Noori Estate judgement : A day of liberation for Basnagala | Sunday Observer

Noori Estate judgement : A day of liberation for Basnagala

The judgement given by the Avissawella High Court judge Devika Abeyratne sentencing 18 people including former Chairman of the Deraniyagala Pradeshiya Sabha to death over the brutal murder of renowned planter Nihal Perera, the superintendent of Noori Tea Estate in Basnagala, Deraniyagala gave a strong message to local politicians who misuse and abuse their political power to run their own kingdoms.

Though the murder of Noori Tea estate superintendent Nihal Perera was considered yet another murder at first, it became an extraordinary case as it exposed the darker side of an isolated hamlet in the estate sector in the country which suffered at the hands of thugs who acted with the blessings of local politicians.

November 25, 2016, the day of the judgement on the Noori estate murder case, became a day of liberation for people in the Basnagala area as they were confident that the gang led by Anil Champika alias Atha Kota the former Chariman of Deraniyagala Pradeshiya Sabha and his uncle’s son Amila Wijesinghe will not be back in their village to suppress and torture them.

But, it was after a hard and strenuous process, that the law enforcement authorities could get the people in Noori estate, who remained mute when giving statements to the Police against the perpetrators of this crime committed in broad daylight, for fear of reprisals. Therefore, it took months for the law enforcement authorities to get information from the people that would reveal the identities of the perpetrators.

People in Basnagala feared they would be subjected to torture by the thugs led by Atha Kota and Amila Wijesinghe as they knew that the Deraniyagala Police would leak whatever statement they gave to the Police regarding the brutal assault on Nihal Perera.

Prosecution

According to Senior State Counsel Shanil Kularatne who appeared for the prosecution in the case, there wouldn’t have been a case at all if not for the Police Special Task Force personnel who took control of the security in the Basnagala area and the CID team that took over the investigation on the directive of the then Inspector General of Police.

“It was after the assurance given to the people in Basnagala that they will be protected by the STF personnel, that the people in the area started giving evidence to the CID team conducting investigations,” Kularatne added.

It was on July 5, 2013, that Nihal Perera, a 72 year old Superintendent of Noori Tea Estate was assaulted by the gang led by Anil Nishantha and Amila Wijesinghe the first and second accused in the case. A veteran in the plantation sector, Nihal Perera in early 2013, took over the administration of Noori estate, which produced the most expensive tea in Sri Lanka, to be exported to the US market. It was a period where these thugs were taking control over the estate and plundering its assets, including the employees for their personnel benefits.

An experienced planter, Nihal Perera wanted to maintain the dignity of his post as Superintendent of the estate, and fought fearlessly against the people led by Anil Champika Wijesinghe and Amila Wijesinghe who for generations depended on this estate. It was with the political power that they started grabbing the assets of the estate, threatening the superintendents.

In February 2013, Atha Kota and second accused Amila took over the monopoly of supplying firewood to the factory and refused to accept the decision by the factory management to reduce a percentage from the weight of the firewood for humidity. Since they used to cut the trees from the estate reservation itself Nihal Perera protested against this.

Nihal Perera experienced the first challenge from this gang in February 2013 and his leg was fractured when this gang assaulted him after a disagreement he had with Atha Kota over the supply of firewood for the factory. It was after the healing of his wounds that Perera returned to the estate taking an obvious risk to his life as he wanted to be at the estate rather than working from his Colombo office.

The company which runs this estate provided him three body guards for his security, as they expected further attacks from the gang who wanted the estate to be run as they wished. On that particular date, on July 5, 2013 when Nihal Perera was on his usual inspection in the estate with his bodyguards, the mob led by Amila Wijesinghe brutally assaulted the two body guards who were waiting in Perera’s vehicle, until he finished his routine inspection.

The second accused and the mob assaulted Mohamed Faleel and Ruwan Nishantha, the two security guards waiting in the double cab while a few others were following Nilantha Kumara the other security guard who started to run for his life.

Nihal Perera and Muniprema Jayasinghe, an employee of the estate having seen the commotion, ran for their life as they knew that they will be their next target and had to take cover in an abandoned bungalow as a crowd started pelting stones at them.

The mob, after brutally assaulting the security guards put them in the vehicle of Nihal Perera and took them to the factory premises. They then ran towards Nihal Perera from the other direction as they knew that he was reaching towards the factory from that direction.

The 72 year old Perera could not run as the mob reached him and he was brutally assaulted at the officers’ quarters which was only 40 to 50 metres from the factory, and he was taken to his vehicle parked at the factory premises.

Suranga Abeygunawardhena and Sumudu Nilantha Piyasena who were at the officers’ quarters also witnessed how Nihal Perera was assaulted by the mob.

According to Shanil Kularatne, some employees there said: ‘Mahattayawa kunu malu kellak vage genave’. (The master was brought there like a piece of rotten fish by the mob).

