23 April, 2024


Wijedasa Liyanarachchi Case: A Lesson For Perpetrators Of Human Rights

By W.A Wijewardena

Dr. W.A Wijewardena

Dr. W.A Wijewardena

Almighty governments fighting with citizens

When an almighty government is at war with a section of its own citizens, the era is replete with so many horror stories. Governments use all the powers with them – legal, political, propaganda and financial – to project the other party which it fights with as villains. Thus, anything done by the Government to destroy the villain is justified.

Many perish at the hands of governmental authorities leaving only sad memories. Of them, some important personalities stand up and continue to fight against the authoritative regimes even after death. Wijedasa Liyanarachchi, the lawyer who died in police custody in 1988, is one such personality.

Sins visiting perpetrators after many years

Wijedasa Liyanarachchi is only one case in Sri Lanka where a leading private citizen died in the hands of law enforcement authorities. Sri Lanka is not alone in committing such gruesome murders against citizens. In many parts of the world such abuse of human rights had happened in the past, is happening even today and will happen in the future as well.

Wijedasa Liyanarachchi

Wijedasa Liyanarachchi

At the time of committing such felonies, the perpetrators are confident that they are far away from the long arm of the law. But history has shown that they resurface after many years and in many cases the perpetrators have been tried by specially established courts of law, if the ordinary court system is not powerful enough to handle them effectively.

One such example is provided by the arrest and indictment of the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet who held absolute power in that country for 17 long years.

Case against Augusto Pinochet

General Augusto Pinochet seized power in Chile in 1973 in a military coup after deposing Chile’s popularly elected President Salvador Allende. At that time, Chile’s economy was in shambles but Pinochet was able to make a turnaround in the economy by getting a substantially high flow of aid from Western countries, chiefly the US.

However, he has been charged with getting rich through “illegal arms deals” and “illegal drug deals”. On top of this, he was accused of eliminating his political opponents in the most brutal manner numbering some 2279 persons, according to a Chilean government appointed commission called the National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation whose report is popularly known as the Rettig Report, released in 1991.

Pinochet escaped jail but his collaborators could not

Amidst the mounting political opposition to his rule, he tried to extend his presidency by nine more years in 1988 by calling a referendum which he lost by 55 to 45. Eight years later after giving up power in 1990, in 1998, he was first charged in Spain under universal jurisdiction principles. He was arrested in the UK but released later to facilitate him to return to Chile on health grounds. He was charged again in Chile for murder but the case got dragged on till 2006 when he died due to a prolonged illness. Though he escaped having served a jail sentence, he lost his face, reputation and respect due to numerous charges preferred against him.

However, 67 military officers who had collaborated with him in committing these crimes were convicted later. Thus, the long arm of the law reached Pinochet and his accomplices even after many years.

Reopening of Wijedasa Liyanarachchi case

In Sri Lanka, 27 years after the gruesome murder of Wijedasa Liyanarachchi, a forensic expert, Ravindra Fernando, Senior Professor of Forensic Medicine at the Colombo University’s Medical Faculty, has dug out the materials from their resting places and presented them to readers in the form of a book.

The book titled ‘Death of a Lawyer in Police Custody: The Wijedasa Liyanarachchi Case’ was released in Colombo a few weeks back. In fact, this is the third of a series of books which the erudite professor has been writing on important medico-legal cases that have baffled, shocked and intrigued Sri Lankans. The previous two books relate to the famous Sathasivam Case and Mathew Pieris Case. In all the three books, Ravindra Fernando uses his impressive writing skills to keep the readers in continuous suspense until they come to the very end of the book.

Crusade against torture and death

Ravindra Fernando, as it should be, does not take a side. Instead, he presents the facts to enable his readers to make their own judgments on the case. But what has motivated him to write the book has been presented in an opening sentence of the preface. Says Ravindra Fernando: “I consider cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment and punishment as well as deaths in custody following torture as most appalling violations of human rights.”

