohini Perera; she stated that the evidence presented by the prosecution was “contradictory and not credible”.
But the top two people who were accountable of Richard’s murder, Ronnie Gunasinha senior security officer of the late president Premadasa were among those who died in the explosion that killed the President on 01st of May 1993 and some saw this as a divine justice!
Writer request from the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka, to set up an Award titled- Richard de Zoysa award for courageous Journalism from this year onwards, to honor Richard.
Responding to the above article Arjuna Ranawana says “there is a telling innaccuracy in the article”. Arjusna’s response related to the following part of the article; “Eeverybody had known Richard since he was the English TV news broadcaster, outstanding journalist with remarkable skills and of course of his charisma being an Actor in Cinema and the TV. But the abductors didn’t know his whereabouts and first, they went to Malwatta Road Rajagiriya where Mr/s. Honters resided. Mrs. Noeline Honter was a colleague of Richard and she was working at Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation and in ITN (Independent Television network) the abductors had asked for Richard’s address. When Mr. Kenneth Honter had told them that he did not know, they had threatened to kill his son pointing a gun at his neck taking him hostage. However by going through the telephone directory they had got the number of Arjuna Ranawana who worked for the Rupavahini (TV) Corporation and calling him they had got the directions to Richard’s place.”
Article regarding Richard de Zoysa by Leel Pathirana
Let me congratulate you and also express my gratitude for remembering Richard on his death anniversary. It is so important to remind Sri Lankans of the impunity with which those in authority take the lives of citizens.
Also many thanks for reminding everyone that Richard’s killers are roaming free.
However there is a telling innaccuracy in the article that I feel compelled to address.
It was Kenneth Honter who called me and asked me for Richard’s address. It was not his killers. I actually did not know the address and only gave Kenneth directions. That is why the death squad mistakenly woke up the neighbors.
After Richard’s death I gave a voluntary statement to the Welikada Police, which appears not to have been recorded. Several years later on a visit to Sri Lanka I was asked to present myself to the CID where I was questioned for 8 hours. However I never was asked to appear at the murder trial and therefore never gave evidence.
Please be good enough to publish this correction at your earliest.