The Government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa achieved a significant victory last week when the 20th Constitutional Amendment was passed in Parliament with 156 MP’s voting in support and 65 Voting against. The 20th Amendment which has now become law restores full-fledged powers to the executive presidency. Earlier the 19th Constitutional Amendment passed in 2015 had circumscribed some of the presidential powers. However critics allege that the 20th Amendment to the 1978 Constitution has empowered President Rajapaksa To a very great extent in the same manner in which the 2nd Amendment to the 1972 Constitution made former President JR Jayewardene a “Constitutional Dictator”.
Although news items pertaining to the 20th Amendment hogged much of media limelight, there had been another interesting development also last week that made quite a media splash. The well informed political Editor of our sister newspaper the “Sunday Times” stated in the weekly political column that the office of the Chief Government whip had circulated among MP’s a petition calling for the pardon and release of former MP Duminda Silva who is currently a murder convict. The petition appealing to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for clemency towards Duminda Silva was distributed on October 20 at the Govt Parliamentary Group Meeting presided over by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. “The fact that the Chief Government Whip’s office staff circulated the petition and almost all MPs who attended the group meeting placed their signatures makes clear the exercise had official blessings. When the petition goes to President Rajapaksa, the release of Duminda Silva is thus a strong likelihood” opined the “Sunday Times” report. It later transpired that several Govt MP’s had not signed the petition while a few opposition Parliamentarians had also endorsed the document in a surprise move.
Arumadura Lawrence Romelo Duminda Silva
Arumadura Lawrence Romelo Duminda Silva known as Duminda Silva is a former provincial councillor and ex – MP. He was elected Provincial councillor from Colombo district on the UNP ticket in 2004. Silva defected to the UPFA Govt headed by then President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2007. He was re-elected Provincial councillor in 2009 also and appointed Organizer for the Kolonnawa electoral division. In 2010, Duminda Silva was elected to Parliament from Colombo district. He was appointed monitoring MP of the Defence ministry and was closely associated with the then Defence Ministry Secretary and present President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Duminda Silva was involved in a shooting incident in 2011 during local authority elections where former MP Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra and three of his body guards were killed. The High Court of Sri Lanka convicted Duminda Silva and four of his associates for murder and imposed the death sentence on them in September 2016. Subsequently the sentence was appealed but a five judge bench of the Supreme Court upheld the murder conviction in 2018.
The shooting of Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra and conviction of Duminda Silva was a controversial episode in contemporary Sri Lankan history.Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra known as “Lucky Aiya” and three of his bodyguards were killed on October 8th 2011 in what was described as a shoot-out near the Walpola junction close to Mulleriyawa town about six miles away from Colombo city.Another bodyguard was seriously injured. Elections to several local authorities were being held on that day. Among these was the Kotikawatte-Mulleriyawa Pradeshiya Sabha.Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra had been engaged in hectic canvassing for his protégée Prasanna Solangaarachchi on that day when the incident occurred.
The clash was not between two rival political parties. It was between two groups of fellow United Peoples Freedom Alliance(UPFA)activists. One group was led by Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra . The other was led by the then Colombo district MP Duminda Silva.Those who had witnessed the incident told the authorities as well as the media that Duminda Silva had provoked the clash and along with his sidekicks had been responsible for the deaths of Bharatha and three others. These statements were given wide prominence in the media.
Long Delay In Legal Proceedings
There was however an inordinate delay in effective legal proceedings being instituted. There was a long period of perceived procrastination attributed euphemistically to the law’s delays. Most people however suspected that the close relationship between Duminda Silva and powerful persons in the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime was the stumbling block.The matter dragged on for years and it was widely believed that the aphorism “Justice delayed is justice denied” was being proven true in this instance also.
In an understandable yet naive bid to secure justice while working within the ruling establishment, Premachandra’s widow and daughter associated closely with President Mahinda Rajapaksa.Sumana Premachandra like her late husband was appointed as an adviser to President Rajapaksa.
Daughter Hirunika Premachandra identified herself with the ruling Rajapaksa regime. In 2014 she contested on the UPFA ticket at elections for the Western provincial council. She won from Colombo district topping the preference votes list. In spite of all these efforts the quest of justice for Bharatha seemed as elusive as ever.
Hirunika’s opportunity came when Maithripala Sirisena broke ranks with the Govt in November 2014.She seized the moment by hitching her wagon to the star from Polonnaruwa.In 2015 Hirunika contested Parliamentary elections from Colombo district on the United National Party(UNP) ticket and won.Duminda Silva however was denied nomination for polls by President Maithripala Sirisena.