Indeed, the case in question has all these bad qualifications: cruel, inhuman, degrading, torture and death. He had a particular interest in the case because he had to look after the interests of the Sri Lanka Bar Association as a forensic medicine expert and, therefore, was privy to firsthand information relating to what transpired in the investigations and the subsequent court proceedings. Yet, he has presented his case not on hearsay but on solid evidence which he has unearthed by digging into old records.

Human rights lawyer becomes the hunted

The plot, as it was unfolded in subsequent investigations, is as follows. Wijedasa Liyanarachchi had been a junior lawyer working in the chambers of the famous criminal lawyer Ranjit Abeysuriya. He had been angry at the human rights violations being perpetrated and sympathetic of the youth who had been persecuted by the authorities on the charge of waging a war against the state. Thus, he had appeared in courts of law on behalf of them, for a very low fee.

Naturally, as always is the case, it would have angered the authorities who did not wish civil society to question what they did and become a tumbling block in their fight against what they termed as ‘terrorism’. Hence, unbeknownst to Liyanarachchi he became hunted.

Abduction of the lawyer by a police team

The ugly arm of the law enforcement authorities touched him one day when he was coming out of the court house at Hulftsdorp, the supreme temple of justice in the country.

He was abducted and transported to Tangalla, a local town located about 150 km to the south of Colombo. His abductors, as revealed later, consisted of SP, Tangalla, assisted by two police officers.

At first, there was a complete blackout of any news about Liyanarachchi. His senior lawyer alerted all the law enforcement authorities but even the IGP was not aware of whether he had been arrested by the police.

Later, it was revealed that the DIG in charge of the Southern Range had sent a radio message to police stations within his authority inquiring about whether a lawyer by the name of Wijedasa Liyanarachchi had been arrested and detained in any of those police stations. The answer had been in the negative.

Taking the wrong man in the wrong manner

It appeared that the police had touched the wrong man in the wrong manner this time because it caused so much of agitation and protests in Colombo.

The Bar Association, smelling foul play, began an all out protest and the authorities could no longer ignore the brewing discontent in civil society.

Then, all of a sudden, Wijedasa Liyanarachchi surfaced in Tangalla as a terrorist suspect arrested by the police and held in police custody there. As if in an attempt at justifying the arrest, the state media, as usual, began publishing stories about Liyanarachchi chairing a kangaroo court that had passed death sentences on many noteworthy people at that time, including the actor-turned politician, Vijaya Kumaratunga.

However, if the story were true, it itself should cause goosebumps in the political authority, since Liyanarachchi was not an ordinary terrorist suspect but someone at the top. It therefore threatened the stability of the Government and political leadership. Sensing the danger, the political authority ordered that he be transferred from Tangalla to Sapugaskanda claiming that it would make his life safer.

But it was too late and, by that time, the mortal blow to his life had already been delivered at Tangalla. Two days after he was transferred to Sapugaskanda, Liyanarachchi succumbed to his internal injuries at the National Hospital, Colombo. Forensic medicine expert Ravindra Fernando opines as follows at the end of the excerpts of the statement given by Liyanarachchi to the police to educate the readers: “The fact that Mr. Liyanarachchi complained of frequent thirst and asked for water was an indication that he was having internal bleeding following the injuries he sustained from torture.”

A man becoming more powerful in death

Then all the hell broke loose, making Liyanarachchi even more powerful in death than he ever was when alive. The Bar Association took a tough stand, demanding an immediate investigation to bring the culprits to justice and unanimously resolved that none of their members would appear before courts on behalf of police officers.

The writer, Ravindra Fernando, was engaged by the Bar Association to represent its interests at the post-mortem as an observer so that the authorities could not engage in any cover-up operation. It appeared that the Government was at war not only with the so-called terrorists but also with the intelligentsia and the professionals of the country. Surely, that was not what the Government would have expected.

