By Rajan Hoole –
Sri Lanka’s Black July – Part 12 –
“Britannicus was handed a harmless drink. The taster had tasted it; but Britannicus found it too hot and refused it. Then cold water containing the poison was added. Speechless, his whole body convulsed, he instantly ceased to breathe. His companions were horrified. Some, uncomprehending, fled. Others understanding better, remained rooted in their places, staring at Nero. He still lay back unconcernedly – and he remarked that this often happened to epileptics [and soon Britannicus’] consciousness would return…After a short silence the banquet continued.
“Britannicus was cremated the night he died. Indeed, preparations for his inexpensive funeral had already been made. As his remains were placed in the imperial mausoleum, there was a violent storm. It was widely believed that the gods were showing their fury at the boy’s murder – though even his fellow-men generally condoned it, arguing that brothers were traditional enemies and that the empire was indivisible.” – Publius Gaius Tacitus, from Histories
In what follows, the basic facts are culled from accounts of the inquest proceedings – the Magistrate’s reports themselves [Mag] and the reports in the Ceylon Daily News [CDN]. Where they differ, it will be indicated. The CDN reports are of value because the reporter has been good at recording the English nuances. Where other sources are used, they will be indicated. To begin with, a special acknowledgement must be made. It was the Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka and the Home for Human Rights, which first set out to bring justice to the victims and their families and to put the record straight. At the request of the Home for Human Rights, the Civil Rights Movement in 1985 assisted families of the victims to file 30 civil actions in court. To this end Suriya Wickremasinghe, secretary to the CRM, had carefully sifted the evidence and interviewed outside this country all but one or two of the 19 survivors. She is currently working on a book on the affair. She has kindly made available to us her analysis of the inquest proceedings and certain other materials. Where we have availed ourselves of her notes and analysis, it will be acknowledged by the initials SW.
The First Massacre: 25th July 1983
The Tamil prisoners detained under the PTA were housed in the ground floor of the Chapel Section of Welikade Prison.
Being in the shape of a cross, it had four wings A,B,C&D,withA3,B3,C3&D3beingonthe ground. Six convicted Tamil prisoners including Kuttimani, Thangathurai and Jegan of the TELO, detained and convicted after the Neervely bank robbery of 1981 and who had appealed against death sentences, were in the front section of B3. B3 had a wooden partition and the rear section had also gallows. These 6 were each kept in one cell. D3 had 29 Tamil prisoners detained under the PTA and C3 had 28. Nine others were in the Youthful Offenders Building (YOB). They were Dr. Tharmalingam, Kovai Mahesen, Dr. Rajasundaram, A. David, Mr. Nithiananthan, Fr. Singarayar, Fr. Sinnarasa, Rev. Jeyatilekarajah and Dr. Jeyakularajah. According to Mr. C.T. Jansz, then Deputy Commissioner of Prisons, those in D3 were mostly young boys taken in on suspicion and were due to be released soon. Mr. Delgoda, Commissioner of Prisons, was then abroad for a conference.
A3 housed dangerous criminals and those who had attempted to escape, and were nearly all Sinhalese. A prominent figure there was Sepala Ekanayake, convicted after hijacking an aircraft in 1982.
The two upper floors, or gallery, of the Chapel Block housed 800 – 850 ordinary convicted prisoners. The space on the ground floor between the 4 wings is the lobby, the entrance to which is through an iron door between B3 and C3. These ordinary prisoners performed manual work during the day in the industrial section or elsewhere and their sections and cells were locked up only when they were occupied; that is during the night and during the lunch hour. We understand that during lunch they were in practice not locked up. Two guards were always stationed on each upper floor.
On the ground floor there was a passage leading into each wing with a row of cells on either side. The prisoners were locked into their cells with guards holding the keys stationed in the passage. There were two guards in the passage of B3 and 4 each in A3, C3 and D3. The iron door to each passage was locked and there was a guard in the lobby holding the key to each wing. But in practice the prisoners were not locked into the cells during daytime, but the passage door was locked and the prisoners were in the corridor with the guards, talking or playing games like cards. On a normal day there were 4+4+4+2+2 (in the lobby) = 16 guards on the ground floor. But at the time of the incident on the 25th, there seem to have been fewer.
On duty outside the prison gates were men from an army platoon. Their job was formally to prevent the Tamil PTA detainees from escaping. A precedent was set in the early 60s when army personnel were similarly posted when suspects in the 1962-attempted coup were detained.
Two days before he was murdered, on 23rd July, Kuttimani, a leading member of TELO who had appealed against his death sentence for murder during the Neervely bank heist, approached a prison official. He told the official very politely, ‘Sir, I have a request to make.’ The
official was a little anxious. Kuttimani explained that the Tamil prisoners are given coconut oil to apply on their head, which does not agree with them. He requested gingelly oil for the Tamil prisoners, which was their traditional hair oil. The official knew that everyone was being watched and no one wished to be seen as being considerate to these Tamil prisoners. He wondered why someone more appropriate, such as the superintendent, had not seen to it.
Seeing the official in a dilemma, Kuttimani said, “Sir, I see that you have a difficulty. We made our choice. We became liberation fighters of our own accord. It is our duty to endure any privation, any suffering that fate has placed before us. I will, sir, not trouble you any further.” Kuttimani smiled, saluted the official and withdrew. That was the last time the official saw him alive.
On the evening of the 24th, the prisoners heard the commotion in Borella. At 8.00 A.M. on the 25th morning the prisoners on the ground floor were taken out for an airing. The prisoners condemned to death, received newspapers, and Kuttimani whispered to some of the prisoners that 13 soldiers had been killed in Jaffna on the 23rd night. At 10.00 A.M., the prisoners could feel the tense atmosphere inside and then they were locked into their cells. About 2.15 P.M. the prisoners heard noises from the direction of B3 from blows being aimed at the door, and from a huge crowd in the lobby. They knew there was danger. They asked the guard in their wing, and he said nothing. Manikkadasan who was in C3 climbed up, peeped through the ventilator, and told the others that Tamil prisoners had been killed and that their corpses were being drawn out into the grounds.
Those from C3 attribute their survival to the jail guard in their wing whom they described as a decent man, whose name unfortunately has evaded us. He asked the prisoners to move back from their cell doors and told them, “If they are to get you, it will have to be over my dead body.” He then took the keys to the cell doors, hid them in the toilet, came back and stood at the barred entrance to the wing. When some of the attackers turned their attention to his wing, he stretched out his arms and faced them. The attacking prisoners turned away. It has been suggested by knowledgeable persons that prisoners as a rule will never attack a jail guard. As compared with the thousands of prisoners, only about 50 or so jail guards would be on duty at any time. It is the authority exercised by the guards that keeps the system going.
We will now move onto testimonies given at the magistrate’s inquest into the jail massacre of 25th July.
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
*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..