The advent of a new dispensation under President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2015 saw a fresh breeze blowing in musty judicial corridors. The Attorney-General filed an indictment in courts on March 2015 for the killings of Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra,Dharshana Jayathilake,Mohamed Azmi and Manivel Kumaraswamy and also for inflicting gun shot injuries on Rajapurage Gamini. The indictment consisted of 17 charges against 13 suspects including Duminda Silva.Chief Justice Kanagasabapathy Sripavan appointed in May 2015 a three-member bench for Trial –at – bar proceedings. The bench comprised three high court judges namely Shiran Guneratne,Pathmini Ranawaka and M. C. B. S. Moraes. The chairman was Shiran Guneratne.
Trial – at – bar proceedings began on May 22nd 2015. The case was heard on a regular basis from September 12th 2015. The names of the 13 accused were Chandana Jagath Kumara, Lanka Rasanjana, Malaka Sameera, Widanagamage Amila, Suranga Premalal, Saman Kumara, Saman Abeywickrema , Rohana Marasinghe,Duminda Silva, Anura Thushara de Mel, Chaminda Ravi Jayanath alias Dematagoda Chaminda, Dissanayake Mudiyanselage Sarath Bandara and Janaka Bandara Galagoda. The last named was tried in absentia as he was absconding. The accused were charged under sections 296, 140, 146, 147, 486 and 300 of the Penal Code and some clauses of the Firearms Act.
Among the 17 charges were committing and conspiring to commit murder of four individuals, attempted murder, possessing illegal firearms,inflicting gunshot injuries, unlawful assembly and criminal intimidation on or around October 08, 2011. A team of lawyers from the Attorney – General’s Dept led by Deputy Solicitor General Thusith Mudalige represented the prosecution. 42 witnesses testified in Courts .126 documents including Government Analysts reports and JMO reports were produced.
Trial at bar proceedings concluded on July 14th 2016.The verdict in the high profile trial was delivered on September 8th 2016. It was a divided verdict with two of three judges finding five of the accused guilty and acquitting eight others. One judge however found all thirteen accused not guilty. High court Judge Shiran Guneratne who presided over the Trial at bar exonerated all 13 accused in the murder trial citing lack of integrity of the witnesses produced by the prosecution and the inability to prove charges beyond reasonable doubt. He said that the benefit of doubt should go to the accused.Fellow High Court judges Pathmini Ranawaka and M. C. B. S. Moraes differed from Guneratne . This resulted in a two to one majority verdict.
Two to One Majority Verdict
High Court Judge Pathmini N. Ranawaka pronounced the Two to One majority verdict in the packed courthouse with Judge Moraes concurring. Judge Pathmini Ranawaka delivering the majority verdict stated that the prosecution had proved during the trial that the provocative conduct of eleventh accused Duminda Silva led to the whole incident.T he Judge further observed that the evidence submitted has proved that Duminda Silva had provided leadership to the unruly behaviour of the mob and therefore he should be held responsible for the whole incident. She further said that the JMO reports have revealed that Duminda Silva was under the influence of liquor at the time of the incident, but deceased Bharatha Premachandra was not so.The verdict also rejected the argument put forward by the defence during trial that Silva had been shot at first by the Premachandra faction.
Courts then acquitted and discharged eight of the accused.They were – Chandana Jagath Kumara, Lanka Rasanjana, Malaka Sameera, Widanagamage Amila, Suranga Premalal, Saman Kumara , Saman Abeywickrema and Rohana Marasinghe. Death sentence was pronounced for five persons. They were – Duminda Silva, Anura Thushara de Mel, Chaminda Ravi Jayanath alias Dematagoda Chaminda, Dissanayake Mudiyanselage Sarath Bandara and Janaka Bandara Galagoda. The tenth accused Janaka Bandara Galagoda was tried in absentia and convicted. In addition to the verdict of execution, the five convicted persons were also fined 40,000 rupees each.
The Trial-at -bar High Court ruling was appealed at the Supreme Court. A five judge benchof the Supreme Court presided over by the then Chief Justice Priyasath Dep upheld the conviction unanimously. Chief Justice Dep issued a 51 page ruling on October 11th 2018. A summarized news report published on October 13th in the “Economy Next”website is excerpted below-
Unanimous Supreme Court Ruling
“Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court, which upheld the death penalty of MP Duminda Silva, has also highlighted his criminal activities including the use of an automatic weapon stolen from the Elephant Pass army camp.The outgoing Chief Justice Priyasath Dep in his 51-page order noted a string of crimes, including election law violations, committed by Silva and his cohorts culminating in the killing of Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra and three others.The five-judge bench in its unanimous decision found that the killings came after Silva and his gang beat up rival supporters and voters at the October 2011 local council elections and had even intimidated women.”
“Starting from the time the polling commenced and till the time it was drawing to an end, the 11th Accused (Duminda Silva) spent his day, marauding between polling stations with weapons, defying officials discharging their duties, and assaulting and victimizing people associated with Solangaarachchi (a rival candidate).The only time they were not seen intimidating people were when the group was having lunch,” the Chief Justice said in his final order before retirement.”
