With Parliamentary Elections being scheduled for 5 August, most political parties and independent groups contesting the polls have commenced their respective campaigns in a big way. The hopelessly-divided chief Opposition, seemingly bereft of valid issues to raise, has eagerly seized upon the ‘Karuna Amman admission of Elephant Pass killings’ to target the SLPP Government.
It is well-known that Vinayagamoorthy Muraleetharan alias Karuna, former Eastern Regional Commander of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who broke away from the Tigers in 2004, actively collaborated with the armed forces, after Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected President in 2005. The services rendered by Karuna and his Tiger breakaway group known was of immense value to the ruling regime in successfully prosecuting the war against the LTTE then.
Consequently Karuna became the “blue-eyed boy” of the Rajapaksas and was rewarded with many posts such as National List MP, Deputy Minister and Vice President of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Thanks to the ‘faux pas’ in shooting his mouth off about killing thousands of soldiers in one night at Elephant Pass, the knives are now out for “Col.” Karuna. From hawkish Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka to reputed human rights activists abroad, demands are being made regularly that Karuna should be arrested and/or investigated for alleged offences in the past.
The media on its part regales readers and viewers with a steady flow of ‘information’ about the ‘crimes and misdemeanours’ allegedly committed by Karuna in the past. However some sections of the media engaged in this exercise are – wittingly or unwittingly – providing a considerable amount of misinformation and disinformation in doing so.
Fake Name, Real Passport
One such instance is the recent publicity about how Karuna was arrested by British authorities when he went to the UK on a fake passport in 2007.
Some of what is being said now about this incident is not correct. Karuna did use a false name then but the passport he had was a genuine Sri Lankan diplomatic passport. It was presented to him on a platter by the powers that be.
Karuna’s arrest in the UK was an issue about which I had written in detail in the 2007-’08 period. It is against this backdrop therefore that I re-visit those events of the past concerning the arrest of Karuna in the UK by British officials.
The day, 2 November 2007, was a Friday. On that day in the United Kingdom, a team of 20-25 British officials swooped down on an apartment building in the South Kensington area of London. The group comprised officials from British Intelligence, Home Office, Border and Immigration Agency and the Metropolitan Police. Some stayed outside the building while others stayed close to exits in readiness to block anyone fleeing if necessary.
The officials who rang the doorbell of the rented flat found five people – two adults and three children – of Sri Lankan origin inside the two-roomed residence. The officials had in their possession photographs of Vinayagamoorthy Muraleetharan alias ‘Colonel’ Karuna a.k.a. Karuna Amman, the former LTTE Commander of the Batticaloa and Amparai Districts in Sri Lanka.
The man in the flat fitted the description in the photographs. He was asked politely for some identification. The man handed over a Sri Lankan diplomatic passport numbered D1944260 in the name of Kokila Dushmantha Gunawardena whose occupation on the passport was given as Director General of Wildlife Conservation.
It had been issued on 30 August 2007 by the Sri Lankan Department of Immigration and Emigration. The British High Commission in Colombo had issued a multiple entry visa valid for six months on 5 September 2007. The arrival in London was on 18 September 2007.
The photograph in the passport was that of the man in the photographs in the possession of UK officials. The name in the passport was different. It was blatantly obvious that the man possessing a passport in the name of Kokila Gunawardena was the man known as ‘Col.’ Karuna.
While some officials interviewed ‘Gunawardena’ in the drawing room, others executed a search warrant issued against the premises. There was very little to be seized. The officials then checked the identities of the woman and three children. The woman was Vidyavathy Muraleetharan; the three children were Dharanya, Kalairathi and Darfan. They were applicants for refugee status in Britain and had been granted temporary admission officially.
The officials then informed the man that they had doubts about the travel document used by him to enter Britain. They requested him to accompany them for further investigation. The man then dressed up and went along with the officials. He was not handcuffed or bodily grasped but walked like a ‘free’ man. He was first taken to an immigration office.
After further interrogation for some hours, the officials informed the man that he had entered Britain fraudulently. He was then officially informed that he was not eligible for admission to Britain and that pending further inquiry, he would be deported back to his country of origin, Sri Lanka. The diplomatic passport was seized. He was served with papers for illegal entry into the UK under the Immigration and Asylum Act of 1974.
However the bearer of the diplomatic passport issued in the name of Kokila Gunawardena seemed to have anticipated such an eventuality. He was also aware of his basic rights.
