“Governments need to have both shepherds and butchers” ~ Voltaire
36th anniversary has just passed by. The prison carnage was a bloody chapter necessarily complementing the horrors of ‘Black July’ narrative. Sadly, ‘1983 Welikada Massacre’ featuring the butchery of Tamil prisoners has sunk into oblivion. In ethno-political discourses, the prison riots of 2012 have supplanted the 1983 massacre.
I was associated as a Junior, with Senior lawyer Mr.M. Sivasithamparam (Siva), representing a number of these prisoners in Colombo High Court cases, filed under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Of course, their dreams and sacrifices merit more than just sharing mournful memories. I have, per force, revisited herein some of my experiences as I had recounted previously in the Colombo Telegraph columns, touching on Welikada killings.
25th & 27th July 1983
In all, 53 Tamil prisoners were massacred, back to back, on both days. Out of the 73 Tamil political prisoners held at Welikade, only 20 survived. It was a joint venture planned and executed by Sinhala prison officers and hardcore criminals/convicts with the support of security forces. Before being shifted to Welikada jail, all of them were detained at Panagoda Army Camp under the PTA. Armed with the pernicious provisions of the PTA, army/police officers had routinely subjected Tamil detainees to severe torture and degrading treatment, for two reasons: – to extract self-incriminating “confessions” and to derive sadistic pleasure.
Mr. S.A. David was one of the survivors of the Welikada Massacre. He and Dr. Rajasunderam were leading figures in Gandhiyam movement. David was an Architect by profession, qualified from Melbourne University and had served in Sri Lanka, Australia, UK, Nigeria and Kenya. ( He died in Oct. 2015, at 91 years). Dr. Rajasunderam was killed in the Welikada massacre.
Mr. David’s “Detention, Torture and Murder”, published in Nov. 1983, (reproduced in JDS –Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka Report, 25 July 2013) would give glimpses of the maltreatment he and other detainees at Panagoda camp had endured. ( A few excerpts, for illustration) :
“After Dr. Rajasunderam was brought to the Panagoda camp, the attack on the Tamil detainees became very frequent and more vicious. Almost every other day and whenever he was in the mood, Commander Udugampola would come drunk with a glass of arrack in his hand and open the cells, strip the detenus and assault and kick and curse them. I could hear cries of pain and groans throughout the nights and early mornings and see naked colleagues hanging head down from high window bars. I saw naked detenus being chased around the courtyard and being assaulted and kicked by six to eight soldiers with PVC pipes and iron rods in their hands.”
“One day Commander Udugampola came drunk and opened my cell, ordered me to strip and lie face down on a concrete bench. He ordered three soldiers to trample my back and legs and hit me on my buttocks. They left me exhausted on the bench.”
“In comparison to the torture meted out to the other detenus I must admit I was mildly treated. Dr. Rajasunderam was severely attacked, his left arm dislocated, his ear drums broken and left on several occasions unconscious on the floor……..One day Dr. Rajasunderam was ordered to walk on all fours hands and legs and bark like a dog…….”.
Datainees beaten to death
“I heard from other colleagues, later at Welikade where I got a chance to talk to others, the detenus had been beaten to death at Kurunagar and Elephant Pass camps. Bottles, iron rods and sticks have been driven into rectums, chilli powder smeared and smoke forced through nostrils and mouth, beaten with iron bars and iron pipes till bleeding, cut with broken bottles, beaten and kicked unconscious, starved for days, forced to eat food with excess salt and kept chained to wall with hands raised for months continuously. Some were in detention for over two hand a half years and undergone torture all these years.”
During the months leading to July 1983, I had appeared for Kathiravelu Devanandan and his two brothers in the Fort-Joint Magistrate Court. Devanandan was none other than the EPDP leader Douglas Devananda M.P. He was later detained at Panagoda camp. I learnt from other clients how he was treated at Panagoda: Stripped naked, he was surrounded by a dozen army men and was brutally beaten up with rifle butts and clubs – kicked about, trampled under their boots and was left battered and bleeding. In army parlance, they called it “softening up” a new arrival.
It was incongruous that Douglas later became a partner of the racist regimes. Verily, he had valid reasons to be hostile towards LTTE . In their abortive attempts to eliminate Douglas, LTTE had even killed his brother. But then, I just could not come to terms with Douglas’ politics.
Last visit to Welikada
On Saturday, 16 July 1983 morning I visited prisoners Thangathurai, Kuttimany and Jegan at Welikada prison. While leaving them, I promised to see them again the week after next. But, that was not to be.
On Saturday, 23 July 1983, I was in Mannar to attend the TULF party Annual Convention. I was a Politburo member. The 1st day sessions were over and 2nd day sessions were scheduled for Sunday 24th. MPs A.Amirthalingam, M.Sivasithamparam (Siva), V.Yogeswaran, R. Sampanthan, Neelan Tiruchelvam and I were staying at Mannar Rest House. In the early hours of 24th, Jaffna MP Yogeswaran’s wife called to convey a grim message – that a barrage of explosions were heard the previous night and that army was running amok on a shooting spree, killing civilians at sight. Follow-up calls from different sources, informed us that attacks on Tamil targets were spreading out. Due to menacing military movements we were compelled to cancel the Sunday sessions. (By the way, on 25 July 1983 Siva’s house at Colombo-Norris Canal Road was looted and razed to the ground , and my house at Cotta Road, Borella was attacked by a mob led by a saffron-robed monk.).