The trivial value attributed to the life of a dead lawyer

Ravindra Fernando explains in minute detail the tense situation that had engulfed the country at that time. In the post-mortem, it was revealed that Liyanarachchi had sustained over 100 body injuries, two rib fractures and damage to internal organs, clearly due to torture while in police custody.

However, it was also revealed that he was not tortured after he was transferred to Sapugaskanda, implying that all injuries had been sustained while he was in Tangalla.

Due to the mounting pressure from the lawyers and civic society organisations, the Government could not sweep it under the carpet. Accordingly, SP, Tangalla and the two police officers who had helped him to abduct Liyanarachchi were tried in court.

The original charges included conspiracy to murder and then carrying out murder and conspiracy to illegal detention and then carrying out illegal detention.

The trial at bar which heard the case acquitted them of the first two charges and found them guilty in the case of the latter two.

Accordingly, they were ordered to pay compensation and were handed suspended prison sentences. In effect, the penalties did not affect their career in the police. The compensation for the loss of life was Rs. 55,000, Rs. 17,500 and Rs. 7,500 by the three accused. That was the value of the life of a human rights lawyer as determined by courts at that time.

Value of life is infinite to the possessor

Economists have tried hard to give a value to human life. One cannot go by market valuation of life here because of the conflicting valuations done by the person possessing life and the others in society.

For the person possessing life, the value is infinite. For others, it ranges from zero to a finite value. There cannot be a market determined equilibrium value for life as in the case of a commodity, say, coconuts. Because of these conflicting valuations and the inability of the market to give a proper valuation to life, legal philosophers have given powers for a person to self-defend his life even at the destruction of the lives of those who seek to deprive him or her of life. They also have established legal machineries to prevent the authorities from arbitrarily or illegally depriving the lives of citizens. As it happened in the good old days, as demonstrated by Emperor Asoka in the third century BCE, the right to life was extended even to animals.

Today, with more informed societies, there is no reason to ignore the value of human life and the need for protecting life.

The big farce of the legal system in Sri Lanka

The Wijedasa Liyanarachchi case was a big farce in Sri Lanka’s legal system though Ravindra Fernando has not said it directly. A man died at the hands of the police and all the forensic evidence showed that it was due to torture while in illegal detention. The courts have found even the people who are guilty of that illegal detention. Yet, there are no people who have caused that death. Investigators and courts have certainly failed in protecting the lives of citizens. The bad precedent created by the Liyanarachchi case has given licence to later generation politicians and law enforcement authorities to go on a free spree of depriving those who do not agree with their political machinations of their basic rights.

Death in police custody continues

All those who had agitated vigorously for Liyanarachchi forgot him soon. It was simply filed away as yet another instance of a human rights violation in Sri Lanka by the authorities. Since then, there have been hundreds and thousands of such cases which have been more gruesome, crueler and more inhumane. Hence, his case was a forgotten subject until Ravindra Fernando reopened it with his book.

Prevention of similar human tragedies a must

Ravindra Fernando explains why he wrote the book in the last two sentences of the concluding chapter. Says he: “This book would not have seen the light of the day if the JVP did not take arms in 1987. I fervently hope that lessons learnt from reading this book will help to prevent a similar human tragedy in Sri Lanka in the future.” On that count alone, it is a must-read.

*W.A Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at waw1949@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 3

    This thought inciting article lays foundation for healthy discussion to build a genuine and influential system to prevent human rights violation in future. The best way of doing it is, as Mr. Wijewardane implies, not by burring previous incidence under carpet but finding the truth and bringing the wrongdoers to the justice system.

    • 0

      Thank you Dr. Wije!

      The violence of the law makers (politicians) and custodians of Law ( police and armed forces) is the worst and most pervasive form of violence in post-colonial Sri Lanka.
      This is why Sri Lanka is such a brutalize country. The politicians and their cronies and so called guardians of law are the biggest law breakers, corrupt criminals and killers. the JVP and LTTE reflect the phenomenon of victims of the State becoming killers. A vicious cycle that may yet repeat itself as long as the Jarapassa family and its violent cronies and corrupt politicians have impunity.

