Criminal history and the Rita John’s case | Sunday Observer

Criminal history and the Rita John’s case

12 June, 2021
Ajith Fernando, Basil Mendis and Chaminda Kumara
Ajith Fernando, Basil Mendis and Chaminda Kumara

When concerning the criminal history of Sri Lanka there are number of case reports which has been held before courts and several cases which are already on going.

As a society, all must know the law to ensure a peaceful country without any offenses against others. If someone does not know the law, is it fair to punish them?

This is a question of fact in this system of law. But the law will not tolerate this as a reasonable defence. However, at the initial stage of the historical era, people had no knowledge about manners and disciplines. Then some scholars made this mechanism of law to civilise these people and framed them to behave in a manner which is not harmful to others.

What is Criminal Law?

Crimes can be divided into various sections and subsections. But simply crimes can be divided into two as a crime against property and crime against a person.

According to the law, three elements of an offence should be proved beyond a reasonable doubt to convict an accused; Mental element (Mens rea), Physical element or the action (Actus reus), and Absence of any defenses.

Sometimes, even both mental and physical elements already have been proved, an accused may be acquitted under a proven ground of defense beyond the reasonable doubt, raised by the defence.

Therefore, there should be a fair and very strong judicial system to give the best judgment after a fair trial.

There is a famous quote called, ‘convicting an innocent person is worse than acquitting a criminal person’.

Judges are the umpires at the playground. While the defense and the prosecution are playing on the ground, judges should not be involved in playing, because if they come to the playground to play, their eyes may be filled up with dust.

The Rita John’s Case is a case which had been umpired by the judiciary very well to give a moral justice for the deceased Rita John, on which this article is based.

This is a case that will undoubtedly enter the ranks of horrific criminal cases in the history of Sri Lanka.

The deceased was identified as Rita John, an Indian woman, who was married to naval engineer Jude Manoharan.

They came back to Sri Lanka after their marriage and lived in a house owned by Manoharan’s father. He was a retired Police Officer.

The house was located at Crow Island and there was a mangrove forest on the east side of this small island.

On September 11, 1998, as usual, Rita and Manoharan were walking towards the tidal mouth of the Kelani River. Then they met the accused Ajith Fernando Alias “Konda Ajith”, Basil Mendis, Chaminda Kumara, and Lakshman Perera who was later appointed as a state witness by the Attorney General (AG).

Out of the three accused, Chaminda grabbed Rita’s hand and tried to pull her towards him. As soon as possible Manoharan pulled his wife towards him and asked Chaminda ‘what he was doing?’

Then Chaminda berated him with obscene language and all three accused walked about two and a half yards away from this couple.

Again, Chaminda suddenly started running towards them and Ajith and Basil also came with him. At this time Lakshman left.

This time Manoharan asked his wife to run away. Before she could escape, Chaminda grabbed Manoharan’s T-shirt and Basil grabbed him by the neck. Meanwhile, Ajith went behind Rita and grabbed her saying that he was armed with a pistol. Chaminda kicked Manoharan’s abdomen.

When Manoharan tried to break free from Basil’s grasp, his pair of spectacles fell to the ground and he lost his vision.

He kicked Chaminda and hit Basil’s sex organ. He and Basil both fell on to the ground and Basil bit on his left nipple. At that moment, Rita called Manoharan’s name and asked for his help.

Then gradually Rita’s voice went unheard as he continued to fight with Basil and Chaminda.

Later, as he further could not continue to fight with these people, he had decided to flee for help. Rita was missing.

Then Manoharan ran home and told his father what had happened and returned to the location where the scene took place.

After some time, Chief Inspector of Police (CI) Ranjith Dehideniya, a team of Police officers, Police dogs, and several soldiers arrived at the scene sharply around 7.05 p.m. on motorbikes and jeeps.

They started to search for Rita and the other three suspects. The environment was gloomy and the area was covered with shrubs, mangroves, and large trees. That evening all the attempts to find Rita failed. Only Rita’s slippers and Manoharan’s T-shirt were found nearby at the location.

It was later revealed that, out of the three suspects, Ajith had abducted Rita into the jungle, then altogether gang-raped her and also robbed her of all jewellry. Thereafter they murdered Rita by strangulation and hid her body in a muddy swamp.

According to information received by the Police on October 13, Lakshman was arrested on suspicion. Chandana and Basil were arrested through the information given by Lakshman. Concerning the information received from all three suspects, two days after the incident, Police found the dead body of Rita in a muddy swamp behind the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development (NARA) building located on the Crow Island.