Lawyer Manouri calls
On 26 July morning some of us met at Mannar MP P. Soosaithasan’s residence. There was a call to Siva from lawyer Manouri Muttetuwegama (Communist M.P. Sarath’s wife and Dr.Colvin’s daughter). She informed Siva that some of his clients in Welikada jail had been killed, the previous day. She could not give details. Siva telephoned Acting Commissioner of Prisons Mr. Jansz who confirmed that there was “some bad news”, but politely declined to give details. Mr. Amirthalingam, who arrived there a bit later, telephoned President Jayawardene. JR confirmed that some Tamil prisoners were killed and added that the names would be broadcast over the radio that night.
As menacing army movements intensified, we moved out to the house of a party stalwart, V. Kayilayapillai in Iluppakadavai village. It was a spartan house. There was no electricity. In the evening we all gathered in the frontyard, with a battery-operated radio, anxiously awaiting the broadcast. At 9.00 pm, names of 35 victims, including Kuttimany, Thangathurai and Jegan were announced. Government tried to make out it was a prison riot. Slaughter of further 18 prisoners on 27 July 1983 said it loud and clear that it was a pre-planned operation, orchestrated by Sinhala officers with official blessings.
They had served alcohol to hardcore criminals in the jail, armed them with machetes, kitchen knives, clubs etc, opened the cells for them and set them upon the Tamil prisoners. In the two days of gory attacks, 53 Tamil prisoners were butchered to death and their bodies were piled up in front of a Buddha statue within the prison complex, maybe, as an offering to Lord Buddha. Army personnel on guard outside the jail had rushed to the spot; but continued to watch the “fun”. Evidence revealed that some of the critically-injured victims were still alive, moaning and groaning, while being thrown into a truck, but were hacked down and killed.
“Massacre upon massacre”
Coumnist Firoze Sameer’s write-up on Welikada carnage (“That Massacre Upon Massacre”, Sunday Times -27 July 2008 ), had laid bare the odious role of some officials in the massacre. (Excerpts):
“Jailor Rogers Jayasekere, President JR Jayewardene’s supporter in Kelaniya, allegedly played from behind the scenes while the killings were in progress, while jailor Samitharatne alias Samitha Rathgama and location officer Palitha’s roles were apparently tenuous on that fateful day.”
“Lieut. Hathurusinghe would not allow the truck containing 35 bodies to leave the prison precincts for the Accident Service until he received approval from the top. Over the telephone, the major in charge of the unit told him that “permission for such removal would have to be granted by the secretary to the Ministry of Defence”, who was Col. C. A. Dharmapala, who was present at the Security Council meeting at Army Headquarters, chaired by President JR Jayewardene.”
“Suriya Wickremasinghe, civil rights activist ( CP Leader Dr. S. A. Wickremasinghe’s daughter), notes: “… We know from eyewitnesses…… that the bodies were attacked again on the floor of the lobby to make sure they were dead. They were dragged into the compound and attacked there. They were thrown into the truck, and according to some eyewitness accounts, the sound of bodies being attacked even inside the truck could be heard. Indeed, according to one of our witnesses, one young prisoner (Kanapathipillai Mylvaganam, 19 years) who had succeeded in hiding, was actually killed in the compound by a jailor.”
“Suriya Wickremasinghe noted that not a single prison officer was able to identify a single rioter, and that an identification parade was never held following both prison massacres.”
Call from ‘India House’
At Iluppakadavai, a messenger from the local sub-post office showed up late in the night with an urgent message for Mr. Amirthalingam: There was an important telephone call waiting for him.Taking care not to alert the restive army, we avoided using the vehicle headlights and instead using a torch light, gingerly proceeded to the post office. The call was from ‘India House’(High Commissioner’s residence) in Colombo. The caller at the other end was Indian Foreign Minister Mr. Narasimha Rao. Mr. Rao wanted Amirthalingam to travel to India early for “consultation”. Evidently, feelings were running high in Tamil Nadu and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had responded. It was a watershed moment – that presaged the 30-year war.
Mr. Amirthalingam arrived in India in the 1st week of August 1983. As arranged, I left for India before he did. In Colombo, my good friend Vasantha Obeyesekere (the film director, who is no more) helped me at a moment of adversity and despair. On my way to Katunayake airport, I passed by the skeletal remains of burnt out houses, business places and charred remains of hundreds of vehicles strewn all over. Mercifully, I did not come across any human remains. Probably, they were already removed. Nonetheless, the cruel scenes, conjured up images of brutal attacks on hundreds of Tamils who were hacked to death or burnt alive.
During a visit to London in July 1984, I called at Amnesty International (AI) Office and requested them to press for an independent inquiry into the Welikada Massacre. AI officials showed me a file with repeated requests addressed to President J.R. urging for a probe. AI did not receive even an acknowledgment from the President’s Office.
As regards 2012 Welikada prison riots, which erupted following a STF search for illegal arms, drugs, cellphones etc., there was an organized campaign and media outcry demanding justice for the victims – 27 prisoners killed and others injured on either side. Pursuant thereto, big guns were arrested and, lately, indictments have been filed against (Ex) Prison Commissioner Lamahewage and IP Rangajeeva (per, Sunday Observer, 21 July 2019). So far so good. Apropos 1983 “Welikada Massacre”, 53 Tamil prisoners were butchered . Media played muffled drums. In Sri Lanka Tamil lives are dirt cheap – and expendable !