Then they put the two bodyguards hiding in the factory and Nihal Perera into his vehicle and the entire mob got in and took them to an isolated location outside the estate. On their way to the third crime scene, about half a kilometre away from the estate they had stopped at a barber shop and taken a shaving knife from the barber shop.

“What they were doing was publicly displaying the deceased and his bodyguards to give a warning to other people,” Shanil Kularatne added.

A threatening call from Atha Kota to Sumudu Priyantha’s estate officers’ telephone prevented the employees from informing the Police or going in search of their master. At the isolated location, about half a kilometre away from the estate, the mob separated the three of them and stripped them down to their underwear. They were brutally assaulted with swords and clubs. Their clothes were later found in separate locations in the premises.

According to the witnesses (the bodyguards), the first accused Atha Kota came in another vehicle and had given orders to assault the three of them with clubs and swords. Though they could not see what was happening they heard what was going on.

After assaulting them mercilessly, they left the scene in another vehicle. The bodyguards, with much difficulty brought Nihal Perera to his bungalow and with the assistance of a domestic aide took him to the Deraniyagala hospital and on admission to the hospital Nihal Perera breathed his last.

“Though it happened in broad daylight no one was willing to identify the people who had assaulted Nihal Perera and his two bodyguards. It was with great difficulty, much persuasion and assurance given by the STF personnel that people started revealing the truth,” the Senior State Counsel added.

As the incident was given wide publicity and brought to the notice of higher officials of the Police, an STF team reached the area to take control of security. A senior STF officer, who spoke to the Sunday Observer regarding the situation in Basnagala at that time, said, they too were warned by the people when they reached the area on the day of the incident.

“Leave the area without getting killed by them” was the message they got from the people.

“However we managed to build the confidence of the people after having meetings with them in temples, kovils and other public places,” the STF official added.

“We have seen people getting discriminated at the hands of thugs and notorious gangs in other countries. But, it was the first time we saw such a situation in Sri Lanka.. It was a terrible situation that prevailed in Basnagala,” he said. These people who had lived a pathetic life with income earned by working in the estate became thugs after they got political power into their hands, since 2008. It made them behave like beasts in the area, doing what they wished, using innocent lives as their toys.

People in Basnagala with growing confidence after the arrival of the STF personnel started narrating how their women were raped by these gangs as they wished, in the presence of their husbands and children, and how they tortured people who defy their orders. “There had been no escape for the religious dignitaries, and even the Police officers who visited the area for their duties,” the official added.

It was with the help of prominent people in the area, including the Grama Sevaka, who came forward to assist the people, that the STF personnel started a dialogue with the people and compiled their complains. On the recommendations of the STF officers, the IGP took steps to establish a Police post in Basnagala.

“Hundreds of complaints poured into this Police post on rape, theft, robberies, assault, plundering of properties and brewing of kasippu in the area.

Step by step we stopped brewing Kasippu in the area which had become a menace to the area. But, a sister of the second accused continued to brew Kasippu as she was confident that her brother would be released one day. We stopped her too after arresting her several times”, the official said.

According to Sub Inspector S.M Polwatta, who was with the CID team that conducted investigations, first, they had to remove the fear among the people, about this gang. It was done by the STF officers, who took control of the security in the area.

“Initially, all the witnesses feared to identify the mob, but after extensive questioning and giving them confidence that they will not be under threat we managed to get the names of the people who assaulted Nihal Perera and his two bodyguards,” the CID officer said.

Indictments

It took nearly two months for them to arrest 24 suspects, the last two being arrested in the Embilipitiya area two months after the incident.

“After gathering all the evidence, it took nearly one year to file indictments against the suspects and three out of the 24 suspects were released at the magisterial inquiry itself. Another three people were acquitted by the High Court as there was no evidence to prove their involvement in the incident”, he added.

A CID team led by ASP Ranasinghe, CI Jagath Rohana and Sub Inspector S.M. Polwatta conducted the investigations.

According to Senior State Counsel Shanil Kularatne, there were many allegations against the Deraniyagala Police for not conducting investigations on the incidents happening in the area, and 8 to 10 Police officers attached to Deraniyagala Police were transferred after this incident.

“It came to light that they have failed to investigate the reported crimes, and also, according to the evidence given by witnesses, when they make a complaint to the Police against those accused they get assaulted the following day by the accused. That is because they were communicating with the Police,” he added.

The case started hearing in the High Court on February 23, 2015 and had almost 40 trial days. There were 72 witnesses in the indictment and the prosecution led evidence of about 25 witnesses.

Out of the 18 accused sentenced to death by the High Court, many are related to each other and many of them are brothers. The first accused Anil Nishantha is the uncle of the second accused Amila Wijesinghe. The second accused, 14th and 19th accused are also brothers, while the 20th accused and the 17th accused are brothers.

“The 4th, 5th and 20th accused were acquitted as no evidence transpired against them,” Shanil Kularatne added.

Finally, 18 were sentenced to death by the Avissawella High Court Judge Devika Abeyratne on November 25, fully liberating Basnagala area at the expense of the life of veteran planter Nihal Perera.

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