By Rajan Hoole –
Sri Lanka’s Black July – Part 15 – Welikade Prison Massacres:
C. T. (Cutty) Jansz and his leading officials had an unenviable problem on their hands. They could maintain order in the prison only through jailors and jail guards. They knew that some politically influential jailors were behind the massacre on the 25th. Having transferred the survivors to the YOB, they could only hope for the best. To whom could they go for help, to the Government?, to the Army?, the Police?. The events of the 25th had taught them that the prisoners were in a vicious environment where everything was against them. Had Jansz been a tougher nut who could arm-twist his jailors, the Army and the Government by threatening to make things awkward for them, these events may have been avoided, or at least limited. But there he was, asking if they could ‘at least help him’ as though it had nothing to do with them. Even those who perhaps would like to have helped, sensing what the Government wanted, tried to avoid the issue.
Senior DIG Suntharalingam who had been a confident law enforcer six weeks earlier, was apparently helpless because he was then going to a Security Council meeting! The deterioration of state culture had gone too far down the road where it had become very difficult to find someone in authority who would in a crisis tell another, “You jolly well do the right thing or, whatever happens to me, I will tell the world about it!”
The one thing going in favour of the survivors was the expressions of concern from around the world. This, the Government had to respond to. Jansz was summoned to the Security Council meeting at Army HQ, Slave Island, in the afternoon of the 27th. It turns out from Jansz’s testimony at the 2nd inquest that he had on the
same morning informed Mervyn Wijesinghe, Secretary, Justice, that he feared a second attack on the prisoners. Jansz found Jayewardene ‘concerned’ about the fate of the surviving Tamil detainees. Jayewardene also had a sympathetic word of concern for Jansz. He told him, “You must be tired after all that you have been through”, and called for Jansz to be served with a glass of orange juice.
Evidently, there had been many messages of concern, especially regarding Nirmala Nithiananthan. Jayewardene accepted that it was not safe for the survivors to be in Colombo. A council member objected to the suggestion to fly them to Jaffna prison on the grounds that they would escape. Jayewardene settled the matter by saying that their safety was the first priority and decided that the survivors should be flown to Jaffna. (There was later a change in plan and the prisoners were flown to Batticaloa. This may have resulted from objections raised about possible escape.) Jansz was asked to liaise with Brigadier Mano Madawela, his school- mate, regarding the arrangements for the flight. Jayewardene was a “cultured man” who was decent before the decent. Madawela also agreed to Jansz’s request to keep a squad of soldiers always ready, should they be needed to quell another riot. Barely had Jansz returned to his office when he was told, about 4.15 PM, of a second prison attack. 18 Tamil suspects were killed.
Again Mervyn Wijesinghe had gone to Magistrate Wijewardene’s residence at 7.30 AM on the 28th and asked him to hold an inquest. Hearings commenced in the office of the Superintendent of Prisons at 1.30 PM. The evidence was again led by DSG Tilak Marapone and Senior State Counsel C.R. de Silva, assisted by ASP Pakeer, CDB. Also present were Mervyn Wijesinghe, Theodore Jansz and Leo de Silva. The inquest ended just after mid-night, at 12.05 AM on 29th July. The gaps in the inquests and the grave unanswered questions were even more glaring than before. Once again, there were jailors on duty at the scene, who did not testify. Instead those who testified from the staff were Jansz and the Chief Jailor who came to the scene later, an overseer (similar to police sergeant), a vocational instructor and three jail guards.
The Chief Jailor, Mr. W.M. Karunaratne, had testified that through the prison intelligence system he had learnt of unrest among the prison population, and of a plan for a mass jail break and an attack on Tamil prisoners and that he had communicated this to Jansz in the morning. (He referred to PTA detainees as ‘terrorist prisoners’, while Jansz as ‘terrorist suspects’ and Leo de Silva in the earlier inquest as ‘suspects under the PTA’.) Jansz confirmed in his testimony that he had been told this by Karunaratne and had verified it through his own inquiries. He in turn had made representations to the Government through Secretary, Ministry of Justice, from which followed moves to expedite the transfer of the prisoners. He had been clear, he said, that the accommodation of the 28 survivors from C3, Chapel Section, in the YOB, was only a temporary move at the direction of the Chief Magistrate, and that he had that same day arranged for air force planes to fly them out.
