The terror of abduction and ransom
Two weeks ago, a group of businessmen received a fax messages purportedly from a foreign company, saying one of its representatives was due in Sri Lanka to talk business.
The fax message to the businessmen said they had been recognized as leading figures in the trade and that the visiting representative would meet them.
The businessmen were naturally impressed and eagerly awaited the visit. They were given a contact mobile number and told to seek an appointment. Accordingly, some of the businessmen had responded and sought an appointment. They were told the foreign representative would be staying at a hotel in Dambulla because of the security situation in Colombo.
The scenario became a little suspicious when two businessmen who sought appointments and went to Dambulla were turned away – one because he was accompanied by his wife and the other because he had sent his secretary and manager instead of himself.Undeterred by this, apparently because the prospects were so attractive, another businessman went to Dambulla and was thrilled when he got an appointment.
The businessman was met in the lobby of the hotel by a person who claimed to be the local agent of the foreign representative. He said they could proceed in the businessman’s jeep to meet the representative, apparently in another hotel. A gang armed with T56 automatic rifles stopped the jeep and forced the businessman and the so-called local agent to get into a van and the chill ran down the businessman’s spine when he realized that it was one of those notorious white vans.
A Sunday Times investigation revealed that the businessman was forced to put his head on his lap and driven to a secret place where his abductors demanded a staggering Rs. 50 million for his release.
It turned out to be three days of horror with the businessman first pleading he could not raise such a huge amount, but the torture increased till the abductors finally settled for about half that amount.
This came after the businessman was allowed to give telephone calls to his family and partners to raise the money.
Arrangements were made for the cash to be brought in a brief case and left at a lonely place where some members of the gang would pick it up. The businessman was then released somewhere in the Kandy district and told where he could find his jeep. According to investigations, other possible victims who received the same fax message escaped because they had suspicions about the manner in which the appointments were worked out in Dambulla.
The victim and the would-be victims are, however, afraid and unwilling to even make a complaint to the police because of possible reprisals. They are even afraid to speak to the media but only tell their horror story to family members and close friends.Our investigations also reveal that the fax message was sent to businessmen who were known to be doing well in the trade and thus quite wealthy. Apparently the aim of the gang was to get a big ransom and questions are now being raised as to how and from where the gang got the information about the assets and the profits of the businessmen in this trade.
One possible source is a state agency.
The ransom demands to this group of businessmen are part of a countrywide crisis involving abductions, ransom demands and even killings.
The crisis has drawn international attention and condemnation with world human rights groups painting a grim picture of Sri Lanka.
In one of the recent cases, a timber merchant from Panadura was abducted and a ransom of Rs. 10 million demanded. His wife made a complaint to the police and the merchant was released the next day but he is not saying anything about whether the ransom was paid while the police also claimed they do not know how he was released.
Deputy Inspector General N.K. Illangakoon, acting police spokesman had tried to record a statement from the merchant but he was reluctant to do so and police were not sure whether he had paid any ransom for his release.
In many cases where ransom had been paid after abducting businessmen, they had reportedly been warned not to talk to the police or the media.
The trend has created fear and panic among the business community and many are reported to be making arrangements to go overseas with their investments and families.
One businessman told The Sunday Times he was leaving with his wife and children even without informing the principals of the schools where they were studying.
Several businessmen warned that if the dangerous trend was not effectively checked, the economy would suffer a major blow.
Explaining the position of the police, DIG Illangakoon said they could not act effectively because the victims were apparently afraid or unwilling to make complaints or give details. He said that wherever complaints were made and details given, the police were able to track down some of the gangsters.
But the businessmen say their fears are valid because in many cases, the victims had recognized some of the gangsters as former police or military personnel or even personnel still in service.
One victim provided evidence to this claim by saying that his abductors had stopped the jeep, some distance from security forces checkpoints, and got clearance after one or two of the abductors walked up to the checkpoint and showed some identity cards.