      The police and military need to be down sized, cleaned up. and cleaned out for Sri Lanka to become a country at peace with itself.

      Good one Dr Wijewardena! Keep it coming..

  • 0

    “The bad precedent created by the Liyanarachchi case has given licence to later generation politicians and law enforcement authorities to go on a free spree of depriving those who do not agree with their political machinations of their basic rights.”

    This is only a mile stone in the history of how the Lankawe’s legal profession has been shaped to cover up its murders worldwide. These did not stop in Lankawe. When Dayan was ambassador in France, Lankawe sent hitmen to carry out murders on Tamils. Even French Police or Interpol did not play a good role in uncovering these murders.

    It did not stop there. This habit of easy torturing promoted Lankawe to make the rape as an official weapon of the Lankawe Government and promote the Lankawe as the fastest growing sex trade country. Sex Trade, Drug Trade, Arms Trade, illegal currency Trades, Human smuggling to Australia like countries and slave and domestic worker export and lease to Middle East started to replace the Lankawe’s prominent tea, rubber, coconut, Garments like exchange earning trades. A large number of Tamils and a considerable numbers of Sinhalese and Muslims left the country unable to take the pain any more. Tamils were because of communal pogroms which were looting their properties, raping their women and killing their family members by armed forces and thugs, and the army occupation of their lands and other communities because of the difficulty of practicing their professions. All community journalists met this difficulty and forced to leave the country though Tamils met the most murders. Doctors lawyers are examples of other professional deprived, being deprived to practice their profession with freedom. Doctors were many timed forced to abort the victims’ pregnancies by the armed forces and write false reason to deaths of the victims. Human smuggling by the defenses were done by the defense officials and Royal families. People were approached and told their lands are being taken over the defense. The compensation for it is they will be offered help to travel foreign countries and claim refugee status. They put in unsafe boats left of the high sea. When they were spotted by Australian government and their coordinates were passed to Royal Governments, Royal governments went and bombed the boats to prevent them proceed further. Australian government which found out the Royal governments’ activities, instead of punishing them under international laws, either bribed the Royal governments or suppressed the truths found out by their intelligent agents. Rampage by the Royal governments are not ending at one sector of the society’s religion, job, living arrangements, health, and culture. Nowhere anything is being spared by these Royal governments. Even the simple entertainments the national games become the wildest events. Players were murdered, Referees were beaten up, and Money making from stadium building to relaying the sports on the media became the Royal governments’ property. International organization censured and refused licenses for the local ones. Principals, Teachers were abused and beaten up in front the students. Their appointments and transfers became cash cows for royals, military and paramilitaries. Exams took places in air conditioned rooms for Royals.

    In fact it all started with disenfranchising its own citizens and throwing them from the mountain to valleys claiming them as they are not Native Sinhalese as per the Royal governments’ definitions. . It kept growing up to today’s cases. The tiny ones Sarnia, Vidya were raped and to cover it, murdered. Now Usanthi Uthayakumar has been murdered. All the victims’ families were brought under control of the armed forces and forced them to back off from the cases. Sometimes, even the government appointed fraudulent lawyers for the families to twist the cases in the angle they want. These are atrocities would not have happened even in the Idi Amin government, but are normal judgements received by Tamils on a daily basis under Yahapalanaya government too. There are news up to New Royal Prime Minister, Ranil have hands on these coverings. Ranil have established a record of protecting criminal-armed forces by refusing to sign to ICC accord and while he was the opposition leader visiting on government’s fund to UN office, New York, and demanding to withdraw the UNSG’s Expert Panel report from UN as it had accused Lanakwe forces as involved in war crimes. The interesting matter is He was in the opposition. He was the man who should have brought out these to public. This is how the opposition and government get together in Lankawe to cover up official murders.