When reminded of this recently, Jansz expressed surprise as to why Karunaratne had told him, while it was to Leo de Silva that he should have reported. A possible answer appeared in the record of Karunaratne’s testimony. He said at the beginning that the Superintendent of Prisons (Leo), leaving out the Assistant Superintendents (ASPs), was his immediate superior. Later when describing the attack, he said: “Up to this point… to the best of my recollection there were no officers superior to me in office in the compound. As the most superior office available… “.
The leading prison officials knew that there was a bad situation in prison from the 25th. On the 26th night, the Magistrate had made an order about the safety of prisoners and the Secretary, Justice, had made the new Youthful Offenders Building available for that purpose. It was a time when all the staff who could be trusted should have been asked to be available on the premises until the Tamil prisoners were transferred. The Secretary, Justice, should have demanded that reliable troops be stationed at the prison, or at least have got the Army Commander to tell the platoon at the prison, which the Commander on his own should have done after the first experience, that they must act firmly to maintain order in the event of a disturbance. None of these appears to have been done.
Even more seriously, curfew had come into force at 4.00 P.M. and Leo de Silva and his two ASPs who had run to the trouble spot on the 25th, were apparently not available when trouble broke out sometime between 4.00 and 4.15 P.M. on the 27th. Even if they had taken turns to rest after breaking rest the previous night, they should have been about the premises. Leo de Silva was not an irresponsible man, and those who had worked with him have a high regard for him as a sportsman and a gentleman. It is also significant that the inquest aided by three competent legal minds failed to address this glaring issue
One is driven to suspect that there was something very loose about the place, which the top officials knew from their first experience. There was a surface of normality, and the prison routine was going on. But in reality, a section of the staff with political patronage appear to have taken over. From this vantage point, what took place at the inquest, with some very tall stories given as testimony, falls into place.
What follows is the story one gets from the inquest proceedings. The Overseer Don Alfred (51) began serving the night meal to the prisoners on the ground floor of the Chapel Section at 4.00 P.M. By then C3 and D3 were empty. Dinner was first served to those at the back, behind the wooden partition, who were the ones remaining in B3. At this time, the door to the lobby entrance was locked, and that key, along with the keys to the wings, was held in a bunch by Don Alfred. The food was taken to the entrance of A3, which housed condemned criminals, escapees and those considered dangerous. A jailor who was supervising was standing by. The normal procedure, according to Alfred, when serving high security prisoners on the ground floor, was for him to unlock the passage entrance after the food was brought, and leave it ajar. Inside, he said, the prisoners were free to move about in the passage, with the jail guards, for it was mainly during the night that they were locked up inside their cells. Then the jail guards would send them out five at a time to get their food, the next five coming out after the earlier five were inside.
On this occasion, according to Don Alfred, the inmates of A3 who were earlier looking normal, rushed out, grabbed him, took his keys, assaulted the jailor, and threw away the telephone. They then instigated the 800 prisoners upstairs to join them, opened the lobby gate and rushed out. [The jailor responsible for discipline, who was supposedly assaulted, did not testify!]
According to the Vocational Instructor M.E. Thillekeratne (37), some prisoners ran about 25 yards to the wood shed, apparently broke open the cupboards, and helped themselves to poles, axes and a saw. (The post-mortem reports suggest that they had acquired some long- bladed sharp instruments.) From the wood shed, they ran about 50 yards eastwards to the YOB, with a large unarmed crowd following them.
