Many a police investigation in high profile cases in Sri Lanka has failed due to high profile interference. As often happens in such cases, the head of state, the Inspector General of Police, and other powerful personalities take it upon themselves to direct investigations.
The unfortunate feature then is the lack of professionalism, and how the investigations change course. Instead of starting the investigation from the scene of crime and finding admissible evidence that point to the culprits, the investigations start from a presumed accused and then look for clues to connect them to the crimes. The real criminals thereby get away laughing.
|Ragunathan’s body: Forensic goldmine
I remember a case study when I was under training in 1958, to illustrate how NOT TO conduct an investigation. In that case of the early 50s, internationally famous cricketer M. Sathasivam was accused of murdering his wife who was highly connected. Governor General Sir Oliver Goonatilleke, Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake and IGP Richard Aluvihare directed investigations presuming that Sathasivam had murdered his wife.
Domestic servant William who had raped, murdered, robbed Ms Sathasivam's Thalikodi and decamped was made a crown witness to suit their end. William gleefully cooperated with the prosecution and got away scot free. (Sydney Smith's "Mostly Murder" - A Case in Ceylon).
Police Superintendent Albert Silva of the CID was known as "Honest Albert". He was removed from the investigation and discredited by the powers that were, because he refused to toe the line with such unprofessional methods and he resigned in disgust.
More recent high profile cases that suffered similar fate are many. Suffice to mention the assassinations of Vijaya Kumaratunga, Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Lalith Athulathmudali. The diverse investigations into the assassination of LA are interesting from many points of view.
Lalith Athulathmudali assassination
Athulathmudali was a prominent cabinet minister in the J.R. Jayewardene government. In 1983 following the communal riots he was appointed Minister of National Security. He spearheaded military action to crush LTTE terrorism, and thereby earned the wrath of the LTTE.
He was also the prime mover to impeach President R. Premadasa in 1991 incurring his wrath as well. He resigned from the Premadasa Cabinet and formed the Democratic United National Front (DUNF). His party started to grow in popularity very fast. Then followed a spate of threats and violent attempts on his life and he made complaints to the police naming the suspects.
The fact that he was a charismatic leader at that time also needs to be pondered because a pattern is now evident as to how the LTTE had systematically eliminated many Sinhala leaders they had to reckon with. What was mind boggling is the phenomenon that, 'an enemy's enemy often becomes a friend of convenience, even among mutual enemies'.
Whatever was the background to Athulathmudali's assassination, basic evidence such as observations at the crime scene and the body, recovery of productions and eye witness accounts, could help establish the identity of the assassin. They were the steps that should be taken by a professional investigator. But it is the manipulations distracting from professionalism that I venture to lay bare.
Ajith Shantha was an army deserter employed in Athulathmudali's private security outfit. On April 23, 1993 when Athulathmudali went up the stage to address the fateful political meeting at Kirullapone, Ajith Shantha who had been provided with an unlicensed pistol, also climbed the stage to provide body cover to Athulathmudali. Retired SSP Muthu Banda who was Athulathmudali's security, brashly ordered Ajith Shantha to get off the stage. Cheesed off by the attitude of Muthu Banda, Ajith Shantha climbed down from the stage and took a position under the stage.
When Athulathmudali was addressing the meeting Ajith Shantha observed two persons under a tree on the right side of the stage when facing the crowd, and one of them approaching the stage. As Ajith Shantha moved forward to confront the intruder, the intruder suddenly pulled out a pistol and started shooting at Athulathmudali. Ajith Shantha had pulled out his pistol and tried to shoot the assassin but his pistol had got jammed. He tried to eject the jammed cartridge but the assassin turned around, shot him in the leg and started to run towards the darkness behind the stage.
By this time Ajith Shantha had managed to eject the jammed round and fired several shots at the fleeing assassin till he disappeared into the darkness. The following morning a body was found somewhat concealed beside a garbage bin about 100 metres from the scene of the shooting and a pistol beside him. Forensic evidence established that the bullet recovered from this body had been fired from Ajith Shantha's pistol and the bullets recovered from Athulathmudali's body had been fired with the pistol found by the body of the assassin.
Athulathmudali succumbed to gun shot injuries. Ajith Shantha at the start did not disclose the part he played for fear of repercussions over his use of an unlicensed pistol. I was kept informed of the happenings by Athulathmudali's brother-in-law Haren de Saram who was a relative and good friend of mine. The following day I was taken to Ajith Shantha by Haren.
