Gamini Chandrasekara’s world collapsed around him on August 12, 2014. His wife of 18 years, a doctor at the Lady Ridgeway Children’s Hospital, died during a procedure at a beauty parlour in Bambalapitiya. Priyangi Chandrasekara was only 47. She allegedly suffered a severe allergic reaction to an injection administered to her. Her husband now has [...]


Govt. Analyst bottleneck frustrates law and loved ones

Months and years pass without test results

Dr Priyangi

Gamini Chandrasekara’s world collapsed around him on August 12, 2014. His wife of 18 years, a doctor at the Lady Ridgeway Children’s Hospital, died during a procedure at a beauty parlour in Bambalapitiya.

Priyangi Chandrasekara was only 47. She allegedly suffered a severe allergic reaction to an injection administered to her. Her husband now has the daunting task of raising their two children – then aged 16 and 14 – alone.

Today, two years since the tragedy, no cause has been established for Dr Priyangi’s death. The Judicial Medical Officer (JMO) cannot release his postmortem report because the Government Analyst’s (GA) Department has not submitted its own conclusions. Without the JMO report, the victim’s death certificate cannot be issued. So there is still no legal document to prove that Dr Priyangi is, indeed, dead.

Apart from the emotional toll of losing a loved one, the non-availability of a death certificate is causing Dr. Priyangi’s family great difficulty.

Mr. Chandrasekara cannot claim the widows, widowers and orphans’ pension (WWOP) entitled to him. He cannot sell properties registered in his wife’s name. For the past two years, banks have refused to release funds from his wife’s accounts. She had deposited monies into these accounts for the education of their son and daughter. But the banks say that without a death certificate there is nothing they can do.

Mr Chandrasekara’s daughter, 18, is sitting for her GCE A/ Level Examination. His son, 16, will take the GCE Ordinary Level Examination at the end of this year.

An electrical engineer with the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA), Mr. Chandrasekara spent two years appealing to the authorities to intervene in his wife’s case. He wrote letters to the President and Minister of Justice. The Presidential Secretariat wrote to the Health Ministry, drawing attention to the delay. The then Health Ministry Secretary issued a notice to the Government Analyst calling for the case to be expedited. It is nearly a year since that letter was sent.

This is not an isolated case, an investigation shows. Three-month-old Mohammed Hamdan was taken to a medical centre in Maligawatta for a routine circumcision in June, 2014. His family, from Meethotamulla in Wellampitiya, had chosen an ayurvedic physician. It was later alleged that he had no experience and was not qualified to perform such a surgery.

Again, the JMO was unable to state the cause of death—even after two years—as the Government Analyst’s Department has not completed its investigation.

“It is the JMOs that people point fingers at when there are delays,” said Dr. Sriyantha Amararatne, JMO for Puttalam. “But it would be a miscarriage of justice if we released a report without taking note of all the findings.”

Dr. Amararatne was earlier based in Colombo and had performed the post-mortem examinations in both of the cited deaths. In fairness, he said, around 30 different samples were sent to the Government Analyst’s Department in Dr Priyangi’s case. These included those taken from the victim’s body as well as numerous medicines and chemicals from the beauty parlour.

“We have to be fair to the Department,” he asserted, “but we can’t overlook the fact that it has been two years now.” If the Government Analyst released its report, he can issue his own verdict in two to three days, he said.

These delays have been going on for years. Nalanda Ellawala, the popular young parliamentarian from Ratnapura, was assassinated on February 11, 1997. His family waited nearly six months for the Government Analyst’s Department to complete its report. They could not get his death certificate until then, said Akila Ellawala, member of the Sabaragamuwa Provincial Council and a close relative.

The Sunday Times interviewed a Judicial Medical Officer who had only recently received a report from the Government Analyst’s Department for a sample he had submitted in 2006; he had been unable to state a cause of death for the deceased for a decade.

“He was dead for 10 years and we could not issue a death certificate,” he said, requesting anonymity. “I don’t even know where his family is now. They haven’t contacted me in years.”

The inability of families to obtain death certificates is not the only problem. These delays raise serious concerns about the administration of justice.

There is the danger that samples stored in laboratories for lengthy periods of time may decay, leading to erroneous conclusions, warned Ananda Samarasekara, former Colombo Chief JMO. During his time as JMO, tests had come back negative in many suspected cases of poisoning and he believes this was a result of undue delays in analysing the samples.

Prof. Samarasekara conducted the first autopsy of deceased rugby player Wasim Thajudeen. He faced accusations of wrongdoing in the matter but says it had taken more than one year for the Government Analyst’s Department to begin analysing the relevant samples. A report on a site visit, conducted to ascertain the cause of the fire that had engulfed Mr Thajudeen’s car, had only been submitted to court after three years.

In late 2013, the Government Analyst’s Department shifted from its address at Torrington Square to a new complex in Pelawatte, Battaramulla. It was built at a cost of over Rs. 1 billion and contains the country’s first State-owned DNA laboratory.

Since then, the Department has been working overtime, testing samples and releasing its findings as quickly as possible, insisted Government Analyst Sakunthala Tennakoon. Cases such as Dr Priyangi’s were “complicated”, she argued, and required extensive testing. That was why there were delays. The Department now had the necessary resources and much of the backlog has been cleared, she said.

Despite her assertions, the subject of delays at the Government Analyst’s Department came up for discussion even this week, during a meeting at the Ministry of Justice. Department officials had said that they needed time to clear a significant backlog of cases, authoritative sources said.

Samples sent in recent times are tested and findings released within a reasonable deadline. But cases that go back several years are still awaiting analysis. Toxicology reports, which should ideally be issued in a month, are also taking far too long, said a senior JMO who did not wish to be named.

“The situation at the GA’s Department was deplorable until about two years ago,” conceded S. Samaraweera, Additional Secretary (Administration) at the Justice Ministry. Since it moved to its new premises, however, there had been a 90 per cent improvement in its functions.

Practical difficulties do arise in some cases. For instance, as part of the investigation into the Rathupaswala shootings, more than 90 firearms used by the security forces were sent to the Government Analyst for testing. Officials must examine each weapon individually to determine which ones fired the shots that left several people dead and many others injured that day. These are the difficulties the Department faces, Mr Samaraweera explained.

“From my understanding, the backlog has been reduced from about 10,000 two years ago to between 3,800 and 3,900 at present,” he said.

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