“Justice Nalin Perera who was appointed Chief Justice on Friday, agreed with Dep’s decision. Others on the bench were justices Buwaneka Aluwihare, Priyantha Jayawardena and Vijith K. Malalgoda.”
“The court held that Bharatha Lakshman and three others were shot dead at the behest of Duminda Silva and the weapon used had been stolen from the Elephant Pass military camp when it was overrun by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2000.It was not mentioned how Silva, a Monitoring MP of the Defence ministry at the time, came to posses this weapon.An army Brigadier identified only as Gamage has testified at the trial confirming that the weapon used in the killing was one lost by the army on April 22, 2000 when the Elephant Pass camp was overrun by the LTTE.”
“The Supreme Court rejected Silva’s position that he had been shot in the head by Premachandra’s officially-assigned bodyguard and was not responsible for subsequent events, including the killings of Premachandra and the other three people.However, the Court rejected this position on the basis that Silva had been leading the unlawful assembly and triggered the violence by first assaulting Premachandra whose Personal Security Officer, using the right to private defence, then opened fire and injured Silva.”
“Upto the very minute he was shot in his head, the 11th Accused (Duminda Silva) was leading the unlawful assembly. This means that there could only have been a millisecond difference in time between the first shot and the retaliation.”
“Causing death using firearms was very much a foreseeable consequence of their criminal enterprise. It is also true that the 11th Accused (Duminda Silva) was a member of that assembly when the transaction—which lasted for fleeting 60 or more seconds—commenced.
“At the same time, there is no evidence to suggest that, at any time prior to that, the 11th Accused (Duminda Silva) showed a tendency to disassociate himself with the object of the assembly,” the judgement said.”
“However, the court acquitted Duminda Silva’s official bodyguard, constable Vithanalage Anura Thushara de Mel who had not used a weapon and had also been against getting into a gun battle.The Supreme Court held that the prosecution had failed to establish that de Mel shared the common objective of the unlawful assembly and that he should therefore be acquitted.”
“Duminda Silva’s gang had used only one T56 weapon, the one stolen from the Elephant pass camp, and 27 spent cartridges found at the crime scene had been fired from it.The court found that Duminda Silva had systematically moved from one polling centre to the other intimidating voters and had assaulted voters they suspected of voting for the opposition. Women were intimidated and there was a string of violence against people in the area.”
“Lucky Aiya” Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra
One important reason for the extraordinary focus on this particular murder trial was the charismatic personality of the premier victim himself – Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra! Bharatha Lakshman was someone I knew and interacted with slightly in the eighties of the last century.
Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra Alias Lucky Aiya was literally and metaphorically a “child of fifty-six”(Panashaye daruwo). He was born in 1956 on January 26th which is Indian republican day. This was why his parents bestowed the name “Bharatha” upon him. He belonged to a generation whose day in the sun had been ushered through the 1956 revolution of SWRD Bandaranaike.But to his credit Bharatha Lakshman was not a Sinhala chauvinist or supremist. This was what endeared him to me most.
His mentor and leader was the late Vijaya Kumaranatunga. Like Vijaya , Bharatha too was devoid of communalism. He stood for a multi-ethnic Sri Lanka where the minority ethnicities would not be discriminated against. While being firmly committed towards the unity and territorial integrity of the country, Bharatha was also supportive of power sharing through devolution.The Tamils and Muslims lost a great friend when he was killed.
Premachandra came from a non – elitist but progressive background. His father worked at the Ceylon Petroleum corporation and was an active trade unionist. The father was a socialist and supported the Trotskyite Lanka Sama Samaja Party(LSSP) in those days .The son inherited the father’s leftist perspective. Bharatha was one of seven children,two boys and five girls. At the time of his Bharatha’s birth the family was living in Wellampitiya.Later it moved to Kolonnawa. The Premachandras were not rural folk but lower middle class semi-urbanites.
Bharatha Lakshman studied at Ananda College, Colombo. After leaving school he is reported to have worked for a very short time as a bookkeeper’s assistant. However he took to political activism in his early twenties and virtually devoted himself to full time politics .Despite his left leaning tendency Bharatha Lakshman joined the Sri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP) in 1979. TB Illangaratne who represented Kolonnawa electorate in the late sixties and early seventies was the party organizer. Bharatha’s idol and leader was Vijaya Kumaranatunga.He became engaged in trade union work for the party.
Kept Kplonnawa Safe for Tamils and Muslims
Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra due perhaps to the influence of Vijaya Kumaratunga had an enlightened attitude and approach towards the Tamils and Muslims. He kept the Kolonnawa area a safe haven for Tamils and Muslims to reside in.The large number of minority community mourners at his funeral testify to his bona fides on this key aspect. Even the ethnicities of the three bodyguards who were killed along with him are suggestive. One was Sinhala, one Tamil and one a Muslim.
Vijaya and Chandrika split from the SLFP and formed the Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya (SLMP) in 1984. