The Naganathan residence on Shoe Road, Kotahena is dark and dreary. Inside, it is as though time has stood still for the once happy Naganathan family, since the abduction of their son, Rajiv Naganathan, almost 10 years ago by a suspected, organized Navy abduction for ransom gang. Since his disappearance, Rajiv’s parents, especially, his mother Sarojini Naganathan has left no stone unturned in the search for her only child. Her only focus is the return of her child. Splitting her time between caring for her ailing husband and numerous court visits, Sarojini now spends most of her days at kovils and temples, praying for the return of her son, and inviting the fury of the Gods upon those who took him away from her.
Before all this anguish (September 17, 2008, was the last time Sarojini saw her son) those were happier times. The International School educated Rajiv had just been accepted to a University in the United Kingdom and, had left home to spend time with friends before leaving Sri Lanka. The five friends including Rajiv went mysteriously missing that day, in Badowita, Dehiwala on their way to meet a man identified as Mohamed Ali Anwer, later revealed to be the informant of the abductors.
Recalling the day, Sarojini says, it was she herself that withdrew money for her son so he could treat his friends. She wavers between profound emotion when speaking of Rajiv, and shaking anger at the mere mention of his abductors.
A lover of animals and cricket, Sarojini believes if allowed to continue his studies Rajiv would have become an asset to the country. For nearly two years after his abduction, Rajiv kept in touch through several phone calls taken from mobile phones belonging to Navy personnel sympathetic to the boy’s plight. First held at Chaithya Road in a place locally known as ‘Pittu Bambuwa’ after his abduction, the group was later moved to the Trincomalee Naval Command to be held captive at the ‘Gun Side’ underground prison cells.
After May 2011 the calls stopped. Sarojini never heard from her boy again. But, even a decade later her hope refuses to fade. Sarojini still believes her son is alive and being held somewhere. “For whatever reason maybe, they are afraid to release them,” she says firmly. “We spend our lives just waiting for our child to be returned to us,” she says.
Rajiv Naganathan’s fearless mother swore to fight for justice a long time ago, refusing to miss a single court date relating to her child’s disappearance.
So, last Wednesday (29) true to her words, Sarojini was among the very few family members of the missing men in courts, while a complex investigation into the Navy abduction racket continues at the Colombo Fort Magistrate’s Court.
Following a long manhunt, the recently arrested Lt. Commander Chandana Prasad Hettiarachchi, alias Navy Sampath one of the main suspects of the case was presented before the Colombo Fort Magistrate with the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) telling the judge that the suspected ringleader of the abduction racket was not cooperating during interrogation.
With 11 suspects of the abduction case already identified and nabbed, Navy Sampath’s arrest marks a remarkable moment in the long drawn case. Colombo Fort Magistrate Lanka Jayaratne on the day instructed the Gang Robbery Unit of the CID and its OIC Nishantha Silva to arrest the Current Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne if they had sufficient evidence of his alleged involvement in allowing Hettiarachchi to flee overseas when the CID had an open warrant for his arrest. Giving instructions to the CID, the Magistrate said, the next necessary steps should be taken regarding Wijegunaratne, provided the CID has sufficient evidence to prove his connection. The former Commander of the Navy currently serves as the country’s top defence official, and is due to retire tomorrow (3).
The announcement not only brought hope to the families of the missing in this case but to family members of those who disappeared during various periods in the country’s history. While the country marked International Day of the Disappeared just two days after the case was heard, families of the disappeared expressed elation at the impending arrest. They said, after being unable to pursue any legal action against the abductors of their kith and kin, the announcement this week is a sign that the tide has finally changed.
As Wijegunaratne now faces imminent arrest, the CID maintains that it has sufficient evidence to connect the CDS to the case and will, therefore, arrest him shortly. The allegation is that during his tenure as Navy Commander, Wijegunaratne provided protection to Hettiarachchi while also aiding and abetting him to flee the country, even supporting him financially.
According to the CID, Wijegunaratne had protected the main suspect Hettiarachchi known by the alias ‘Navy Sampath’ as the search for him by the CID intensified. Sources within the CID said, it had sent two messages to the administrative branch of the Naval Headquarters, for the attention of Navy Commander Ravindra Wijegunaratne, on March 1 and March 28, 2017, requesting the Navy to produce Navy Sampath at the CID Headquarters on March 2 and 31, respectively. As these requests went unheeded, evidence and witness statements have revealed that Hettiarachchi was being harboured by the Navy with the knowledge of the Commander at the Naval Headquarters in Colombo during the time.
The evidence to support this claim comes from the statement made by Hettiarachchi’s wife, herself. She had told investigators that she visited Hettiarachchi thrice while he was housed at the HQ between March 3 and March 31, 2017, despite the Navy insisting at the time that they had no knowledge of his whereabouts.
Her statement is also backed by Lt. Commander Geethal Laksiri who cooperated with the CID. In his statement to the authorities, Laksiri claimed, Hettiarachchi was housed in the adjacent room to his, in the officers’ mess at the time. Once encountering both Wijegunaratne and Hettiarachchi in the lift, Laksiri was witness to a damning conversation between the two.
