“We shall have to repent in this generation, not so much for the evil deeds of the wicked people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.” – Dr Martin Luther King.
A slew of eminent authors have dealt with 1983’s Black July: T. D. S. A. Dissanayaka in “Agony of Sri Lanka” (1984); Sinha Ratnatunga in “Politics of Terrorism: The Sri Lankan Experience” (1988); Narayan Swamy in “Tigers of Lanka” (1994); V. P. Vittachi in “Sri Lanka – What Went Wrong?” (1995); Professor Rajan Hoole (University Teachers for Human Rights) in “Sri Lanka: The Arrogance of Power: Myths, Decadence and Murder.”
The public commotion going on in Borella that Sunday evening, on July 24, 1983, was heard by inmates of Welikada Prison. On July 25, prisoners condemned to death had access to newspapers that carried the report on the ambush of Four-Four Bravo patrol, led by Lieut. Vaas Gunawardena, in which 13 of 15 soldiers were ambushed and killed in Jaffna on the night of Saturday, July 23.
The chapel at Welikada prison is built in the shape of a cross, comprising wings A3, B3, C3 and D3 on the ground floor. Entry to each wing is through iron doors in their respective corridors. Guards are posted in each wing to man the locked cells abutting the corridors. Two guards are stationed in the lobby in the spacious heart of the cross. There are a total of 16 guards.
In July 1983, there were 23 detainees held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). TELO mandarins Kuttimani, Thangathurai, Jegan and three others, who had appealed against their death sentences following the Neervely bank robbery in 1981, were in one cell in B3; 28 Tamils detained under the PTA were in cells at C3; another 29 Tamil youths taken on suspicion and due for release were in D3; and, in A3, were dangerous criminals, including would-be escapees, mostly Sinhalese, notable among them being the Alitalia aircraft skyjacker, Sepala Ekanayake, convicted after his aborted attempt in 1982.
The upper levels, from which the lobby was visible from the galleries, housed some 800 ordinary convicts. The Youthful Offenders Building (YOB), a distance away, housed nine professionals: Doctors S. A. Tharmalingam (TELF), S. Rajasundaram (sec./Gandhiyam) and Jeyakularajah; Fathers Singarayar and Sinnarasa; Rev. Jeyatilekarajah; Jaffna University don M. Nithyananthan, “Suthanthiran” editor Kovai Mahesan (TELF), and architect Arulanandam David (president/Gandhiyam).
On Monday, July 25, at 2pm, curfew was declared. Some 400 prisoners broke out from their cells and rushed into the lobby. Some 25 attackers reportedly caused carnage amidst screams in B3 and D3. Acting Commissioner C. T. Jansz and his staff tried to restrain the mob, but failed to quell the riot. In the corridors of B3 and D3, all 35 inmates lay battered, dying and many dead. Kuttimani’s eyes were reportedly gouged out. The prisoners in A3 continued to remain locked inside their cells.
An unidentified Sinhalese jail guard in charge of C3 reportedly told the inmates that “If they are to get you, it will have to be over my dead body.” He hid the cell door keys in the toilet, and, when the attackers arrived, stretched his arms, and faced the mob, forcing it to retreat. Douglas Devananda, Manikkathasan, Paranthan Rajan, Panagoda Maheswaran were in C3.
According to Professor Hoole, Lieut. Mahinda Hathrusinghe, of the 4th Artillery in charge of the platoon guarding Welikada Prison, on receiving a call from Mr. Jansz for help, rushed to the chapel section with seven soldiers armed with SLRs, and claimed: “The crowd upon seeing us dropped their weapons and started running upstairs.”
Mr. Jansz dashed to the Borella police station, only to hear that the station was short-staffed. He next visited Senior DIG Sunderalingam in Gregory’s Road, who was preparing to leave for the Security Council meeting. When Mr. Jansz returned to Welikada Prison, he saw Borella police personnel ambling outside the prison precincts. They were “reluctant to enter, as it was guarded by army personnel”, in contravention of the Prisons Ordinance, which requires that the police be called in at any sign of trouble.
Jailor Rogers Jayasekere, President J. R. Jayewardene’s supporter in Kelaniya, allegedly played from behind the scenes while the killings were in progress, while jailor Samitharatne alias Samitha Rathgama and location officer Palitha’s roles were apparently tenuous on that fateful day.
