By Rajan Hoole –
Sri Lanka’s Black July – Part 16 – Welikade Prison Massacres:
We now continue with the testimony of the victim downstairs.
“They (Douglas Devenanda and …) carried me out and placed me in the front (visitors) lobby, just inside the main gate of the building. On the way, I saw the dead body of Dr. Rajasundaram, and the body of Mariampillai (50) whose head had been crushed. Where I was placed, I saw Thevakumar next to me unconscious. (He died later in hospital.) The SP came there and I told him that I was losing blood. He asked me if I could walk and I impulsively said ‘yes’.
“Some prisoners employed by the authorities in manual work (‘loyal’ prisoners) who were carrying the corpses and heard me speaking, talked of taking me to a room and silencing me for good. Understanding what was said in Sinhalese, I shouted, “Sir, Sir”. An army officer came there and I told him, “They will kill me here, take me to hospital”. Thevakumar and I were taken to the hospital in a truck.
“At the Colombo Hospital, the doctor asked for me to be X-rayed. But because of a staff shortage I was simply left there. People came to look at me out of curiosity. Some called me a Kotiya (Tiger) and some spat upon me. A nurse came near me. I held her hand and told her in Sinhalese, “You must save me!” She came with a bottle of saline, but there was no stand to hold it. I held the bottle up. Another nurse came and pulled away the bottle and tube. The first nurse scolded her and reconnected the saline. We were then taken to a women’s ward and a lady doctor stitched me up. We were then taken to a men’s ward. Thevakumar had not regained consciousness and was making an unusual noise. We were chained to our bed by one of our legs. I later learnt that Thevakumar had died. On the following day, the Magistrate recorded my testimony.
The name of this witness transpires as Yogarajah in the inquest report. Suriya Wickremasinghe makes the observation: “Note how not a single prison officer is able to identify a rioter…. why are they not asked, whether they could perhaps identify some if an identification parade is held… Similarly, the Tamil survivors were not asked… Particularly shocking is the question put to Yogarajah by the Magistrate – “Other than for the fact that they were prisoners were you able to identify any single prisoner as being one known to you?” Naturally the answer was no…”
We now go back in time to when the Chief Jailor observed the army commandos coming in. On reaching Welikade prison, Major Peiris noticed army personnel placed at the outer perimeter of the prison wall and armed jail guards at exit points. He told the Court, “I did not notice any prisoners attempting to break out. Therefore I gathered that the attempted mass jail break had been contained before our arrival!” Noticing the commotion and warning shots at the YOB, Peiris and his men left their vehicles and ran there. What follows is an account of the commandos’ actions not in the inquest report.
The first thing that caught Peiris’ eye was Sepala Ekanayake, who faced the officer with an object in his hand, which horrified the officer. The officer immediately recognised Ekanayake, who being Sri Lanka’s pioneer hijacker, had been built up into something of a folk hero in the Press. Ekanayake spoke to Peiris confident that the commandos, who were a part of the Army, were on his side. His words with reference to the object in his hand were: “Sir, komade vade?” (“Sir, what do you think of this job?”). Peiris, who was rushing towards the building with gun in one hand, used his other fist to give Ekanayake a blow on the face. Ekanayake found himself flat on the ground. This happened outside the boundary of the YOB. Having seen the behaviour of the soldiers on the 25th, Ekanayake probably thought that this group was also coming to cheer them. We note that Ekanayake had been the first to enter the YOB. This is meant that he had done his work there and had come out with something that he was proud to show off.
The commandos entered the YOB compound by either jumping over the wall or through the gap where the fence had been flattened. Peiris found the entrance to the YOB blocked by a large crowd. The commandos ploughed their way through the crowd firing into the air. At the entrance, a few prisoners armed with logs resisted the commandos. When the commandos tried to push them aside with their gun butts, one prisoner hit out at Peiris with a log. Peiris remembers firing at this man and saw him being carried away. At least one more prisoner was fired at.
Entering the YOB, Peiris found the attackers still at it. The commandos put on their tear gas masks and fired tear gas. As the attackers started dispersing, some commandos rushed into the passage on the ground floor while Peiris rushed up the staircase. Going upstairs, Peiris found the 8 survivors in the washroom washing their faces to relieve the irritation from tear gas.
Major Peiris’ encounter with Ekanayake did not come out at the inquest. Under the prevailing circumstances, in addition to the manner in which the question was posed, Yogarajah too had not told the Magistrate about Ekanayake. All members of the prison staff who testified claimed at both inquests that they could not identify a single attacker. Surprisingly the question of an identification parade never arose. SW points out that in the second attack the survivors who were warding off their attackers saw them at close quarters for several minutes and could have identified them. When inmates of the Chapel Wing earlier, they had been familiar with those in A3 who led the attack. It was as though the legal minds guiding the inquest were determined not to have any names.
Even after the attackers were pushed out of the YOB, some were still in a militant mood while some had withdrawn. Those in a militant mood saw the arrival of the commandos as an aberration and were waiting to have another go. They were shouting each other’s names to check if some had slunk away. Senior prison officers who were present, still fear to talk about it. One former commissioner admitted seeing Ekanayake at this stage. 17 of the 28 prisoners downstairs were killed. Only two of the nine cells with 6 prisoners in all remained unopened. One was killed upstairs. Whether one Sinhalese attacker was killed by the accidental blows of his fellows, remains the subject of rumour and speculation. (e.g. Wijitha Nakkawita , in Sunday Observer 25 July 99.) That such possibilities existed is suggested by the testimony in which a Tamil prisoner protected himself by using an attacker as a shield.
Major Peiris had seen an injured attacker shot by him being carried away. If he had died, it was not recorded. Had he survived, he had much to tell the inquest. This has been hushed up.
We now come to another one of the blatant absurdities of the inquest, where the Chief Jailor gave a very tall story to explain why the army personnel stationed at the prison had not come to his assistance, so leaving a huge burden on his shoulders. He said that just about the time he had telephoned the army platoon for
assistance from the main gate, he saw smoke rising from the administrative block of the remand section (east of a dividing wall) of the prison. He claimed that he had been informed (by whom?) that remand prisoners had taken over the administrative points, having overpowered the officers on duty there. He added, “I was also informed that some of these prisoners in the remand prison had obtained possession of fire arms. I am now aware that in view of that situation some of the army personnel placed outside Welikade Prison had to go to the remand section to combat that situation. I am also aware that there had been an exchange of fire between those remand prisoners and the army personnel so that I had in that situation to make decisions…”
The army officer in charge at the prison himself was strangely not called upon to testify to this singular incident. No injuries were recorded, nor spent bullets produced. We have verified that the incident above is complete fiction. A former commissioner of prisons confirmed that it is difficult to remove the weapons that are kept secured and that not one weapon was removed by prisoners. A Tamil prisoner in ‘H’ ward told us however that in that confusion a smoking rag was thrown into the Tamil (Temple) Ward, which is situated at the back near the remand section.
SW points out that the Commissioner of Prisons (Mr. Delgoda) gave another explanation of the ‘riot’ in the remand section, in his Administration Report of 1983. He said that the riot in the Remand Prison was caused partly by the prisoners panicking when tear gas used to quell the Welikade Prison riots wafted into the Remand Prison.
On the basis of this explanation, the ‘riot’ in the remand section took place after the commandos arrived, and hence cannot provide an alibi for the army platoon at the prison, that did not lift a finger to protect those under attack. Indeed after the commandos arrived, it took a long time before the platoon commander, Lieutenant Seneviratne (initials either N or E), could be found. The Chief Jailor appears to give the game away with his ‘I am now aware [why the local army platoon failed to come]’ – aware a day later at the inquest? Perhaps the AG’s department men leading the evidence who kept Lieutenant Seneviratne out and allowed the Chief Jailor’s tall story to pass, could tell us something about the origins of the riot in the remand section. Why the Chief Jailor who could have defended himself effectively by telling the truth – that Lieutenant Seneviratne did not come to his assistance – trotted out a ridiculous story to protect the army personnel and make his whole story implausible, remains to be explained. Was it that the Lieutenant was acting on orders from above and the AG’s men were asked to cover it up? Why is it that armed jail guards with advance warning and preparation made no impact on the riot, while a handful of commandos brought it under control in next to no time? Again, Jansz and the commandos appear to have given priority to protecting life while the Chief Jailor to stopping a seemingly fictitious ‘mass jail break’.
The Magistrate (Chief Magistrate, Colombo), entered a verdict of homicide as a result of a riot, in respect of the death of all 18 prisoners, and directed OIC Borella to conduct further investigations and report facts to the Magistrate, Colombo and produce suspects if any before the Chief Magistrate. He observed that none of the witnesses, including the survivors, are in a position to identify any of the attackers. ‘Both the army personnel and the prison officers’, he contended, ‘had been hindered in the full utilisation of their forces to protect the victims of the attack by the intended mass jailbreak’.
The Magistrate went to great pains to give flesh to the attempted ‘mass scale jail break’. He said: “However, prompt and efficient steps taken by the special unit of the Army under witness Major Peiris had effectively prevented the jail break referred to, and helped quell the mob which might otherwise have caused [even greater death].” Yet Peiris had very clearly told the inquest, “I did not notice any prisoners attempting to break out… I initially gathered that the mass scale jail break had been contained…” Peiris said recently, “I noticed a few fellows standing around the main entrance. They were not trying to escape.” The Magistrate was thus eager to give Peiris credit for something, to which he made no claim.
On the subject of the jailbreak, a salient point was not lost on many of those who said very early that the two prison attacks had the connivance of the authorities. They pointed out that on both occasions the attacks took place just after curfew came into force – at 2.00 P.M. on the 25th and 4.00 P.M. on the 27th. In the circumstances curfew may not have been an effective deterrent to escape during anarchy in the prison, but it would have struck planners among the staff as a precaution.
Jansz, whose own conduct was arguably creditable under the circumstances, had done himself a disservice by not placing the whole truth on record. In both inquests, he had been covering up for his subordinates. He did not for example put it down on record in the first inquest that most of the staff around him ‘were not doing anything constructive’. He made it easy for the Magistrate and the AG’s men to make the singular omission of not calling up the jailors on duty. Even their names are not on record. There was after all no call on Jansz as Commissioner to enter Welikade prison and use ‘physical force’. This he did out of personal concern.
In the second incident Jansz had put himself in a weak position by trying to cover up for the apparent non-availability of Leo de Silva, the SP, and the two ASPs. If they were absent in the normal manner, Leo de Silva would have told Jansz, asking him to keep an eye on things. The fact that the Chief Jailor told Jansz about his apprehensions of trouble, and Jansz himself made inquiries, appears to put Jansz in the position of one who was acting for the Superintendent, Welikade. Then it would have fallen on Jansz to answer why no effective precautions were taken, whether for a jail break or for an attack on Tamil PTA detainees. Why were only the latter locked up in their cells with even the cell keys held by a guard outside? Why were the others, especially the dangerous criminals in Chapel A3, not locked up in their cells, thereby enabling them to escape when food was served? Those upstairs were, it appears, even free to rush down into the lobby, grab the exit key from the overseer and go out.
If on the other hand Leo de Silva and his two assistants were unavailable because of intimidation, physical threat or obstruction, it would have been better for Jansz if he had said so. It would then have been clear that the prison had been taken over by some staff with active political connivance. In this case, Jansz would have been fairly helpless. He would not have got much help from the Police or the Army and he could only hope that the survivors would be sent out before anything happened. Jansz after all told us that two decent jailors who used their service revolvers to fire at the rioters on the 25th could not come to work for some time. (About five attackers among the prisoners had bullet wounds as a result, but this too is not on record.)
