18th July 1999
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By Nilika de Silva and Faraza Farook Pix by Gemunu WellageUNP members who were attacked during Thursday's incidents are accusing men of the Presidential Security Division of being responsible for the brutal assault. One of the victims, former health minister Renuka Herath said she believed the thugs who chased and assaulted her were members of the PSD.
Besides journalists, the other main targets were UNP supporters.
Kesbewa Pradeshiya Sabha Member Mahinda Kumara Wijeratne said he was surrounded and beaten brutally. A limb was fractured and he is warded at the National Hospital.
At another point, when a UNP procession reached the traffic lights on Dharmapala Mawatha, a row of officers dressed in combat uniform, stood across the road blocking their way. More than 200 officers in uniform and civvies were seen.
The demonstrators near the Red Cross were attacked soon after UNP leader Ranil Wickremasinghe left the scene having addressed them.
Some sought refuge in near by houses but were tracked down by the attackers.
Former UNP minister Renuka Herath, one of those who were severely attacked said: "We ran and hid in a garden nearby. They singled us out and assaulted me saying, 'You're the one we're looking for. You have a big mouth in parliament. You are always scolding us. So we want to kill you.'"
Speaking from her hospital bed, Ms. Herath told The Sunday Times she believed the attack was carried out by men of the Presidential Security Division. She said they chased after her and attacked her.
The former health minister had injuries on her back and head.
Kalutara District UNP parliamentarian Mahinda Samarasinghe who represents Sri Lanka on the human rights committee of the Inter Parliamentary Union said he would be making an official complaint to the world body regarding what he saw as the brutal suppression of human rights and media freedom.
UNP youth front leader Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, a final year student of the Colombo University, said he was beaten and he believed his attackers were from the PSD.
Other victims including Premasiri Perera, 37, whose hand was broken, also said they suspected the attackers were from the PSD.
Some demonstrators said the police went on beating them though they agreed to disperse and were turning back.
G.C.W. Silva, an employee of the Central Bank, said the attackers behaved like brutes and beat him up so badly that his knee had to be operated on.
Sriyakanthi Gamage, a mother of four, said she was put on the ground, beaten and trampled by policemen in civvies.
The crowds were attacked near the Colombo University, Lionel Wendt, Eye Hospital Junction, Town Hall, the Red Cross building and the traffic lights on Dharmapala Mawatha.
How Thursday's violence began is still not clear but it is evident that journalists were directly targeted and attacked.
Victims giving a detailed account of what took place said the media personnel were singled out and beaten up while their cameras were smashed up by some group which wanted to prevent photographic coverage of what was taking place.
The teargas canisters were fired directly at journalistic and other demonstrators, instead of the normal police practice of shooting them into the air.
From our offices at Hunupitiya Cross Road, we saw teargas canisters being fired in different directions. Three canisters were fired into our newspaper office compound, forcing scores of employees to take cover.
Through one or two open windows, the teargas hit the employees even inside our office buildings and many were left with tearing eyes.
It was utter chaos on W.A.D. Ramanayake Mawatha with vehicles stopped on the middle of the road. One driver in panic abandoned his vehicle without stopping the engine, dropping documents on the way while he ran for protection. The van slid back and knocked another vehicle behind it.
Many were stranded as certain roads were unapproachable due to the tear gas. The Police having used tear gas, rubber bullets and high pressure water canons, most of the people dispersed at Town Hall and ran down Hunupitiya Cross Road and parallel roads.
Police officers stood on either side of Dharmapala Mawatha, but did not intervene when journalistis and others in the crowd were assaulted by unknown men in civvies.
By Duleep SamarasingheThe Police were compelled to take action to disperse the demonstrators who were heading towards Temple Trees as the illegal march was proceeding towards the highest security zone in the city, Deputy Inspector General T.N. de Silva said.
DIG Silva who also was injured in the melee said certain areas of Colombo city were defined as high security zones and even to take a vehicle into one of these zones required permission from a DIG.
DIG Silva denied widespread allegations that members of the Presidential Security Division were involved in assaulting the demonstrators and the media claiming that PSD men were nowhere to be seen.
The DIG claimed that 'neither he nor any other police officers had seen any one being assaulted'.
The procession that was held by the UNP on Thursday was illegal because they had not obtained permission from the Police, he said.
Quoting the Police ordinance, DIG Silva said no procession could be taken out or held in any public place in any urban area, unless notice of such procession had been given at least six hours before the start of such procession.
DIG Silva was seen directing operations to bring back normalcy, and he was among the 20 injured police officers at the end of the chaos. He said police property was also damaged because of the illegal demonstration.
Army units from the Operations Command Colombo were brought in to aid the Police, but they kept back letting the Police handle the mob, he said.
UNP General Secretary Gamini Atukorale, countering the charge the minister made in a statement on Friday, has said it was 'a diabolical statement stemming from absolute illwill'.
Explaining the UNP practice regarding news conferences, Mr. Atukorale said ever since the UNP went into opposition, it had not invited the state media to any of its briefings.
The UNP on Friday called a news conference to explain Thursday's attack on demonstrators.
Mr. Atukorale said extensive damage had been caused to equipment belonging to media personnel of both state and private institutions and it was in poor taste to politicize such a large issue and release petty statements in furtherance of diabolical motives.
Meanwhile, responding to Mr. Samaraweera's statement, UNP MP Mano Wijeratne said that in the Sinhala version of the statement, the minister had accused the UNP of keeping out the state media. But in the English version he did an about turn by saying that "extending an open invitation to the press conference makes it abundantly clear that it was a detestable and contemptuous attempt at fulfilling another objective of the UNP formed Media Mafia."
A. Manamendra of Lake House and Predeep Kumara of "Lakhanda" were present at this press conference, the MP said.
"This proves that his allegation that the state media institute were left out is false and it is about time that President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the government started speaking the truth," Mr. Wijeratne said.
A GMOA statement said that failure to take any action on such assaults, would only encourage more acts of terror.
"We understand that some police officers too have been assisting these thugs who carried out violent acts. It was a dastardly and diabolical act of attacking the media personnel who were impartially reporting the demonstration," the GMOA said, drawing a parallel with recent incidents of intimidation of doctors during their two-week strike.
By Roshan PeirisA JVP leader yesterday asked what moral authority the UNP had to stage a demonstration calling for the abolition of the executive presidency.
JVP spokesman Vimal Weerawansa told The Sunday Times that it was the UNP which installed this monstrous farce that wielded power that rightly belonged to the people and parliament. To coincide with the fourth anniversary of President Kumaratunga's infamous promise to abolish the Executive Presidency by July 15, 1995, the UNP on Thursday held demonstrations in Colombo, calling on the government to fulfil its promises.
"The executive presidency was the brainchild of the UNP and thus it has no authority or any worthy reason to make a fuss about it," Mr. Weerawansa said.
The JVP, NSSP and several other left-oriented groups launched a peaceful demonstration opposite the Fort railway station, commemorating the fourth anniversary of President Kumaratunga's promise to abolish the executive presidency.
"If an act or policy is of no benefit to the people or if it erodes the power of the people, we will resist and join hands with any left group that helps us to do so," Mr. Weerawansa said.
He also condemned attacks on journalists on Thursday in Colombo.