    Shiranee Bandaranaike’s case is one of the end results of opposition and government working together to play Pink Pong on the highest level of the legal professionals, who are The CJs. Buffoon de Silva was appointed as the Chief Jester by Chandrika, the princess of Attanagalla. She is the one put Shiranee, a novice, inexperienced woman in the Supreme Court too. Buffoon De Silva, in his turn, throne Old King on the EP post. Old king, with an eye on the National Bank and using her Colombo Chetty husband on the robberies, made this novice as the CJ. When the deals fell apart, Shiranee, to protect her husband, took the Divineguma, a clear unconstitutional law, in her hand. Her masters turned wild and to revenge her, even pull out her personal bank account statements to courts and published them to mass consumption. Mokan Peiris was stationed as the new CJ. He is a man who openly demanded an ambassador post to vacate the CJ position that he had illegally obtained. Top sanctity legal position, CJ has become a normal trading commodity to illegal professionals. When Yahapalanaya government took over, it doubled the illegal dismissals. First it dismissed Mokan Peiris without any procedure claiming he had no real appointment (But never dismissed any of the cases he rendered during his tenure- They stand as they are). Then, it re-appointed Shiranee. The comic did not stop there. Ranil did not like the SLFP woman continue on the post. So, dismissed her without any explanation and brought a puppet in her place.

    Sriskantharajah believed murdered and a cover up was done by not allowing his funeral taking place. Another top man Upul Jayasuriya, the Chairman of BASL was part of highlighting this development. Yahapalanaya government has silenced him. He may never ever talk about this again. Sriskandarajah’s family is unlikely to take courage against the New Royals government and talk about it. Apparently they abandoned the funeral and just buried his corpse when the Old Royals threatened them.

    The Old Royals Justice Minister Hakeem is accused of a woman’s death. It was speculated that is why he, even though many times the Muslims were harassed, had fully surrendered to Old King to stay out of that case coming to light. Muslims in Aluthgama handed him the evidences of the murders by the armed forces believing him that he would take action at ministerial level. He seems to have taken control of those evidences only to destroy the evidences and cover up BBS and defense forces on that incident. Whatever the truth is, those cases did not meet proper legal standards under Old and New Royal governments. The DIG Indiran who attempted to protect the Aluthgama people was punished by IGP Illangakoon. Again everybody knows these punishments were ordered by the Defense secretary.
    The incumbent law and order minister had to resign his post for having helped to suppress the case of illegal arms sales involving a defense contract company. The current Justice Minister, even after his relationship with the company officials uncovered, has refused to resign having helping the company.
    Lawyer and current M.P Sumanthiran was appearing for a Media company being sued for uncovering a millions dollars thefts in defense instruments purchase. Under Old Royal, it appeared the Old Royals may lose the case. But, when the Yahapalanaya New royals came to power, they forced the media company to go for an out of court settlement.

    Lankawe is not the land for common mass to live. Especially it is not for the minorities. Only a referendum like Scottish one is the solution for Tamils.

  • 1

    How can we thank the author of this article for bringing the book to our attention?
    How can we thank Ravindra Fernando for writing the book?
    Civil society has a lot more responsibility when our politicians keep breaking the most basic moral law ?????

  • 0

    We talk a lot about Wijedasa Liyanarachchi and many others whose life was snatched and snuffed. Some decimated in tyre pyres. Both the well known figures, Wijedassa Liyanarachchi and Richard de Zoysa were victims of a philosophy that was in vogue, particularly by the gentry of that era and now shed tears on human rights. If there was the slightest suspicion of being with the JVP then mete the punishment of summary execution and dispose the body. They don’t deserve to live. We know that thinking is wrong but that was the thinking of the mighty where might was right.

