For 10 long years, Sarojini Naganathan has gone from court house to court house, in a seemingly endless search for her only child, Rajiv.
On Thursday, when former Navy Commander Wasantha Karannagoda’s fundamental rights petition seeking to block his arrest by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) was taken up by a three judge bench of the country’s apex court, there she was again, a sad-eyed woman of about 50 years, wearing a simple black sari, sitting erect and attentive through a marathon five hour hearing.
Already, the difference between how the justice system treated her and the former Navy Commander was striking. For years, various police stations and courts refused to even entertain a complaint from her about her son’s abduction and disappearance, even long after her family’s emissaries had negotiated with senior navy officers, including Karannagoda, to secure her son’s release. A Habeus Corpus Application filed by Naganathan in 2011 has yet to see a judgment.
But after a lengthy and meticulous CID investigation has finally led to the arrest of over a dozen Navy Officers, and the former Navy Commander himself was named the 14th Suspect by the CID, Naganathan had a glimmer of hope that justice would be done. In its B report of February 22, the CID named Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda as the 14th suspect in the murder of 11 young men abducted in Colombo in 2008. A decade long investigation has found that the kidnappings were part of an elaborate racket by Sri Lanka Navy men, to abduct the children of wealthy families and extort money from their parents.
Yet on the same day that the CID was to name Karannagoda as a suspect and seek his arrest, February 22, the former Navy Commander filed a Fundamental Rights petition in the Supreme Court seeking to block his arrest.
On February 28, when the Admiral’s fundamental rights petition was initially taken up, the Attorney General’s Department told court that indictments against the former Navy Chief were “framed and ready to go”. On that day, despite repeated entreaties from Counsel for Karannagoda, the AG told Court that the Department was unable to provide an undertaking that the CID would not arrest the suspect, who was at the time, a fugitive from justice.
Naganathan watched as one of the judges hearing the case first recused himself on the grounds that he had worked for Karannagoda as a private lawyer, and then repeatedly sought an undertaking from the Attorney-General’s Department to prevent the Admiral’s arrest on behalf of Karannagoda’s counsel. The long-suffering mother felt that she would have to intervene through her own counsel to see that justice was done.
Naganathan was familiar with the difficulty that the CID has faced in securing cooperating witnesses within the ranks of the Navy to tell the truth about what happened to her son and other victims, and to assemble a case against the abductors and murderers. Two cooperating witnesses within the Navy have reported being intimidated by Karannagoda himself. Another was assaulted with a firearm by senior naval officers. More still have had their careers roadblocked as retaliation for their cooperating with the CID investigation. Naganathan feared that should the Supreme Court signal that the former Navy Commander was above the law despite the CID charging with complicity not in her son’s abduction, but in his murder, that more witnesses will be frightened to come forward.
Investigations by the CID, backed by reports from the Army, Navy and Air Force, have found no evidence to link any of the victims to the LTTE or suspected terrorist activity. Initially held at the naval prison in Colombo Fort, the boys were eventually transported to the Trincomalee naval base and detained in eerie subterranean prison cells. Bodies were never recovered, but investigators believe the boys were killed sometime in May 2009.
On Tuesday (5), Sarojini Naganathan filed a petition through her lawyers in the Supreme Court, seeking the court’s permission to intervene in the former Navy Chief’s case. Naganathan wanted to tell judges why it was important for families of the victims like her own, that the due process of law was applied to every suspect in the grisly abduction for ransom racket, allegedly perpetrated by naval forces personnel, to which her boy fell victim.
Her explosive petition detailed a sordid love triangle between the former Navy Commander’s wife and his personal security officer, which had led to Karannagoda’s decision to make a police complaint against his Aide De Camp Lt Commander Sampath Munasinghe. The complaint, written to DIG Colombo Crimes Division (CCD) Anura Senanayake on May 28, 2009 accuses Lt Commander Munasinghe of suspected LTTE links and dodgy financial transactions, but failed to mention the suspected abduction racket, even though by his own admission, Karannagoda knew of the allegations against men under his command as early as May 10, 2009.
It is Sarojini Naganathan’s assertion that Karannagoda made the complaint against Munasinghe not because of concern about the alleged abduction racket, but due to a personal animosity with his PSO resulting from an adulterous affair between Munasinghe and Karannagoda’s wife.
“The complaint made by Karannagoda was not in respect of the abduction of the children,” according to the nine-page petition filed before the Supreme Court by President’s Counsel J.C. Weliamuna for Sarojini Naganathan.
Subsequent investigations by the CID found that Munasinghe shared a cabin with the man suspected to be the ringleader of the abduction gang, Navy Sampath, or Lt. Commander Chandana Prasad Hettiarachchi. In May 2009, then Commander Karannagoda ordered the Naval Provost to search their cabin. The search turned up several NICs, passports and large amounts of cash. Yet in Karannagoda’s complaint to the CCD, he made no mention of Lt. Commander Hettiarachchi, who shared Munasinghe’s cabin, and is also allegedly complicit in the abductions.
