It was the Christmas weekend last year. Praviinaa Raviraj woke up and looked at the newspapers. ‘All accused released’, the front-page headlines screamed.
Beneath was a photograph of her father Nadarajah Raviraj — a Tamil legislator killed in 2006 — alongside that of three naval intelligence officers, celebrating with their families, following their acquittal in the case. “It just didn’t feel right,” the 25-year old said.
The day before, a Sri Lankan court had cleared five men, including the three Navy officers, who were accused of assassinating Nadaraja Raviraj and his bodyguard on a busy thoroughfare in Colombo in November 2006. An all-Sinhalese jury said eyewitness testimony identifying the suspects was “insufficient”.
Fear and distrust
For ten years, not once did Raviraj’s family think about pursuing legal action against those who killed him. “What we had was fear, and what we did not have was trust,” his wife Sasikala Raviraj said. The country’s long civil war was fast approaching its final and most brutal phase. Away from the battlefields, another dirty war was being waged by elements of the state using surveillance, ‘white van’ abductions and targeted killings.
“I saw no point in raising the issue. I preferred to lead a quiet life,” Ms. Raviraj said. A mathematics teacher at a leading Colombo school, she focussed on the education of her children. While Praviinaa studied law, her brother chose medicine. Ms. Raviraj decided not to move out of their home, less than 200 m from where her husband was gunned down.
First media interview
Well-nourished creepers adorned the short passage to their apartment. Seated in her living room, mildly lit and cosy, Ms. Raviraj spoke to The Hindu at length, her first media interview in the 10 years since her husband’s death. “Hope you don’t mind the smell of fried fish,” she thoughtfully said, settling down. At one corner was a picture of Raviraj, a bearded man with a beaming smile.
It was not an easy shift for the family — from quietly trying to come to terms with their tragedy, to encountering a sudden promise of justice, nearly a decade later.
After defecting from the Rajapaksa government, Maithripala Sirisena and his backers campaigned hard on a platform of good governance to win the January 2015 polls. They promised to reopen long-pending cases and ensure justice is served. “I trusted him… [and] voted for him,” Ms. Raviraj said.
When the poll results were out, Praviinaa Raviraj made a collage with photos of her father, well known editor Lasantha Wickrematunge and rugby star Wasim Thajudeen, who were all murdered between 2006 and 2012, when Mr. Rajapaksa was in power. “I felt there was finally some hope for justice in all these cases. But now after the judgment, when I see people believed to be involved in my father’s death walking freely, I feel back-stabbed.”
Few have doubts about who killed Mr. Raviraj. “You just walk down the road and ask common people, they will tell you,” said his wife, in a matter-of-fact way. During investigation, Sri Lanka’s CID and Attorney-General’s Department gave evidence citing the State Intelligence Service’s involvement in the murder. A former police constable who turned state witness claimed that former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa paid renegade LTTE commander Karuna Amman — who was later Minister in Rajapaksa’s government — a substantial sum for the murder.
Raviraj’s murder was not totally unexpected. Following his legal practice and through his years as a Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian, Mr. Raviraj’s “peace politics”, which engaged the majority Sinhalese on the Tamils’ perspective, made those in power uneasy. He would take to national television, speaking in broken Sinhala with little inhibition and reaching out to the majority community in their own language, winning admirers among them. “He did not know fear,” his daughter recalls. He was used to frequent telephone threats, she says.
A week before the murder, Ms. Raviraj received a call. She vividly remembers the voice at the other end asking: “Are you ready to wear a white sari? Warn your husband.” She immediately called her children to her room, showed them a diary with some phone numbers and said: “If anything happens to appa [father] or me, reach out to these people.”
On the morning of November 10, 2006, Praviinaa was sitting in her grade ten classroom when the physical education teacher walked in and asked the class teacher that she be excused. Praviinaa was taken to the principal’s room. “I saw the principal standing near the phone, her palm covering her mouth. I knew something was terribly wrong.”
In the 10 years that followed, Praviinaa spoke to few friends about her father. “I did not want anyone’s sympathy. Even during the funeral, I saw my mother cry just once; she was so strong. I suppose I drew from her strength,” she said. Breaking into a chuckle, Praviinaa said: “We don’t talk like this in this house,” turning to her mother who looked surprised. Her younger brother seldom speaks of what happened.
After returning to Sri Lanka from the U.K. as a law graduate, Praviinaa has been reluctant to take up legal practice. “I don’t want to be someone practising black letter law without any ethics,” she says. The political environment gave her little confidence in the legal system, prompting her to take up marketing.
On Tuesday (January 10), Ms. Raviraj’s lawyer will appeal against the Colombo High Court’s order. “Not because I have high expectations of my husband’s murderers being brought to justice. But it is to express our deep disappointment at the judgment,” Ms. Raviraj said, adding that the government need not have opened the case if it was not committed to a just outcome. “Why did they?” she asked, raising her voice.
Echoing her disillusionment and anger, Praviinaa said: “If you do take it up, do something right about it… not having him around to see me graduate, or to pick me up late from a party all these years… it feels terrible.”