The YOB was in a compound surrounded by a six-foot high wall, with a gate directly opposite the main entrance, and a side entrance to the YOB was barricaded with tin sheets. Don Nicholas (25) was on this occasion the jail guard on duty inside the gate controlling the entry and exit of persons. He retained on his person the keys to the main entrance of the YOB, to the passage leading to the cells on the ground floor, to the cells and to the gate of the dormitory upstairs where the 9 professionals were held. With Don Nicholas were three jail guards in the compound and the supervising jailor. Two jail guards were locked into the passage with the cells and one in the lobby for those upstairs. Note that according to Don Nicholas, unlike in the Chapel Section, the jail guards locked inside did not have the keys to the cells. But this appears to be strange, as prisoners have to call the guards locked inside to open their cell to attend to a call of nature. Does this mean that additional precautions were being taken as though to prevent these traumatised prisoners from escaping? Escape where?
According to Nicholas, the armed prisoners came in by jumping over the wall and by breaking through the barricaded entrance. In all, there were 200–300 within the compound. The prison staff in the compound were overpowered, the keys were taken from him and the entrance to the YOB was unlocked. The crowd poured in. Others went upstairs and hammered at the dormitory gate.
As soon as Jansz had heard of the second outbreak, he telephoned Army HQ, as arranged earlier with Brigadier Madawela. President Jayewardene, who was with the Army Commander, asked Major Sunil Peiris, a pioneer commando in the Army, if he could handle the matter. Major Peiris left promptly in two jeeps with 12 other commandos. Assuming a 5 minute delay in Jansz phoning Army HQ, a further 5 minutes and 7 minutes to drive the 4 miles, it would have taken Peiris a minimum of 15 to 20 minutes to reach the trouble spot.
As though to explain the tragedy, the Chief Jailor was at pains to describe the precautions he took to prevent the jail break. In the morning
he had asked the commander of the army platoon to strengthen the guard outside the prison walls and claims to have posted armed jail guards at the gate. It may be noted that the purpose of the army platoon was to guard the Tamil PTA detainees, a half of whom had already been killed and not the normal prisoners. Although he claimed to have received information of a plan to attack the Tamil detainees besides an attempted jail-break, the only precautions he described concerned the latter. This observation was made in her notes by Suriya Wickremasinghe, through a reading of the Chief Jailor’s testimony. His priority, she observed, appears to be – prevent jail break first, protect life second.” This, after the terrible events of the 25th.
We will now see what he further said. On hearing the whistle blasts, he rushed out of his office to the main gate, ordered the sounding of alarm sirens and gongs. He saw 300 – 400 prisoners running from the Chapel Section to the YOB, scaling the wall of the YOB compound and breaking through the barricaded entrance, and ‘he got the distinct impression that some of them were attempting a mass jail break’! The wall behind the YOB leads not to the outside, but to the remand section of the prison compound on the eastern side! He then said, “As the most superior officer available at that time, I took immediate steps to prevent a mass jail break”. He deployed all the officials available ‘to various points’, ‘others within boundary walls’, some armed officers positioned outside the boundary wall with arms, ‘made sure that all exit points were with armed personnel’ and tried to get other officers to enter the enclosed compound housing the YOB.
He had done all this from the main entrance from which he called the army platoon stationed there by telephone, asking them to come immediately with assistance to quell the attempted jail break and ‘the riot within the prison’. All this time he seems to have been oblivious to the most urgent threat that was manifest from what happened on the 25th and what he had seen going on around the YOB. He had kept on reminding the inquest that being the senior most person available (4th in the Welikade hierarchy) he had to take decisions on two conflicting priorities.
He then ran to the YOB, entered the compound through the broken barricade, and appealed to the crowd to get back. He heard the crowd inside banging the cell doors, threatening to kill the Tamils and to axe any officer who came. Then he said, “At that stage the armed prison officers whom I had stood in readiness for such an eventuality turned up.” (Where were they till then and what were they doing? – SW.) He ordered them ‘to shoot warning shots into the sky’ as he deemed customary. He then said that he made an announcement asking the crowd to disperse or face direct firing. This he said he did not have to do as the army commandos arrived within a minute or two of the warning shots. But the army platoon stationed at the prison never arrived!