Karuna’s Astonishing Revelations
‘Kokila Gunawardena’ then informed the British Immigration officials that he was Vinayagamoorthy Muraleetharan and not Kokila Gunawardena. He was a former member of the LTTE who had broken away from the Tigers and had formed an organisation called the Tamil Makkal Viduthalaiy Puligal (TMVP) or Tamil People’s Liberation Tigers. The LTTE was trying to kill him and so he had fled Sri Lanka using a passport under a different name for security reasons. He said he wanted to ask for political asylum in Britain.
Karuna told British officials that he had applied under his own name for a visa to enter Britain some time ago. He wanted to join his wife and three children. This was denied. Thereafter he was put on the blacklist. That is why he had entered Britain under a false name.
Karuna said that the diplomatic passport had been given to him by the Sri Lankan Government. It was given under a false name because he (Karuna) was blacklisted by the UK and could not gain entry under his own name. He further said that the British visa too was obtained on his behalf by the Sri Lankan Government. Karuna said that he was escorted to a SriLankan Airlines plane bound for London (UL 505) by Government officials and given his passport with visa.
Karuna’s revelations were initially astonishing to British officials. They could not believe that a legitimate Government would engage in a fraudulent exercise and issue a passport – that too a diplomatic passport – under a false name. Though doubtful, the Brits said they would investigate the matter further.
Karuna was taken to the Collingwood Detention Centre and held incommunicado pending further inquiry. The Sri Lankan High Commission in London as well as the British High Commission in Colombo were informed of the incident. Later on Karuna’s wife and children were allowed limited access to him. He was also allowed to retain and consult with lawyers of his choice.
Subsequently British officials discovered to their chagrin that Karuna was indeed telling the truth. An examination of his passport and visa were undertaken. The passport showed no sign of being a forgery or counterfeit after a most vigorous inspection employing the latest technological devices. His visa also was valid and not phony as it had been officially issued by the British High Commission in Colombo who confirmed it. Karuna personally had not made any false statements to the British High Commission in Colombo. He had had no direct contact with the High Commission at all. The Sri Lankan Government had procured the visa on his behalf.
Muraleetharan’s wife Vidyavathy and three children had come to Britain many months ago. Like most asylum seekers they had used false travel documents to reach Britain and then sought refugee status under their own names. Vidyavathy, who is also called Neera, had frankly disclosed who she was and who her spouse was. The family was under grave threat and faced great danger from the LTTE and hence their flight to safety. British officials had accepted their claim as ‘credible’ and granted temporary admission after the first hearing.
According to informed Tamil sources close to Karuna, the ex-Tiger leader had had no intention of residing abroad permanently when he travelled to Britain. His journey abroad had two purposes. Fundamentally, it was to see his wife and children and make further arrangements for their comfortable stay in Britain. The other purpose was to contact, by telephone, supporters and well-wishers living abroad and discuss plans of forming a new political party.
Originally Karuna wanted to stay in Britain for only a month. However, family members had got him to stay longer. He had arrived in London on 18 September and earlier intended going back in the third week of October. Later he had decided to postpone his departure for another month. Had he acted according to his original plans, Karuna may not have suffered the controversy of arrest and discomfiture of detention.
What Went Wrong For Karuna
What went wrong for Karuna in the first place was that sections of the media in Colombo and abroad had begun speculating that the ex-Tiger leader had gone to Britain. The Tamil grapevine in London began to buzz with news of Karuna being in town.
The media began contacting British High Commission officials in Colombo wanting to know how Karuna got into Britain and also sought more details. This was a legitimate function of the media. This persistent questioning was embarrassing the British diplomats in Colombo.
With knowledge of Karuna being in London spreading, British authorities became agitated. Firstly, they were in the dark officially about how Karuna had entered Britain. There was no record of ‘blacklisted’ Vinayagamoorthy Muraleetharan being given a British visa. Secondly, there was fear of the LTTE launching a direct or indirect attack on Karuna on British soil.
Against this backdrop, the British officials began probing the matter. Since Vidyavathy Muraleetharan had already made a refugee claim divulging identity and full particulars, her residence was monitored first. It was just a matter of time before it was discovered that ‘Mister Muraleetharan’ was there.