Lieut. Hathurusinghe would not allow the truck containing 35 bodies to leave the prison precints for the Accident Service until he received approval from the top. Over the telephone, the major in charge of the unit told him that “permission for such removal would have to be granted by the secretary to the Ministry of Defence”, who was Col. C. A. Dharmapala, who was present at the Security Council meeting at Army Headquarters, chaired by President J. R. Jayewardene. Mr. Jansz then visited the General Hospital and met with hospital director Dr. Lucian Jayasuriya to make arrangements to admit the injured.
Mr. Jansz then telephoned the Army Commander Major General (later General) Tissa Weeratunga from DIG Ernest Perera’s office, seeking permission to release the truck. The general told Mr. Jansz to convey his “no objections” to the army platoon commander. However, Mr. Jansz suggested the general issue instructions to his staff. Mr. Jansz then called on IGP Rudra Rajasingham and DIG Sunderalingam, who appeared to be helpless.When Mr. Jansz returned to Welikada Prison, he saw the truck parked in the compound and learned that “35 bodies in the truck were heaped for removal”, and that the prison doctor, Dr. Perimpanayagam, had examined the victims at the gate, after a lapse of about an hour, and pronounced them all dead.
Suriya Wickremasinghe, civil rights activist and daughter of Dr. S. A. Wickremasinghe, notes: “… We know from eyewitnesses, and which appears likely from the inquest evidence, that the bodies were attacked again on the floor of the lobby to make sure they were dead. They were dragged into the compound and attacked there. They were thrown into the truck, and according to some eyewitness accounts, the sound of bodies being attacked even inside the truck could be heard. Indeed, according to one of our witnesses, one young prisoner (Kanapathipillai Mylvaganam, 19 years, 5 feet, 1 inch), who had succeeded in hiding, was actually killed in the compound by a jailor.” She also notes the fact that there were some 17 jailors in Welikada prison at the time of the masssacre, but only one jail guard, locked in B3, testified.
The JMO, Dr. M. S. L. Salgado, was facing difficulties to procure from the police the magistrate’s order to perform a post-mortem examination on the 35 bodies. Colombo chief magistrate Keerthi Srilal Wijewardene, followed a protracted process to issue one, vis-à-vis implications in Emergency Regulation 15A of 18.07.83 of the gazette extraordinary made by J. R. Jayewardene, under the Public Security Ordinance, which allowed any gazetted police officer not below the rank of ASP or any authorised officer, with the approval of the secretary to the Ministry of Defence, to take possession and disposal of any dead body without reference to any other legal provision.
Secretary to the Ministry of Justice, Mervyn Wijesinghe, DSG Tilak Marapone and Senior State Counsel C. R. de Silva assisted the court on July 26 at 4.20pm. Despite the fact that a lawyer could have represented the victims, if one had applied to the Attorney General’s department, no such person emerged to do so.
Prisoner Kandiah Rajendran (alias Robert), who was in a nearby cell and witnessed what had happened in the lobby, gave a statement, which was recorded by Suriya Wickremasinghe. Rajendran was killed in the second prison massacre.
The Sinhala radio announcement on the night of the 25th was heard by the C3 prisoners from the jailor’s room close by. The magistrate observed that “none of those prisoners who could be eyewitnesses … have volunteered to give evidence …”
SP Leo de Silva complied with the request made on July 26 at 3 p.m. by Thambapillai (Panagoda) Maheswaran, Paranthan Rajan and Douglas Devananda to transfer the 28 detainees in C3. On July 27, at 1 a.m., the prisoners were transferred to the YOB, but housed three each in one cell and four in one cell, despite their request to be housed all together. The nine professionals in the YOB were transferred to the dormitory upstairs.
The inquest was concluded in the early hours of July 27, after the post-mortem reports were in, but the bodies were not handed over to the next of kin. The magistrate considered an application by Inspector H. Y. (Hyde) de Silva for possession of the bodies, under ER15A, while DSG Marapone, presumably representing the AG, had no objection, notwithstanding authorisation reportedly being required by the secretary to the Ministry of Defence, instead of the AG. The bodies were wrapped in white sheets and disposed of at Kanatte Cemetery, Borella, shortly before dawn, where they were dumped into a large pit and burnt.