By that time, it was covered with aquatic plants. However, Lakshman did not point out the directions in which the body was found.

Later on October 14, Inspector of Police (IP) Udayakumara arrested Ajith Alias “Konda Ajith” in the Hasalaka area. He had shown the place near a cotton tree located on Crow Island where all the clothes of the victim were hidden.

The AG later filed an indictment with six charges in the Colombo High Court and brought the suspects before justice. Lakshman was appointed as a state witness under Section 256 (1) of the Criminal Procedure Code.

According to Manoharan, his wife was wearing a blue denim shorts, a light green t-shirt on the evening of the incident.

She had worn a pair of ‘Gypsy’ earrings, a necklace also known as ‘Thaliya’ which he gave her on wedding day, a gold ring, a diamond ring, and a pendant encrusted with the initials ‘KDM’ and the number ‘916’.

When the body was found, none of the jewelry and clothes were found on the body, except for the pair of Gypsy earrings.

Later, Ajith’s wife handed over the rings that were stolen from Rita to the Police. Police also found the pendant and the necklace (Thaliya) in Basil’s possession.

Assistant Judicial Medical Officer (JMO) Dr. Vidyapathirana conducted the post mortem.

According to his medical evidence, the time of death was between 6.00 p.m. - 11.00 p.m. on 11 October and the cause of death was strangulation by a ligature. Wounds near the vagina (Labia Majora) and anal had further indicated that the deceased had struggled and had been subject to vaginal and anal intercourses by several persons.

After examining the suspects and Manoharan, he said that the suspects had suffered leg injuries and that most of the injuries may be due to sexual intercourse while laying face down on a rough surface. And also confirmed that Manoharan’s injury near the left nipple was caused by a bite.

The decision of the High Court

After hearing the case and concerning the evidence the court had given the following judgments.

The first suspect Ajith was convicted under section 357 and 32 of the Penal Code for the offence of kidnapping Rita and forcing her into illegal sexual intercourse, sentenced to 12 years rigorous imprisonment; under section 364 (2) of the Penal Code for the offense of gang-raping Rita, sentenced to 20 years rigorous imprisonment; under section 380 and 32 of Penal Code for the offense of robbing Rita’s jewelry, sentenced to 10 years rigorous imprisonment; under section 296 and 32 of Penal Code for the offence of murdering Rita, sentenced to the death penalty by the high court.

The second suspect Basil was also convicted for the offenses in the same manner and the third suspect Chaminda was convicted for the above offences except the offense of robbing Rita’s jewellry.

After the High Court judgment, these three accused appealed to the Supreme Court by Attorney-at-Law Dr. Ranjith Fernando.

For the state, President’s Counsel C.R. De Silva appeared. The appeal stated the following,

High Court judge has erred the law because the state witness Lakshman was not heard at the trial as a witness according to section 256(2) of the Criminal Procedure Code. And there are no provisions here in this section only to fulfill the requirements of an apologist suspect.

Section 256 of the Criminal Procedure Code states that.

(1) In the case of any offence heard exclusively by the High Court the Magistrate inquiring into the offense may, after having obtained the Attorney General’s authority, or the Attorney-General himself may, with the view of obtaining the evidence of any person supposed to have been directly or indirectly concerned in or privy to the offence under inquiry, tender a pardon to such person on condition of his making a full and true disclosure of the whole of the circumstances within his knowledge relative to such offence and to every other person concerned whether as principal or abettor in the commission thereof.

(2) Every person accepting a tender under this section shall be examined as a witness in the case.

(3) Such person if not on bail shall be detained in custody until the termination of the trial.

It stated that, common intention of murder has not been proved and no ligature could be found at the scene as the incident was not an organised crime and there was no evidence that all the accused had strangled Rita’s neck together.

It further pointed out that the punishment under section 357 of the Penal Code for the offense of abduction has been exceeded.

After considering the main objections of the above appeal, other circumstances, and judicial precedents, a five-judge bench including the main judge Ismail of the Supreme Court made the following arguments.

The failure of the court to summon state witness Lakshman did not prejudice the alleged case. Because, he had been granted a conditional pardon and had not been summoned at trial, although the defendant had a chance to summon him at any time.

The objection that the common intention behind the abduction and murder has not been proved is not justified without an explanation from the defendants in the sense of prima facie.

According to section 357 of the Penal Code, the sentence for that offence should be reduced to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment from 12 years. Accordingly, the five judge bench of the Supreme Court, after concerning all the above facts, unanimously decided to reject the appeal subjected to one change in the punishment for the alleged offence.