By Rajan Hoole –
Sri Lanka’s Black July – Part 13 – Welikade Prison Massacres:
We will now move onto testimonies given at the magistrate’s inquest into the jail massacre of 25th July.
Alexis Leo de Silva, Superintendent, Welikade Prison:
He had never noticed any hostility between the Tamil prisoners on the ground and the convicted prisoners upstairs. About 2.15 P.M., after lunch, he heard the blowing of whistles and the alarm being raised. From his office, he ran off towards the Chapel Section where the commotion was. Among those who ran along with him were his two ASPs (Assistant Superintendents), Amarasinghe and Danny Munaweera. The door to the entrance was open, but was barricaded by prisoners. He used force to get into the lobby.
He saw 300 to 400 prisoners inside the lobby and heard the banging of cell doors and screams from B3. About 20 to 25 attackers had entered B3 and were banging on the last door of B3, where all six prisoners in that wing had been locked up. The guards tried to push the attacking prisoners out, but without success. He (de Silva) managed to enter B3, but was pushed out into the lobby. From the lobby he heard thudding sounds of objects falling on human bodies, with screams.
Leo de Silva shouted to the guards to bring the mob of prisoners under control and to call for help from the army personnel at the prison gate. He then saw some of the prisoners entering D3 followed by thudding noises and screams. He saw some of the prisoners themselves trying to control the mob, but they were overwhelmed. This went on for several minutes when he saw army personnel.
He saw Acting Commissioner of Prisons Christopher Theodore (Cutty) Jansz using physical force. But ‘none of them, Jansz, the Army nor the prisoners trying to help, was able to enter the wings’. A few minutes later he saw the prisoners moving to the cells upstairs. Mr. Jansz remained with him in the lobby. From the lobby, he saw several bodies lying in the corridors of B3 and D3. After some time the situation was generally under control. Some prisoners were walking about the lobby. There were no army personnel at that stage.
C.T. Jansz, Acting Commissioner of Prisons:
His office facing Baseline Road adjoins the prison entrance to the north. About 2.00 P.M. his peons came running to him and informed him of a commotion in the prison. Rushing through the main entrance, he forced his way through the human barrier into the lobby of the Chapel Section that has space for 300 to 400 persons. He saw a mixture of prisoners and prison officers. There were prisoners watching from the gallery above and some had entered the wings. There was general unrest with prisoners carrying rods and other weapons. Forcing himself in with great difficulty, he observed Leo de Silva trying to control the mob. The passages leading to the cells of B3 and D3 were jammed with prisoners, and prisoners with weapons were trying to assault persons on the ground. Jansz tried using physical force to prevent the attack, but was helpless.
Jansz observed army personnel standing in the lobby “who appeared to be helpless in the situation”[CDN]. According to [Mag], “ They [the army personnel] were also helpless and could not do anything.”
Realising that ‘nothing could be done’, Jansz got into his car, and went to the Borella police station to seek assistance. He learnt from the inspectors he met that they were not in a position to give any immediate help because they lacked manpower. He then went to Senior DIG Police, Suntheralingam, who lived close to him in Gregory’s Road to see if ‘at least he could help’ him ‘under the circumstances’. “It was clear that he (Suntheralingam) was helpless at the moment because he was on his way to attend what witness (Jansz) believed was a Security Council meeting.” Suntheralingam undertook to take ‘all possible steps’ and also ‘mention’ the matter at the Security Council meeting. Jansz went back to the Borella Police and was told that a police party had gone to the prison. (It is not clear from the inquest record if Suntheralingam had anything to do with this change of mind on the part of the Borella Police.) Going back to the prison, Jansz saw the police party standing outside.
The Police, Jansz said were “reluctant to enter as it (the prison) was guarded by army personnel.”
According to Lt. Mahinda Hathurusinghe of the 4th Artillery who was in charge of the platoon guarding the prison, he occupied a billet with 15 other soldiers; 5 soldiers were in a guard room at the prison entrance, 11 in a guard room 200 yards from his billet and there were also soldiers on mobile duty. In the afternoon of 25th July, he received a message from the soldiers at the main entrance that “a riot had broken out inside the prison and that the Commissioner of Prisons had called for army assistance with a view to controlling the mob.” He went into the prison with seven soldiers all of whom forced themselves into the Chapel Section through the crowd that was blocking it. His next statement contradicted what both Leo de Silva said and Jansz had said. According to Lt. Hathurusinghe:
“The crowd upon seeing us dropped their weapons and started running upstairs.”
According to de Silva and Jansz however the soldiers “appeared to be helpless in controlling the mob.”
What is clear is that the soldiers came armed and did nothing. According to a survivor interviewed by SW, the soldiers had SLRs (Self Loading Rifles). Jansz recently confirmed to us that this had been the case, but suggested that the officer who later had told him that what transpired was ‘a dirty thing to do’, may have been helpless. They had not fired a single shot.
Moreover from Jansz’s own testimony, he left the melee, got into his car and went to the Borella Police, to DIG Suntheralingam and back to the Borella Police, and then to Welikade Prison, only because the Army and prison staff were not being at all helpful. He was desperately trying to find someone to ‘help’ him, as though it were not their duty. Even a senior Tamil DIG ‘appeared to be helpless’. When he got back to the prison, a police party had come, but the Army refused to let them in. SW points out that the Army had no right to do this because the Prisons Ordinance stipulates that the Prisons ought to call in the Police when there is sign of trouble.
From this point the testimonies in the Magistrate’s inquest record become so muddled up that the reader is bound to pass them over thinking that the main drama was over. SW’s painstaking work becomes invaluable in straightening out the events here and would undoubtedly form an illuminating part of her book.
In Leo de Silva’s testimony, there are some inexplicable gaps. He said that neither he, Jansz, the Army nor the prisoners trying to help, could between them muster the force to enter the wings and relieve the Tamil prisoners being attacked. (As for the prison staff, Jansz told us recently that ‘they were not doing anything constructive’!) From this point Leo de Silva jumped to, “After a few minutes I observed the prisoners moving to the upper section of the building. Jansz remained with me in the lobby”. Considering that Jansz had gone out, we will see that there is more than one gap here.
His answers to questions from the Magistrate shed further light. Asked what steps he took to bring the situation under control, L de S replied, “After some time the situation was under control, some prisoners were walking about the lobby. I managed to bring the bodies to the lobby. At that stage, I did not observe army personnel. It appeared to me that all the inmates of B3 and D3 were battered. Medical officers were summoned IMMEDIATELY (our emphasis). AFTER SOME TIME (our emphasis), it was apparent to us that all those inmates were dead. The medical officer pronounced them dead.”
Leo de Silva’s answer suggests that no steps were taken to bring the situation under control. The violence just petered out. The dead and injured were brought out, the prison doctor and medical staff were summoned immediately. During this process, Jansz who was not present earlier had arrived, while the Army had left. Note that it was ‘after some time’ that all were pronounced dead. This suggests that for some reason the prison doctor had examined them twice.
According Lt. Hathurusinghe, “the injured persons were brought and kept in the main lobby by the prison officers with the help of some prison staff.” This is an admission that he and his armed men were around until the ‘riot’ petered out. He covered it up by saying that the crowd dispersed upon seeing them. Having said that the injured persons ‘appeared to be dead’, Hathurusinghe added, “the prison doctor (Dr. Dan Perinpanayagam) had been sent for and arrangements were being made to send the INJURED PERSONS TO HOSPITAL” (our emphasis). This means that Dr.Perinpanayagam or someone else found some of the victims to be injured, who could possibly have been saved by medical care.
Hathurusinghe in his testimony added immediately following the reference to the injured above: “But it soon became apparent that all were dead. Dr. Perinpanayagam stated that they were all dead.”
Jansz’s testimony throws some sinister light on what really happened. Having returned to the lobby after failing to get help, and the police party prevented by the Army from entering, he found some bodies heaped up and other bodies being brought out. Jansz then issued orders for vehicles “to CARRY THE INJURED TO THE ACCIDENT SERVICE of the General Hospital” (our emphasis).
He then said, “Having made arrangements to carry the injured to the Accident Service of the General Hospital I found that the Army personnel were of the view that we should seek permission from higher authorities to take the injured out of the prison premises.”
Jansz was thus very clear that some of the prisoners attacked were not dead and needed urgent medical care. Upon being refused by the Army at the gate, Jansz used the telephone at the gate to contact the Major in charge of the unit, whose name we have not been able to find out. He was probably at Panagoda. The Major then informed him that that the ‘permission for such a removal would have to be granted by the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence’.
We have here a strange situation. If Jansz had to contact the Major, he had then been prevented by Lieutenant Hathurusinghe from removing the victims. In army terms, Jansz’s rank was something like a major general or senior brigadier, and as acting commissioner of prisons on several occasions since 1974, he clearly knew his duty. On the part of the Army it was a perverse interpretation of their task of guarding the prisoners to prevent those battered from getting medical treatment. The Lieutenant who would have been taught the Geneva Conventions should have known that giving medical care to injured enemy does not require reference to the top. Clearly, he would not have acted alone on such a cruel refusal that would be on record.
We may take it that Lt. Hathurusinghe upon leaving the lobby of the Chapel Section told his superiors of the situation and of the injured, as he was bound to, and was instructed not to allow the injured to be taken out. After all it would have been much easier and more appropriate for those at Army HQ to get clearance from Secretary/Defence, than for Jansz.
In a crisis of this nature, it would have been the duty of field officers to keep the Army HQ informed. If the Army authorities would not allow Jansz to take the injured to hospital under prison security, they should have promptly taken them to the Army Hospital. If they could not or did not want to do that, they had no business to stop Jansz.
An even greater irony is that President Jayewardene was then at Army HQ. On the testimony of Bradman Weerakoon, Jayewardene was in the Army Commander’s room when he was informed of the prison massacre and ‘was deeply upset.’ Moreover, DIG Suntheralingam had told Jansz a little earlier that he was going to a Security Council meeting. Such meetings, it turns out, were then, during the crisis, held in Army HQ. This means that Secretary/Defence, Colonel Dharmapala, too was almost certainly there. It is probable that Jayewardene had heard of the massacre before Suntheralingam raised it at the Security Council, which would have been about when Jansz was trying to get permission to take the injured out. We have confirmed from a police official present that the Security Council, when it met that day, was ‘very much aware’ of the prison massacre.
A particular point needs clearing up. Jansz said that he had made the arrangements to take the injured to the Accident Service. He told us recently that he had gone to the General Hospital, met the Hospital Director Dr. Lucian Jayasuriya, and made arrangements to admit the injured. He also admitted that it was such a traumatic experience, that, after 16 years, his memory has rejected a good deal that was unpleasant. In the circumstances it would appear that he had gone to Dr. Jayasuriya after ordering the vehicles to take the injured, and had got back to accompany them when he was stopped. It gives the picture of a man hopelessly, painstakingly, and yet passively, begging for help, as it were, battling against a system that was primed to defeat him at every turn.
Jansz evidently tried ringing desperately and either did not get through, or was not put through to those at the top, all of whom were presumably at Army HQ. Jansz did however get through to DIG Ernest Perera at Police HQ, who would have been his contemporary in the University of Ceylon, where Jansz earned a degree in Veterinary Science. Perera suggested that he come over, presumably because he may have better luck getting through from his office. There were probably reasons why he did not want to intervene personally, as grave and urgent as the matter was. This would have saved time and lives.
Jansz went to Police HQ with Leo de Silva, leaving the two ASPs in charge at Welikade – Leo’s two assistants who on his testimony had run out with him to the Chapel Section. He got through to the Army Commander, Tissa Weeratunge, who had returned from Jaffna by that afternoon, and told him about the injured prisoners. According to [CDN], “the Commanding Officer told him that he has no objection to the request and to communicate this to the army personnel at Welikade prison.” But according to [Mag], Jansz requested Weeratunge to communicate his consent to the army personnel at the prison gate. It is likely that both happened. Jansz’s testimony makes all this sound natural, but it is very unnatural. Weeratunge already knew what had happened through several channels. One would have expected more concern from him about how men under his command had behaved. But he too, like Ernest Perera, wanted to keep out of it. We also further learnt that at the Police HQ Jansz also met IGP Rudra Rajasingham and DIG Suntheralingam just after their return from the Security Council meeting where the massacre had been discussed. The Army Commander is thus without excuse.
On getting back, Jansz and Leo de Silva saw a truck parked in the compound and “were given to understand that 35 bodies in the truck were heaped for removal”. There was no more talk about taking the injured to the Accident Service. Jansz was no doubt deeply disturbed. He told the inquest, “Dr. Perinpanayagam had arrived by then. The truck was taken to the passage near the main gate. The bodies in the truck were removed on stretchers to the room adjoining the passage. Dr. Perinpanayagam made his observations and I was informed that they were all dead.”
Dr. Perinpanayagam lived on the premises and did not go anywhere that day. He was summoned after the violence had abated. This means that he was examining them at the gate after an hour or more had elapsed, after Jansz and Leo returned. These grave disparities could have been dismissed as surmise and speculation without much value, arising from the testimony of confused witnesses, if not for Suriya Wickremasinghe’s work in filling the gaps.
SW says in her notes: “…we know from eyewitnesses, and which appears likely from the inquest evidence, 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, 5 ft 1 in] who had succeeded in hiding, was actually killed in the compound by a jailor.”
On the matter of Jansz having the bodies taken out on stretchers and examined, SW says: “There would have been no need to do this had Dr. Perinpanayagam already examined them and declared them dead. If Dr. Perinpanayagam had not done so, nobody had any business to “heap” them into a truck. Who permitted this to be done?”
Although Jansz’s memory is now a little hazy, he did say that the injured had been attacked and killed. SW’s reconstruction puts that in place. That prison staff were involved in such an attack was told to us by a Tamil detainee in ‘H’ Ward, who was told this by Sinhalese prisoners who were outside watching. Jansz also said that some prison staff were involved in the instigation. Two very faithful jailors, he said, had used their revolvers and had injured about 5 attackers. These jailors, he added, could not, for the fear of being attacked, come to work for some time afterwards.
Indeed, the fact that the injured prisoners were attacked before being heaped into the truck of which Jansz had a hazy recollection and which is established in Suriya Wickremasinghe’s investigations and other testimony, is confirmed from a different context.
Although it had been said at the inquest that the ‘medical officers’ and the ‘prison doctor’ were summoned immediately, we reliably learn that Dr. Perinpanayagam did not get to the scene until about 5.30 or 6.00 PM. This is also suggested by Jansz saying, ‘Dr. Perinpanayagam had arrived by then.’ This was after his return from Police HQ. There were two doctors in the prison quarters. The other was Dr. de Alwis. The sounds and reports of violence had made such an impression that de Alwis thought it dangerous and advised against going. If any medical officer had seen the injured earlier, it may have been Mr. Somaratne, the male nurse. As a veterinarian, Jansz too would have been amply competent.
Dr. Perinpanayagam, a Tamil, arrived after the bodies were loaded into the truck and were about to be taken out. He had them taken down, and he spent over 3 to 4 hours examining them, and found them all to be dead. During this examination ASP Danny Munaweera and some other prison staff were present. It turned out that the bodies of Kuttimani and Jegan were at the bottom of the pile of the bodies in the truck.
While the examinations were going on, one of the officers present observed firmly, that some of those whose bodies were taken out of the truck, had been breathing before being loaded into it. The implication was that they had died of suffocation. This was a remarkable revelation from someone who was upset by what had happened. It was moreover made while a responsible officer, an ASP, was present, who should have been answerable for why living persons were piled up in this manner.
It is clear that the ASPs had witnessed something very disturbing and had not been in control of the situation while even some jailors were setting the lead in attacking injured prisoners. No doubt, it was from the ASPs that Jansz had learnt of this attack.
The inquest had thus failed to ask the questions that were staring in the face, and so failed to reveal what was most disturbing. For example, neither the Magistrate nor the two senior lawyers from the Attorney General’s department who were leading the evidence tried to resolve the glaring discrepancies in the testimony about the Army’s role.
There was something else very disturbing, which most readers of the inquest proceedings would have missed, but has been pointed out by Suriya Wickremasinghe. The hierarchy in the prison service was as follows:
Commissioner of Prisons
– Mr. J.P. Delgoda (on overseas leave)
– Mr. C.T. Jansz (acting for Commissioner)
HQ Superintendent (all Island)
– Mr. H.G. Dharmadasa (acting for Deputy Commissioner; had just returned from overseas and had gone home to Nugegoda early on the 25th July, not present during incident.)
Superintendent of Prisons, Welikade – Mr. A. Leo de Silva
Two Assistant Superintendents, Welikade – Mr. Danny Munaweera
– Mr. Amarasinghe Chief Jailor
– Mr. W.M. Karunaratne
Jailors Class I
– Generally if not always university graduates
Jailors Class II
– Similar to Inspector or ASP in Police Overseers
– Similar to sergeant in the Police Senior Jail Guards
Jail Guards – Similar to police constable
There were about 17 jailors then in Welikade prison. SW observes: “No jailor testified at the inquest. This is a most remarkable omission. We know from our other sources, that there was always one, usually two, jailors in the Chapel Section. The jailor on duty in the area concerned would appear to be the person on the spot responsible for discipline. He should be able to say how the riot started. Instead we are treated to the evidence of “high–ups” [who arrived much later]….and to lowly jail guards (whose educational level is not high) and who do not play any sort of supervisory role.
“Who were the jailors in the Chapel Wing? There appears to be a conspiracy… to pretend that jailors just don’t exist. The SP (Leo de Silva) describes in detail the security arrangements, how many jail guards in each wing etc – but never mentions the presence of a jailor”.
As suggested earlier, it is what happened after the main violence was over, which was also obscured in the testimony, that is most disturbing. The first part could have on the surface been passed off as a spontaneous riot: At 2.00 P.M. hundreds of prisoners had rushed from upstairs and perhaps from outside with wooden poles, clubs, spikes, improvised knives of the kind kept by prisoners and iron bars pulled out from the gallery railings, apparently smashed open the wooden doors with metal frames leading to B3 and D3, either forced open or opened cells using the keys from the jail guards, and attacked the prisoners.
Indeed there are awkward questions: How it started is unclear. If prisoners were allowed to take and store some of these weapons upstairs, then there has been a serious lapse. Only one lowly jail guard who was locked inside B3 has testified. The two jail guards in the lobby who were supposed to be holding the keys to the wings were not called upon to testify, nor were jailors who have an office in the lobby itself. If they were all absent, as they should not have been, they should have been called and the reasons for their absence recorded. This is an inexplicable, if not deliberate, omission on the part of the Magistrate and the AG’s department lawyers leading the evidence. We reliably understand that Leo de Silva had complained strongly in private, that some of the important things he had said were left out by the Magistrate.
There are also serious questions about whether it was a riot at all. A riot implies or entails defiance of forces of order and a struggle by the latter at restoring order. A jail guard in B3 testified that he had been locked up in a cell before his charges were bashed. Leo de Silva had been carried out when he tried to enter B3. But not one member of the prison staff had complained of any medically confirmable hurt or injury. Jansz told us something interesting. When he tried to intervene, he was not bodily resisted. He was surrounded by prisoners at more than arm’s length swinging something in the air, but he was allowed to go out. The prison staff were, in his words, ‘not doing anything constructive’. It was an ordered or controlled riot – one of a kind not expected from irate criminals acting by themselves.
It is what happened after Jansz wanted to take the injured to the Accident Service that vividly points to complicity from a broad spectrum of the State: The Lieutenant on the spot prevented the injured from being taken out. He was almost certainly acting on instructions from Army HQ who certainly knew about it. Jansz was required to get permission from a member of the Security Council, which was then by all indications meeting at Army HQ and had been told about it. It looks as though Jansz was purposely made, or allowed, to run around in circles.
During the absence of Jansz and Leo de Silva the injured prisoners were attacked by the prison staff and others under their supervision, by which time the riot had petered out. At least two jailors have been named in a later EPRLF document. Why did Leo de Silva’s two assistants (ASPs), who were in charge at this time when Leo was out – who again were not summoned to testify at the inquest – remain passive then and thereafter? It was as though the powers that be – the country’s leaders – wanted it to happen.
We also received testimony from a member of the prison staff present that shortly after the riot had begun at 2.00 P.M., an Air Force helicopter arrived and was stationary over the prison for 10 to 15 minutes. By contrast it was noted in the last chapter that helicopter patrols were singularly absent when the City was being attacked in the morning. A curfew had also come into force at 2.00 P.M.
Two persons had entered the passage of C3 by breaking the wooden floor upstairs. But by that time things had petered out and they left peacefully. The convicted criminals in A3 apparently remained locked up during the riot. The prison staff as well as the surviving Tamil prisoners failed to identify a single assailant. Fear?
The Magistrate entered a verdict of homicide, from a ‘general state of unrest’ among 800 prisoners housed upstairs in the Chapel Section, ‘which had ended up as a riot’. He further concluded that, “None of the prison officers or the army officers summoned thereafter could have done anything under the circumstances to prevent the attack. They have [sic] all been completely overpowered.”
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
*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..