When the officials ‘raided’ the residence, they had suspected Karuna of having used a false passport to enter Britain. The preliminary documentation for arrest was done with this in mind. When Karuna brandished a travel document under another identity, the officials were not surprised.
But what shocked the Brits was the sight of a diplomatic passport. “Have the counterfeiters begun making DPL travel documents too?” was their worry initially. Subsequently they were astounded to find it was genuine and officially issued by Colombo. The DPL passport had been issued under the name of Kokila Dushmantha Gunawardena on 30 August. Such passports are issued by the Immigration Department only to those eligible in terms of protocol. Such issuance can also be done if directed by the President’s Office, the Foreign Ministry or Defence Ministry.
Kokila Gunawardena’s passport was submitted to the British High Commission along with those of a group of persons seeking visas to attend a conference on climate change in Britain. A third party note was attached by the Foreign Ministry recommending the issuance of visas. Kokila Gunawardena was described as an official attached to the Environment Ministry. Jathika Hela Urumaya stalwart Champika Ranawaka was the Minister in charge then. The visas were issued on 5 September 2007. Karuna had landed at the Heathrow Airport on 18 September.
An Alternate Plan
UK officials were now faced with a tricky problem. They had very little grounds to charge Karuna as it was proved beyond doubt that the Sri Lankan Government had issued a diplomatic passport under a false name and also obtained a valid visa under false pretences. Therefore the prosecution would have found it virtually impossible to prove that Karuna had himself committed an offence under immigration law.
So the British officials came up with an alternative plan. On 22 December 2007 Police officers visited Karuna at the Collingwood Detention Centre and technically ‘arrested’ him for breach of Section 25(1) of the Identity Cards Act No. 15 of 2006. Karuna was then moved to the Heathrow Police Station where he was questioned and his statement recorded with regards to the offence of “possessing a false identity document with requisite intention”.
There was however a “change of mind” and the British finally charged Karuna for merely “having in his possession without reasonable excuse” an “identity document that relates to someone else” under Section 25 (5) of the Identity Cards Act.
When Muraleetharan’s trial came up at the Isleworth Crown Court in West London, he entered a plea of guilty. However a statement by him was read out in open Court where Karuna explained how he had travelled to the UK with the backing of the Sri Lankan Government. His counsel, David Philips, reiterated this claim when he told the Court that his client had “entered the United Kingdom using a diplomatic passport with a six month multiple visit visa, issued at the British High Commission” in Colombo.
Elaborating further, Philips said: “The Sri Lankan Government gave him the passport and sent him to the United Kingdom” and added that “it was the Sri Lankan Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, also the Prime Minister’s brother, who organised it”.
Philips went on to say that Karuna did not go to the British High Commission to collect the documents and was merely following the instructions of the Sri Lankan Government. On 25 January 2008, Judge Hezlett Colgan sentenced Karuna to nine months’ imprisonment.
The British authorities were fully aware that Karuna faced a life threat in Britain due to the presence of LTTE and pro-LTTE elements. Therefore he was under heavy protection while he served his sentence in a reportedly “undisclosed” prison due to security reasons.
War Crimes and Human Rights Violations
Even as he was in jail, several human rights organisations mounted pressure on the British Government to invoke the principle of universal jurisdiction. They urged that Karuna should be investigated and charged for the human rights violations he had allegedly committed. These organisations also provided details about the alleged atrocities to British authorities for further investigation.
This information was forwarded to the Crown Prosecution Service for follow up action. According to a report in ‘Trial Watch,’ initially “the Crown Prosecutor’s office indicated that they were considering proceedings against Karuna Amman for war crimes and human rights violations on the basis of the evidence presented by the Metropolitan police and outlined in expert’s reports transmitted by non-governmental organisations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.”
However, in an unexpected turn of events, the British Government announced on 5 May 2008 that there was insufficient evidence to convict Karuna for any criminal offences in the UK. The Crown Prosecution Service said it dropped the matter because it felt the information presented to them was insufficient. The CPS said there was “insufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction for any criminal offences in the UK”.
On 9 May 2008, Karuna was released after four months in prison and placed in an immigrant detention centre pending deportation to Sri Lanka. He was deported to Sri Lanka on 3 July 2008. This then is the tale of Karuna’s arrest, detention and conviction in Britain and deportation to Sri Lanka.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article written for the “Political Pulse” Column appears in the “Daily FT” of July 01 2020. It can be accessed here: