By Sandun Jayawardana and Manopriya Gunasekara
It was nightfall on Wednesday (18) when some 50 armed policemen swooped down on a house at Jayanthipura, Battaramulla in what seemed a major operation.
Whilst the constables surrounded the house, others blocked the road. An officer urged the watcher to open the gate. He did and the group entered the new home of Patali Champika Ranawaka, Former Minister. He had just returned from Nuwara Eliya.
They told him they were from the Colombo Crimes Division (CCD) and he was under arrest. Asked to produce a warrant if they possessed, they showed a letter from letter from the Attorney General calling for his arrest.
Within minutes, crowds began to gather and there was commotion. With a file in hand, wearing a sarong and a shirt Ranawaka got into an SUV that was parked outside. This was after a brief debate where an officer said that he could travel in one of their vehicles. When the SUV was about to move out, a Buddhist monk stood before it and shouted that he be run over first. Women raised loud cries. Soon a former State Minister, Harsha de Silva arrived. He challenged the Police to show him how they could arrest Ranawaka without informing the Speaker of Parliament.
The moves came as the CCD has started revisiting the entire investigation regarding the 2016 road accident allegedly involving former minister Ranawaka, while those supporting him are denouncing the new investigation as a “political witch-hunt.”
As part of its investigation, the CCD is also due to record statements from more officers who were serving at the Welikada Police at the time of the incident.
When the case was taken up before Colombo Additional Magistrate Kanchana Neranjala De Silva on Thursday (19), Deputy Solicitor General (DSG) Dileepa Peiris, who appeared for the Attorney General, accused officers at the Welikada Police of being involved in a large-scale cover up during the initial investigation into the accident, in which a 27-year-old motorcyclist named Sandeep Sampath was seriously injured.
DSG Peiris told court that statements recorded from two police constables on duty on the day of the incident had revealed that they had removed the name of former minister Ranawaka from the original complaint on the instructions of the then Officer-in-Charge (OIC) of the Welikada Police Sudath Asmadala. He also alleged that former Inspector General of Police (IGP) Pujith Jayasundara, who is now in remand custody over the Easter Sunday attack, was also directly responsible for covering up the matter.
Mr Ranawaka on Thursday was taken to the CCD office and thereafter produced before the Colombo Magistrate’s Court. The police however, shut the gates to the court premises, preventing members of the media, who had gathered there in large numbers, from entering. Even accredited court reporters who cover the same court on a daily basis were denied entry.
Tensions boiled over yet again when Mr Ranawaka was produced in court for the second time on Thursday. A photojournalist from state owned Lake House was allegedly assaulted. Acting on a complaint made by the photojournalist, the police arrested an individual named Manjula Perera over the incident. He was later released on bail.
Inside the courtroom, the AG’s Department strongly objected to granting bail for the accused.
DSG Peiris stated that Patali Champika Ranawaka and Dilum Thusitha Kumara have been named as suspects in the case based on investigations conducted by the CCD regarding the Rajagiriya accident and subsequent events surrounding it. The second suspect is yet to be arrested. DSG Peiris told court that he is absconding.
He said Mr Ranawaka had been arrested on Wednesday (18) night as there was clear evidence to charge him as the prime suspect under the Penal Code and Motor Traffic Act. DSG Peiris insisted that this was not a mere road accident case but was one where the law has been seriously abused and the course of justice perverted.
Outlining the alleged course of events, DSG Peiris explained that the incident had occurred between 9.45-10 p.m. on February 28, 2016 when the motorbike carrying the victim had collided with a vehicle belonging to the Ministry of Power and Energy at Rajagiriya.
He said that the jeep that was involved in the accident had then sped away towards Borella along Sarana Road in front of the Elections Secretariat. Two of Sandeep’s friends who were with him had given chase and stopped the vehicle. They were about to assault the individual wearing sunglasses who was sitting in the driver’s seat when he identified himself as Champika Ranawaka and asked them to come to the Borella police station with him.
Though the youths had repeatedly asked the individual to give them his National Identity Card, he had refused to hand it over. Sandeep’s friends had subsequently lodged a complaint at the Welikada Police. However, an individual who had no connection with the incident had then surrendered to police as the driver of the vehicle involved in the accident.
DSG Peiris charged that rather than giving priority to the victim, the Welikada Police had given priority to the driver. Moreover, they had made the complainants left the complainants to kill time at the police station for over an hour before eventually recording their complaint.
The individual Thusitha Kumara had admitted his guilt after being charged at the Colombo Magistrate’s Court. Though two of Sandeep’s friends who were witnesses to the incident had submitted sworn affidavits to the magistrate, the court had not taken those into account, the AG’s Department official stated, adding that all of this was currently under investigation.
The AG’s Department official claimed that officers of the Welikada Police had behaved “shamefully” during the incident. He added that they have also called for phone records between Mr Ranawaka and his driver and investigations indicate that a different person other than the one who was driving the vehicle had been presented to court as the driver of the vehicle.
Anuja Premaratne, PC, who appeared for Mr Ranawaka, told court that though the AG’s Department claims that the investigation is impartial, for the first time in history, a prison bus and members of the media had been present outside the court premises even before the former minister was produced in court at 10.00pm on Wednesday night. He argued that all charges made against the accused were bailable offences under the Bail Act. He further stressed that charges cannot be filed against the accused under the Public Property Act as that would necessitate the state having suffered a loss in the incident. Mr Premaratne argued this could not be since the vehicle involved had insurance cover.
He also charged that the police had illegally detained the wife, mother and daughter of the second suspect when they failed to trace him.
Alleging that the case was an attempt to fulfil “twisted fantasies,” the counsel requested court to grant bail for his client.
The Colombo Additional Magistrate however, said she could not grant bail for the former minister at this stage since the investigation was still in its infancy. She stated that she will give her ruling on whether to grant bail on December 24.
The arrest has elicited strong condemnation from parties making up the United National Front (UNF). United National Party (UNP) Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa both condemned the manner of Mr Ranawaka’s arrest as undemocratic. Both men visited Mr Ranawaka at the Welikada prison separately to see the MP.
Speaker Karu Jayasuriya meanwhile, issued a statement asserting that police failed to respect parliamentary tradition by not informing him as the Speaker prior to arresting an MP. On Friday (20), Deputy Speaker Ananda Kumarasiri sent a letter to the National Police Commission stating that police failed to follow the proper procedure laid down regarding the arrest of an MP in this case.
Several politicians, religious leaders and civil society activists aligned with the UNF claim that the new charges coming under the Penal Code laid against the former minister could see him sentenced to several years in prison and may also be used to strip him of his civic rights. This would effectively prevent him from standing for office and would kill his political career.
From the government side, Co-Cabinet Spokesman Bandula Gunawardena told the Cabinet media briefing om Thursday (19) that the arrest was not an act of political revenge but that police had reopened the investigation following a complaint. He said Sandeep’s parents had met then presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa at his final campaign rally in Homagama and asked him to ensure justice for their son should he become President. However, Mr Ranawaka’s arrest was not made because of that appeal but only after a thorough investigation into the incident, he claimed.
Meanwhile several Buddhist monks have condemned the arrest of Mr Ranawaka,
Ven. Hedigalle Vimalasara Thera accused President Gotabaya Rajapaksa directly of being behind the move to arrest Mr Ranawaka, stating that the President had given the order as he knew Mr Ranawaka “was a far better national leader than he (President) will ever be.”
He accused President Rajapaksa of betraying the mandate given to him at the presidential election by 6.9 million voters. “The government boasts that Mr Rajapaksa was voted President by a majority of Sinhala Buddhists, but barely a month after being elected, he has chosen to go after a well-respected leader of those same Sinhala Buddhists. The voters did not vote for this type of political witch-hunts. We condemn this move to silence Mr Ranawaka. It will fail,” the Thera stressed.
Mr Ranawaka who is being held in the ‘M’ ward with other remand prisoners had several visitors including several parliamentarians. Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and MP Sajith Preamdasa were among the visitors.