Welikada Prison Massacre under whose watch? | Sunday Observer

Welikada Prison Massacre under whose watch?

Gotabaya Rajapaksa
Gotabaya Rajapaksa

On November 9, 2012, around 1.30 pm, over 700 STF personnel armed with automatic weapons arrived at the entrance of the Welikada prison demanding to be let in. Their task on the day, they said, was to carry out a raid to quash illegal activities within the prison walls. But as the STF had arrived without the approval as required by the Prisons Ordinance, an argument between the STF officers and Prison guards ensued. Claiming that the orders came from ‘higher ups’, the STF stormed into the Welikada prison amidst the protests by the Prison officials. The forcible entry of the STF and the Army to the prison under the pretext of an illegal weapons raid eventually resulted in chaos and bloodshed. The incident led to the deaths of 27 inmates, injuring 40 others.

But even as the High Court Trial-at-Bar hearing the Welikada Prison Massacre commenced this week nearly seven years after government troops stormed the Welikada Prison, the question as to who ordered this allegedly illegal raid remains unanswered. Instead, indicted for the crimes which took place on that fateful day in November 2012, are IP Neomal Rangajeewa, formerly of the Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB), Emil Ranjan Lamahewage, former Commissioner of the Welikada Prison and Indika Sampath, a former Prison Official of the Welikada Prison.

The trio has been charged with 33 counts, including the murders of 27 prisoners during the incident, conspiracy and unlawful assembly. While the case had trudged along in recent years, the interest taken by the Attorney General’s Department to expedite the case must have come as a solace to the victims and witnesses of the case. But instead, they continue to question as to who masterminded the raid where selected prisoners in a list were killed and on whose authority did the government troops enter the Welikada prison on the day disregarding all the common procedures in place. “The three accused cannot be absolved, but why are others who are responsible for giving the orders not indicted,” questioned Counsel Senaka Perera who has continuously appeared for the aggrieved. “Why do they have immunity?” he asked.

Those connected to the Welikada Prison Massacre case, have drawn parallels between the situations of Former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando who has found himself in a plethora of legal troubles following the Easter Sunday attacks and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Secretary of Defence from 2005 - 2015 who appears to have been absolved of any responsibility when it comes to the Welikada Prison Massacre and a number of other incidents which took place under his watch.

According to Journalist and author of ‘12.11.10 Welikada’, Kasun Pussawela who is also a witness in the Welikada massacre case, Sri Lanka has a history where the powerful who are responsible for ordering heinous crimes to be committed are let off unscathed. “How does the logic which was applied to the Easter Sunday attacks not apply here?” he questioned referring to the arrest of former Secretary of Defence Hemasiri Fernando.

Fernando was arrested on July 2 by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) on the directions of Attorney General Dappula De Livera. The Former Defence Secretary was slapped with murder charges under S. 296 of the Penal Code, 298 - the offence of murder by negligence, 326 – causing grievous hurt, 327, 328 and 410 all three sections of the penal code which relate to causing grievous hurt endangering life. Fernando is one of the key figures who was forced to take the fall for the April 21 attacks by homegrown extremist group National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) which led to the deaths of 259 people, based on the allegation that he had prior knowledge of a possible attack and failed to prevent it. The Attorney General has come down hard on Fernando since, ordering his arrest, refusing to appear on behalf of the former government official in the 12 Fundamental Rights petitions filed against him in relation to the Easter Sunday attacks and even filing a revision petition against Colombo Fort Magistrate, Lanka Jayaratne’s decision to release Fernando on bail.

Both Pussawela and Perera believe that Gotabaya Rajapaksa, under whose purview the military and the Police Special Task Force (STF) operated during the time should likewise be made liable for the deaths of the inmates. “Why does a different law apply to a different Secretary of Defence?” Pussawela questioned. While Fernando has readily admitted before the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) set up to probe into the attack that he did receive information and informed the Inspector General of Police (IGP), Gotabaya has however continuously denied any knowledge of the Welikada search operation and distanced himself from the gruesome massacre which took place on the day.