As he puts it, seeing Hettiarachchi, then Navy Commander Wijegunaratne had inquired as to where he was heading off to, only to be told Hettiarachchi was visiting the Light House to meet his wife. “I will not be held responsible if the Police nab you if you jaunt about” the Commander had retorted.
Following his arrest, however, Hettiarachchi has claimed he was not at the Naval Command when the second CID summons had been delivered to the Navy HQ. The CID was, however, able to dismiss this claim by providing documentation as evidence to prove that food and drink had been dispensed to Hettiarachchi from the Officers’ mess during the time. The CID believes this was an ‘attempt by Hettiarachchi to protect those who once protected him.’
According to the CID, all this is sufficient evidence to prove Wijegunaratne allegedly shielded the suspect known as Navy Sampath from investigations into the abductions, while also misleading the CID by claiming that the Navy did not know his whereabouts.
But, according to CID sources, Wijegunaratne’s alleged support for the accused extends further. According to Laksiri’s statement sometime after the incident in the lift, Hettiarachchi was seen packing a bag hurriedly. He had pointed out a small bag full of money to Laksiri and when asked about it claimed the Commander had provided him with money for expenses. That was the last time Laksiri saw Hettiarachchi at the Naval Base. The CID during a previous court sitting reported that the Sri Lanka Navy had transferred half a million rupees to Hettiarachchi from a special account maintained at the Bank of Ceylon.
The CID says when questioned, Hettiarachchi recently claimed the money was given to him as he had ‘taken care of his seniors well’. Making the connection, the CID therefore, is accusing Wijegunaratne of helping the suspect to flee to Malaysia. “We are now investigating to ascertain if this money was used to obtain visas, flight tickets and necessary forged identification documents,” a CID official told the Sunday Observer. The CID also suspects that the current CDS also allegedly prevented Rear Admiral Ananda Guruge who was the commanding officer of Navy Sampath at the time he left the naval service, to present himself at the CID to provide a statement.
According to the CID, questioning Hettiarachchi since has been far from easy. “As the trend today, he claims he does not remember or know,” OIC of the Gang Robberies Unit of the CID, IP Nishantha Silva reported to the Magistrate claiming he was not cooperating in the investigation. “However he has never denied his involvement yet,” Silva also noted.
Meanwhile, the mother of Dilan Jamaldeen who also went missing with Rajiv Naganathan, Jamaldeen Jennifer Weerasinghe, says, her son went to see his friend because he was leaving the country and was never heard from again. Jennifer Jamaldeen who was at a Disapeparnaces Day event organised by the Office of Missing Persons in Colombo told the Sunday Observer that she would visit the Naganathan home often since the abduction of her son. “I know and feel that my son is alive, perhaps they can’t release him for some reason,” she says, echoing her friend Sarojini Naganathan. Jamaldeen says her family lost all their property in order to finance the ongoing court cases. “For months, I never cooked in my house after my son went missing,” she said.
Things got sinister for the Jamaldeen family as well. Their house was robbed the day after President Maithripala Sirisena was sworn into office. The only thing that went missing from the robbery, were the files relating to her son’s abduction case. Luckily Jennifer Jamaldeen had made copies and kept them safely hidden.
Dilan’s mother believes, CDS Wijegunaratne is not the only senior navy official whose involvement is suspect. “Wasanthan Karannagoda also knows much more than Wijeguneratne about this case – he must reveal what he knows. Just give my child back,” she cries desperately.
The former Navy Commander Wasantha Karannagoda is also in the sights of the CID investigation.
In June 2009, then Minister of Fisheries, Felix Perera wrote to Karannagoda, who was then Navy Commander, informing him about the abductions. The Naganathans were dear friends of his and their boy and his three friends had been abducted one night in September 2008, Minister Perera wrote in the letter written on an official letterhead and seen by the Sunday Observer. The security services had launched an inquiry into the abductions and Rajiv’s father had made inquiries and learned that the three boys were being detained in Naval custody, Perera said in the letter. . I kindly request you to ensure the release of the three children listed below,” Perera told Commander Karannagoda, going on to list the names of Rajiv Naganathan, Pradeep Vishwanathan and Tilakeswaram Ramalingam.
However, the families say in response to the letter, Karannagoda claimed that he made inquiries from the Trincomalee Naval Command only to be told that no youth were being held hostage at the base, as was claimed.
But subsequently, it was Karannagoda himself who brought the case to the notice of the CID, claiming his Personal Security Officer at the time Navy Lt Commander Sampath Munasinghe was connected to the abductions. CID believes Karannagoda knew of the abductions all along but merely turned a blind eye to them, only going on to report it when a personal dispute arose between him and Munasinghe in 2009.
Listening to the proceedings patiently, Sarojini Naganathan and others leaving the courtroom, appeared to be confident that justice was finally within reach. “This is the time we must all come together,” she said. However, she also had harsh words for Hettiarachchi. “He abducted my child, took him away to Trincomalee and now claims he remembers none of this,” she accused. “As parents themselves, many suspects in the case were protecting and shielding their children,” Sarojini says bitterly, “but how could they have brought so much pain to other parents by taking away their children?”