Ironically, it was Karannagoda’s complaint to the CCD, devoid of any information about the alleged abduction racket reported to him by his own intelligence units, that his Counsel, led by President’s Counsel Romesh De Silva used to claim that the CID investigations were frivolous, politically motivated and filled with mala fide or bad intentions.
“Why go to the police,” De Silva PC thundered during his two-hour submissions that sent audible gasps around Court Room 502 from time to time. “Why go the police if the intention was to suppress information? This was May 2009. These were war heroes. They could have killed anyone and suppressed it.”
During his submissions on behalf of Karannagoda, which were allowed by the bench to proceed uninterrupted for over two hours, Romesh de Silva P.C. made several unsubstantiated and factually incorrect allegations against the Attorney-General as well as the CID officers involved in the case. Strikingly, counsel for the CID, Additional Solicitor General Viraj Dayaratne, made no objection to these submissions.
Assault on AG
During his submissions, De Silva charged in open court that the Attorney-General and Solicitor General had met with the President to seek promotions to the Supreme Court, and that because of such behavior the credibility of the Attorney-General’s Department is no longer what it used to be. De Silva provided no evidence for this malicious allegation, which he made repeatedly, and he was not reprimanded by the bench for this unprecedented conduct.
De Silva PC told the three-judge bench that the former Navy Chief had been named belatedly as a suspect, “when the Geneva conference started and there was a perception that the petitioner was associated with the previous Government.”
“This is the man who won the war for us – we should be grateful to him. It is people who live on NGOs, who deal with NGOs who are trying to do this,” De Silva PC said in his shocking submissions.
Reiterating that there were no grounds to arrest the former Navy Commander, De Silva PC reminded court that this was charge under Section 296 of the Penal Code, where bail could not be granted. “He could remain in custody for several months,” Counsel for Karannagoda explained.
Karannagoda was being implicated just by two witness statements by retired naval officials who had provided evidence to the CID belatedly, De Silva falsely charged.
At least five witnesses, including former admirals and a former cabinet minister, have given statements to the CID implicating Karannagoda in the conspiracy to murder the abducted children.
De Silva PC referred to a statement by former Navy Chief Travis Sinnaiah, who gave evidence to the CID in 2017, claiming that when he headed the Navy’s Eastern Command, which included the Trincomalee Naval Base, told the CID that persons had been imprisoned in the ‘Gun Site’ compound of the Trincomalee base, but that Wasantha Karannagoda had directly forbidden him from interfering with these detentions or from causing the search of vehicles entering or leaving the ‘Gun Site’ premises.
Sinnaiah told the CID that only former Naval Spokesman D.K.P. Dassanayake and Trincomalee Base Commander Sumith Ranasinghe were authorized to administer these premises. Both Ranasinghe and Dassanayake are suspects in the case, currently enlarged on bail.
In keeping with the general theme of his submissions that the investigation into the abduction racket had been conducted at the behest of international actors, Karannagoda’s Counsel told court that Admiral Sinnaiah worked as a Security Advisor at the US Embassy in Colombo.
“He was second in command of the Navy, he makes this statement and then he is made Commander,” De Silva PC claimed.
The second statement implicating Karannagoda was made by Rear Admiral Shemal Fernando who served as Private Secretary to the former Navy Chief, De Silva PC told Court. Reading out text messages from Fernando to Karannagoda wishing the former Commander for Easter, offering blessings and invitations to a wedding. “After reading these I told myself never trust flatterers – months later he makes these allegations against Karannagoda,” he said.
De Silva PC also claimed, smirking, that Rear Admiral Fernando had been given an appointment at the Customs Department recently, adding that the decision had been reversed following an outcry.
Neither Admiral Sinnaiah or Rear Admiral Shemal Fernando had counsel present to defend them against the allegations by Karannagoda’s lawyers.
De Silva suppressed the facts, available in the B Reports filed by the CID before the Colombo Fort Magistrates Court, that Admiral J.J. Ranasinghe, Commodore Bandara, Admiral Guruge, Lieutenant Commander Welegedara and former Minister Felix Perera had all made damning statements implicating Admiral Karannagoda for allegedly abetting the murder of the youth held captive in Trincomalee by concealing information.
De Silva made reference to a 2015 visit by the United Nations Working Group on Enforced Disappearances to the ‘Gun Site’ facility to twist facts and allege to the court that the CID and IP Nishantha Silva had attempted to collude with the UN and unnamed “NGOs” to frame animal bones found at the facility as human remains in order to tarnish the reputation of the Navy. De Silva charged that this alleged scheme was only foiled by the Magistrate ordering that the bones be examined by the Government Analyst.
It was, in fact, the CID that reported the discovery of the bones to the Magistrates Court and sought an order to have the bones examined by the Government Analyst. This was one of a number of overt misrepresentations De Silva made in Court about the CID investigation that was never corrected for the record.
He also referred to CID Inspector Nishantha Silva as a politically appointed “hangman” and “villain of the piece” who was assigned to the Navy Case only in 2015, falsely implying that Silva was installed in the investigation by the post-Rajapaksa government that came to office in January of that year. In fact, Silva has been the inquiry officer for navy abductions investigation for over eight years.
ASG Viraj Dayaratne did not address the factual inaccuracies in Romesh De Silva’s submissions, nor directly rebuke him for the allegations he made against the senior officers of the department. The Additional Solicitor General told the court that all investigations in the abduction and murder case except for the recording of Karannagoda’s statement, were complete, and that the Attorney-General’s Department was not insisting on the arrest of Karannagoda.
However, Sunday Observer reliably learns from sources including B Reports that the CID investigations are still underway. Officers have at least 20 additional witnesses to question, and additional physical and electronic evidence to recover that is relevant to proving the circumstances surrounding the murder of the victims. These investigations would take at least another two months, giving lie to Dayaratne’s assertion to the Supreme Court that the investigations were almost complete.
Dayaratne also submitted that Karannagoda can be exonerated of any involvement in the actual abduction of the youth, which position has never been stated by the CID. Sleuths have yet to establish the extent of the Navy Commander’s involvement. Each of the main suspects in the abduction and murder racket, Commander Sampath Munasinghe, Commander Sumith Ranasinghe and Lt Commander Hettiarachchi, operated directly under Karannagoda’s control, although no evidence has yet surfaced to indicate that the former Navy Commander personally sanctioned the abduction for ransom racket allegedly run by his senior aides.
J.C. Weliamuna attempted to make his submission to intervene on behalf of Naganathan, but was shouted down by Romesh De Silva, who urged the bench to prevent Weliamuna from being allowed to make representations to the court on behalf of the victims. Weliamuna insisted that preventing Karannagoda’s arrest would have a chilling effect on witness testimony, as witnesses who would otherwise testify against him would now fear that he was above the law.
Weliamuna PC sought to explain that his client’s interest in the case was that if this one suspect was allowed to escape the criminal justice process and walk into trial court, it could result in an intimidation of witnesses in the case.
The Court sided with De Silva and prevented Weliamuna from making further submissions. When it became clear that Weliamuna would insist that Naganathan’s submissions be heard by the Court, De Silva immediately looked to ASG Dayaratne. The two counsel reached an understanding before the bench, with Dayaratne conceding that Karannagoda would not be arrested, and that in return, the proceedings in the case would be terminated.
Weliamuna tried to insist that such a deal would be based on factual inaccuracies that should be corrected for the record, but he did so in vain, as the bench refused to allow him to make submissions on behalf of the victims, before ruling in Karannagoda’s favour with the consent of ASG Dayaratne, who was ostensibly representing the CID, but did not have instructions from the CID to either assert that investigations were complete or that Karannagoda should not be arrested.
As De Silva began prompting to the bench portions of the order preventing Karannagoda’s arrest, insisting that the bench forbid his “arrest and/placing into custody”, Weliamuna quipped sarcastically that he may as well also dictate or draft the indictment against his client, drawing De Silva’s ire.
Senior lawyers told Sunday Observer that if the final order from the SC Bench prevents Karannagoda from being “placed into custody”, his Counsel could interpret this to mean for the duration of trial. The former Navy Chief could potentially face trial for aiding and abetting murder without ever being remanded even following indictment, a privilege few other accused in such grave criminal trials will ever enjoy.
When the Court asked De Silva whether Karannagoda, who has for two weeks been in hiding from the CID, would consent to appearing before the CID on Monday, March 11, to give a statement, under an assurance that he would not be arrested, De Silva turned to a lawyer behind him for a response.
The non-practicing attorney, who is also a businessman, media mogul and securities trader, affirmed to De Silva on behalf of Karannagoda that this date was acceptable to the former Navy Commander. Observers in the Court had earlier noted this businessman attorney’s mobile phone ringing continuously during the proceedings, and that he walked out of the court room with impunity without drawing a reprimand from the bench.
After yet another day in yet another Court that refused to give ear to her pleas on behalf of her son who has been missing for a decade, Naganathan returned home, with fresh reason to believe that the decorated “war hero” who had promised to secure her son’s release was more important in the eyes of the law and the courts than her own beloved Rajiv.
Romesh De Silva made clear to the court that Karannagoda could have killed anyone with impunity in May 2008. Naganathan is left to wonder who else enjoyed this power, and whether they too, may be above the law in the eyes of the courts.