“The STF was under the Defence Ministry at the time, so how can he say he was not aware?” Perera asked. In fact, according to the Welikada Prison Commission report, giving evidence before the committee Rajapaksa had denied he directed the raid or given instructions for the search operation to be carried out. But given the situation in the country at that time where the military nor the Police could act in an ad hoc manner, Perera refuses to believe the comments made by Rajapaksa. “Also the question remains then as to how Fernando was made liable for the failures of officers under his Ministry when Rajapaksa says he is not responsible for the actions of the STF which was under his purview,” Perera added.

Also, officers who came before the second committee appointed to look into the Welikada case have contradicted Rajapaksa’s claims which Pussawela claims prove the former Secretary of Defence had knowledge of the search operation. STF Commandant- Deputy Inspector General of Police Chandrasiri Ranawana now retired told the Committee that the search conducted on 9.11.2012 was not done on its own accord by the STF, but on the direction of Rajapaksa with the coordination of DIG Nimal Wakishta, Director- State Intelligence Service (SIS) and DIG Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) during 2012 following a series of discussions. Ranawana also confirmed that the STF functioned under the Ministry of Defence when the incident took place.

Also providing evidence, the then Commissioner General of Prisons P.W Kodippili had said the need for conducting a raid using 798 STF personnel was discussed at a meeting held on July 17, 2012, at which Rajapaksa was also present.

In his statement to the committee, former Secretary, Rehabilitation and Prison Reforms, Ariyasiri Dissanayake pointing the finger at Rajapaksa confirmed the raid was conducted due to the pressure exerted by the Defence Secretary and that being the brother of the President at the time, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had not only wielded authority over his Ministry but other Ministries as well. “If those directions were not carried out it would have been difficult to continue in the Ministry and I had to oblige,” he had said.

But according to Perera, despite the revelations and repeated requests from CID investigators, the Police as an initial step had failed to even obtain a statement from Rajapaksa. “This shows the level of impunity,” he noted adding that the Attorney General’s Department also at the time did not push the CID to investigate Rajapaksa’s possible connection to the incident. “How is Gotabaya Rajapaksa above the law and who gave him this immunity?” he questioned.

He said the CID disregarded the legal provisions such as conspiracy under which Rajapaksa could have been made a suspect.

Though several officials giving evidence before the committee had mentioned that Rajapaksa was present at meetings where discussions were held about the search, however, attending a Human Rights Commission hearing into a complaint filed by Pussawella in 2018 March, an official representing the Ministry of Defence had claimed the minutes of the meetings held at the Ministry prior to the raid had gone missing and the Ministry was not in possession of any documentation to prove these meetings had taken place.

“Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s name has been dropped in a number of cases which give bad precedence allowing public officials to believe they can be immune from prosecution,” Perera said. The Attorney General’s decision to amend the indictments against Gotabaya Rajapaksa over the D.A Rajapaksa Museum case dropping the charge of conspiracy has also drawn public criticism. Perera also accused the AG’s Department of not taking the Welikada Prison Massacre Committee report into consideration when filing indictments.

Responding to the criticisms against the AG’s department, Coordinating Officer of the AG State Counsel Nishara Jayaratne said the Department cannot file indictments to please popular views. “Indictments are based on the investigations and evidence submitted to us by the Police or CID,” she said adding that the AG has moved to file indictments against the accused in prominent cases. “If we file indictments outside this framework what will be our situation?” she questioned. According to Jayaratne, it is the CID’s duty to conduct investigations and provide the necessary information.

But having faced numerous threats, Perera says victims, their families and witnesses are now apprehensive of the possibility of Gotabaya Rajapaksa becoming a Presidential hopeful. Believing he was behind the Welikada massacre, Perera questions his suitability to become President and the eventual fate of the case if he becomes the next President of Sri Lanka. “This is a person who could not safeguard the lives of prisoners within one prison, so how can he safeguard an entire country as its President?” he said adding that the possibility merely marks Sri Lanka’s journey to a darker era.