After the second massacre, Major Peiris took considerable initiative and waited at the prison, making arrangements to move the Tamil prisoners out that same night. He also had Nirmala Nithyananthan brought out from the female ward since her husband, a survivor from the upper floor of YOB, was among those to be moved.
Another official who came there and who had known Jansz from their undergraduate days together at the Medical Faculty, recalled an incident which amused him. An army officer who had come there and who evidently knew Jansz well remarked, “Cutty can’t say boo to a goose!”. The official thought to himself that it perfectly fitted the Cutty he had known for more than thirty years.
Major Peiris decided against taking the Tamil survivors to any army camp. He first transported them to Galle Face Green late in the night and stayed with them. Two buses were then arranged to take them to Katunayake air base, from where they were dispatched by air to Batticaloa prison. All, but about three of them, escaped from there in September 1983 and reached India. Fr. Singarayar wished to stay behind and face his trial. Dr. Tharmalingam was too old to escape.
At the time of the massacre, a Tamil militant, J, found guilty of a normal criminal offence, had been in H Ward, Welikade. His two cellmates were Sinhalese, who promised to see that nothing happened to him. J was also well known in prison circles as he was a good volleyball player and took part in games. During the first massacre most of his Sinhalese mates were out watching the dead and injured being brought out and many of them expressed disgust. They told him that the injured prisoners were attacked and killed and were clear that prison staff were behind it. One jailor too was seen attacking the injured. Among the staff named by them as being behind the violence were Jailor Rogers Jayasekere (elderly, tall and on the darker side), and two others including Samitha. Rogers Jayasekere, an influential man with well-known UNP connections has been widely named by others.
This will be taken up in the next chapter. Jailor Samitha, one of those named, was connected with another incident concerning J.
Following the second massacre, Samitha had done a tour around H Ward later in the evening. Seeing J, he said in surprise, “Mu thavama innavatha?” (“Is he still here?”) When he went downstairs, J heard him asking other prisoners, “How much has he seen?” Samitha was then heard saying that nothing could be done that day (it was past lock-up time), and that they would see about it later. J spent a very anxious night.
That same night following the second massacre, Mr. Delgoda, Commissioner of Prisons, returned from abroad. The following morning, a Sinhalese jail guard gave J a piece of paper and told him, “It is not safe for you to be here. Many other Tamil prisoners have been transferred to Batticaloa. You write an appeal and give it to Mr. Delgoda.” Later all the prisoners were called out on parade. Delgoda addressed them, expressing his shock and condemnation of the massacres. When that was over, J handed him his appeal. J too was transferred.
The Daily News gave fairly complete accounts of both inquests. But there were obviously political commissars deciding the headlines. The report on the first inquest was titled, “Prisoners Vent their Fury – Killing of Terrorists”. (28.7.83). The report on the second was titled, “Spontaneous Attack on Terrorists” (30.7.89). In his ‘in-depth account’ of July 1983 T.D.S.A. Dissanayaka, a man with no excuse for ignorance of legal norms and basic fair- play, constantly refers to the PTA detainees as ‘terrorists’. Jansz took objection to such references. He said that most of those killed in the massacres, especially those in Chapel D3, would soon have been released. Father Singarayar who declined to escape from Batticaloa prison, was discharged by the High Court. The State appealed and the Appeal Court hearing reached its final stages in July 1987 – the month of the Indo-Lanka Accord. Bala Tampoe, who fought the case on his behalf was confident that the State’s charges had been demolished, and that he was on the verge of acquittal. In August 1987, the state declared a nolle prosequi and released Fr. Singarayar along with the other detainees being amnestied.
To be continued..
Part four – Sri Lanka’s Black July: The Cover Up
Part five – 30th July 1983: The Second Naxalite Plot
Part seven – Black July: Thondaman & Muttetuwegama
Part nine – Tamil Merchants In The Pettah – Post July 1983
Part eleven – Sri Lanka’s Black July: The Question Of Numbers
Part fourteen – Circumstances Leading To The Magistrate’s Inquest
Part fifteen – Welikade Prison: The Second Massacre: 27th July 1983
*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..