Ajith Shantha related to me what I have stated above. Telling Ajith Shantha that possession of an unlicensed pistol under the circumstances was a minor matter compared to his brave performance, I persuaded him to come out with the truth and produce the pistol. Accompanied by lawyers looking after Athulathmudali's interest, Ajith Shantha produced the pistol before the magistrate, but stated that he shot the assassin from front and that the assassin ran away holding his stomach. When I confronted Ajith Shantha with what he had told me earlier, he stated that he was asked by the lawyer to say that he shot the assassin from front!! However, under cross examination, Ajith Shantha reverted to his original version and informed court that he was asked by his lawyer to say that he shot the assassin from front. That paid put to the credibility of the best eyewitness available.
Right from the start the Athulathmudali faction was determined to implicate President Premadasa and his close supporters with the assassination. Although Srimani Athulathmudali was keen to have the truth unraveled, others handling/meddling with the investigation had different ideas. The immediate concern of the Government on the other hand was to clear President Premadasa's name.
The body found in the vicinity of the scene of the shooting was identified as that of an LTTE cadre named Ragunathan. Forensic evidence established that the bullet found embedded in his spine had been fired with the pistol handed over by Ajith Shantha. Scientific evidence also established that bullets found in Athulathmudali's body had been fired from the pistol found beside Ragunathan's body.
The next 'drama' in this episode was the Presidential Commission of Inquiry that was appointed as soon as President Chandrika Kumaratunga took office in 1995. The Commissioners were Justice Tissa Bandaranayake (Chairman), Justice D P S Gunasekera and Justice Gamini Amaratunga. I was called in to help the investigation team. Before long it became clear that the Commission was working on a presumption that President Premadasa and Sirisena Cooray were behind the assassination and the inquiry as such was fetching for clues and hearsay to build up a story to implicate the targeted suspects. I confided my problem with IGP Frank de Silva and got myself recalled to my substantive post as Director Special Branch. The latter two judges also resigned from the Commission and were replaced by two other judges. As for the outcome of the Commission inquiry - less spoken the better.
All these dramas notwithstanding there was one Senior Police Officer bent on unraveling this case. SSP Lionel Gunatillake who was head of the Crime Detective Bureau (CDB) was following a course in Japan at the time of the assassination. On his return, he took up this investigation with utmost professionalism, activating his team and their network of informants. With the dynamic backing of S/DIG Colombo A.S. Seneviratne, the CDB, on information supplied by the informants, solved several LTTE-involved cases such as the JOC bomb blast, detected a van laden with 40 Kg high explosives that was to target President Kumaratunga and other VVIPs and averted more devastation by the LTTE.
Information with regard to the Athulathmudali assassination was basically that it was planned by Pottu Ammam. The assassin was identified as Ragunathan whose body was found in the vicinity of the scene of shooting. Ragunathan had been accompanied by another LTTE cadre named Peduruppillai Jebanesan whose task was to monitor Ragunathan and report back to Pottu Ammam in Jaffna. Soon after the shooting Jebanesan fled and made good his escape passing through Thandikulam checkpoint to the LTTE controlled area. Jebanesan had found a safe house in Colombo by befriending a Sinhala girl in Kotahena.
Though the information was accurate judging from all verifiable details, admissible evidence had to be found. With eyewitness Ajith Shantha discredited, it was an uphill task for SSP Lionel Gunatillake. Jebanesan had to be arrested to complete the 'jig-saw'. There was no way they could go to the LTTE-controlled area.
In January 1996, the CDB received information that Jebanesan was spotted at the Thandikulam check point and was awaiting clearance. A CDB team was rushed the area to arrest Jebanesan. He was held in custody on a detention order from the Defence Ministry.
Jebanesan at first had denied the allegations, but when confronted with his girlfriend in Kotahena, had broken down and made a clean breast of his complicity in the Athulathmudali assassination and of future plans by the LTTE. When the CID and NIB officers interviewed Jebanesan he maintained the same story. His confession was recorded and he was to be produced before a magistrate when the news reached the media. The Presidential Commission had thereupon sent its officers and taken charge of Jebanesan, and within 24 hours he had been released; CDB chief Lionel Gunatillake was transferred to the Welfare Division in Police HQ and two Police Inspectors who had actively participated in Investigations of LTTE crimes, placed under interdiction!!
Unlike Honest Albert, Lionel Gunatillake was made of harder stuff. He did not throw in the towel, but put his head down and gave of his best in the various places he was transferred to, and earned his promotion to the rank of DIG in due course.
The Presidential Commission of Inquiry made some findings against targeted individuals, but the Supreme Court expunged those findings.
Crimes involving high profile personalities are rapidly increasing and so is the blatant dereliction of the police function.
(The writer is a retired SSP)