    Leave alone Wijedasa and Richard what about the top brass. With the exception of Somawansa Amarasinghe all others were caught and put to an end on some pretext or the other. To the gentry “That is Oh! Oh! Kay!”. If they did wrong and if they had to be punished even with death and executed after due process it is still the upholding of the rule of law which we cherish. But the gentry of the day would say “MAD! Do you want to drag the case for years and let some of them go scot free and many others go free after some years! NO WAY! Ranjan did a maaarvelous job in eliminating them quicky!”. But with respect to others, the very same gentry would say it is utterly wrong for so and so to do this and do that. Clearly the “Patricians” or the well to do in this country seem to have double standards.

    There has to be a system in which a country in an emergency must behave and deal with anarchy successfully. Even the present day duplicity practised with respect to demonstrations are unsatisfactory. You make the Police independent at least on paper. Then expect them to handle the most sophisticated set of demonstrators. If a girl or two is inhumanly treated then you punish the Police Officers and escape the wrath. DO YOU THINK THAT THE POLICE WILL SAFE GUARD THE POLITICIANS FOREVER IN THIS MANNER?. WHATY HAPPENED TO ERSHAD OF BANGLADESH?

    POLITICIANS IN GOVERNMENT, OPPOSITION, LAW ENFORCEMENT, CIVIL SOCIETY and other stake holders must take the trouble to put a frame work in place to deal with national emergencies of all kinds.

  • 0

    The author of this article, and commentators Mallaiyuran, Punitham and Good sense have partially uncovered the sadistic, communal & military regimes of the past whose brands of ‘justice’ still prevail in this Dharmadwipa.

    But the present regime do not want international judges & prosecutors to inquire as required by the UNHRC resolution proposed by Sri Lanka itself.

    The sadists are now in parliament, state enterprises & diplomatic service and are pretending that all is well.

    Even the Paranagama Commission is carrying on its farcical inquiries as required & enforced by military intelligence operatives, to whitewash the state’s past crimes.
    The peacetime military are allotted the largest chunk of the budget and none in parliament dares to propose the pruning of the military, saving billions.
    Our children and their children have to bear the burden.
    Those who thought if returning to the homeland they knew, are rethinking, hoping that real justice will return, but their hopes are being dashed by the realities being uncovered in CT, regularly.

  • 0

    As for Wijedasa Liyanaarachchi, he was hunted by DIG Udugampala for being the person responsible for giving the Okay to the JVP to burn Udugampola’s house with his aged old mother, sister, servants and his little nephews and nieces. Wijedasa Liyanaarachchi was no Angel being a JVPer himself, where he had tacitly approved many a murder. People who fight for Human Rights, should not be violators of Human Rights. We all know what the JVP did, during the height of Terror unleashed by them. So this killing of WL has to be viewed in the frame work of violence where one’s mother, sister, little nephews and nieces were burned alive.

    • 1


      I remember DIG Udugampola coming to the Peradeniya’s residential halls along with Brigadier Wijaya Wimalaratne and brandishing his pistol in front of students with a menacing posture. It is true that several Sinhalese undergrads had joined the JVP. And I was aware that Udugampola had a notoriety as a JVP hunter.

      At that time I didn’t know JVP had killed his family. I came to know that years later. Regardless, I would argue even now, as I did then, that the then UNP regime should have stuck to the law, and when necessary arrested and prosecuted people even in large numbers, without killing off thousands without any due process to ascertain any crimes they might have committed. If the regime at high levels had the will, it could have been done, even with whatever constraints they faced.

      Sinhalese society’s failure to hold the then regime accountable at that time, led to grave abuses by later regimes culminating in the vile ways of MR.

  • 0

    haha I have few question to ask.

    If Wijayadasa L was so badly beaten and tortured at tangalla (enough to die two days later), why wasn’t he admitted to National Hospital once he was brought to colombo?

    Why was he handed over to Sapugaskanda? Does the Sapugaskanda police station also has team of doctors among its staff?

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