Tiger Friday: July 27
The temporary transfer of prisoners to the YOB, with the approval of the secretary, Ministry of Justice and on the directions of the chief magistrate, proved a failure. A query made to former Deputy Commissioner of Prisons, R. J. N. Jordan, evoked the response: “Why were they not transferred to the safety of the Magazine prison? The 1962 coup defendants were housed over there in absolute safety.” This was subject to receiving direct orders from the detaining authority, who was the then Deputy Minister of Defence T. B. Werapitiya, whom Mr. Jansz tried hard to contact, but failed.
Mr. Jansz shared his fears with the secretary, Ministry of Justice, that morning that a second attack was imminent. Mr. Jansz, was present at the Security Council meeting in the afternoon, where President J. R. Jayewardene had advised him to liaise with Brigadier Mano Madawela to transfer the remaining prisoners to the Batticaloa prison. According to Sinha Ratnatunga (page 30), “… President Jayewardene wanted the rest of the prisoners sent immediately to the Jaffna prisons, but Ministers Lalith Athulathmudali and Ranil Wickremesinghe opposed it, saying that the Sinhalese would become further infuriated over such a decision. When a compromise was suggested, Negombo, close to the International Airport, the President opposed it, saying there would be a repeat performance there.”
The second massacre
On Mr. Jansz’s return to Welikada Prison, he discovered that a second massacre had occurred at around 4p.m., when curfew had just begun, and that 17 of the 28 suspects formerly housed in C3 had died, with one professional, Rajasunderam. In all, 53 of the 72, or 74 percent, of the PTA detainees were dead. The SP, his two ASPs and two jailors were reportedly absent that day. Commissioner J. P. Delgoda returned to the country that night after attending an overseas conference.
The same participants of the first inquest attended the second inquest, held on July 28 at 1 p.m., assisted by ASP Packeer of the CDB. The inquest ended on July 29 at 12.05 a.m. Chief jailor W. M. Karunaratne testified that he had, via the prison intelligence system, learned of a proposed “mass jail break by prisoners”, and had conveyed the news to Mr. Jansz that morning.
Prisons overseer Don Alfred had approached wing A3 at 4 p.m. to serve the night meal. He found the cell doors open and the prisoners ambling inside the corridor. On opening the iron door, he was overpowered by the prisoners. They, with about 300 other prisoners armed with poles, axes, crowbars, iron bars with sharp points and a saw (all seized from the woodshed, as in the first massacre), then ran towards the YOB. Dr. Rajasundaram, who approached the mob in an attempt to reason with them, lost his life. Dr. Tharmalingam, who was in his seventies, urged the defenders to fight back and save the rest of the professionals.
Suriya Wickremasinghe noted that not a single prison officer was able to identify a single rioter, and that an identification parade was never held following both prison massacres.
Major (later Colonel) Sunil Peiris and his commando team of 12 arrived in two jeeps within less than 20 minutes of Mr. Jansz’s call to Army Headquarters, and were deployed into action. Prisoner-skyjacker Sepala Ekanayake was reportedly the first to enter the YOB. Ekanayake displayed an object he was carrying in his hand, and said to the approaching Major Peiris: “Sir, kohomada vede?” The major was horrified (in his words, it was “like the head of John the Baptist on a charger”), who then smashed his fist into Ekayanake’s face and felled him. The commandos fired into the air, and at two attackers, and entered the YOB, also firing tear gas.
Major Sunil Peiris moved the Tamil prisoners out of Welikada that very night; bringing out Mrs. Nithyanandan, a graduate from a US university, from the female ward, and her husband, who was in YOB, and transporting all 20 to the Galle Face Green late that night and putting them into two buses bound for the Katunayake airbase, from where they were airlifted to Batticaloa prison. In September 1983, all escaped, except Fr. Singarayer, who opted to face trial, and Dr. Tharmalingam, who was too old to leave.
Two-and-a-half decades on, the echoes of screams reverberate between the drab walls of Welikada’s chapel and the Youth Offenders Building.
Words by the English writer Thomas Hardy come to mind: “While much is too strange to be believed, nothing is too strange to have happened.”