The Chief Jailor here spoke of armed prison officers turning up at his side, who were not with him when he ran to the YOB. Earlier he had given the impression that all armed officers had either been posted outside the prison or at exit points to prevent a jail break.
As to what was happening to the Tamil detainees, we quote from a survivor’s account published in the Tamil monthly Amuthu of July 1999: “In view of the earlier discussion among ourselves, on the 27th we requested the authorities to allow us together inside the passage, as was usual during daytime. This was refused. [Note that Leo de Silva with whom their representatives had spoken was not questioned at the inquest. Note also that despite the warning from prison intelligence, even the dangerous prisoners in A3 were by contrast allowed free in the passage to escape and attack the Tamils, while the latter were locked up in the cells.]
“We prepared ourselves by storing up gravy and curries to be thrown on the faces of attackers. [Others questioned by SW had also spoken of preparing small weapons with tins and plates.] In the afternoon we heard a crowd approaching us with the same kind of banging noises as on the 25th. I put my face to the cell bars and peeped. I identified the person leading the mob as Sepala Ekanayake, the plane hijacker. I saw another who came with him having a bunch of keys. [They had come in by opening the main door and the passage door.] Our cells did not have locks that had to be opened with a master key such as in the Parade (Chapel), but had padlocks.
“Those who came into the passage with axes, long jungle knives, pounding poles, rice ladles and iron bars tried to open our lock. In the excitement, Thurairajah who was in our cell threw all the curries in one go. As the result, we could not ward them off from breaking the cell lock for a long time. The three of us looped the bed sheets around the cell bars and pulled to delay their opening the door. Once they cut the bed sheet, we held the door with our hands. Our hands were hammered and we could do no more.
“The attackers who came into our cell rained blows on Thurairajah. I saw him drop dead with knife cuts. I hammered out at the two assailants in front of me. One swung an axe at me. Though I parried it with my hand, I received a cut on my head. Despite the pain I held an assailant in front of me as a shield with one hand in a vice-like grip and wedged myself into a corner. With my remaining hand and a leg I hit out at those who tried to get me. While I once kicked out, a huge blow fell on my leg, and the leg could no longer support me. As soon as I fell down blows rained on me in quick succession. I stopped resisting and feigned death.
“Suddenly the blows stopped, and the attackers started running away. Then I saw soldiers with gas masks moving in. I thought to myself that I should not lose consciousness. I heard some Tamil voices and movement. I spoke out, “I am alive, save me!”. Douglas Devananda came to me, and behind him, Manikkadasan, Alagiri, Subramaniam and Farook.”
While the attack was going on downstairs, the upstairs dormitory door padlock had been opened or broken. In the meantime hearing the commotion, most of the nine prisoners prepared themselves with bits of furniture and the legs of a table. From a letter written by one of the survivors, Dr. Rajasundaram went to the entrance to talk with the attackers, appealing to their humanity. Someone took Rajasundaram by a hand, pulled him out, and he was slain. His companions immediately rushed to the entrance and using the objects in their hands, prevented the attackers from coming in. Effectively six of them were involved in this task. Dr. Tharmalingam, a septuagenarian, stood behind but played a central role in the defence by constantly encouraging his companions and shouting warnings. The defenders, few in number, occasionally fell down, either physically exhausted or when a blow found its mark. But with Dr. Tharmalingam’s urging they got up and sprang into the breach. Tharmalingam told SW in England many years later with considerable amusement, that the remaining member of their group had removed himself to a side and was praying.
This experience demonstrated the point of the survivors from C3, Chapel Section, who wanted to be allowed together in the passage, where the 28 of them had a fighting chance of defending one entrance, rather than being picked off in their cells. Among those upstairs, all survived except for Rajasundaram. The attackers stopped and ran as the commandos entered.
We now continue with the testimony of the victim downstairs.
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
*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..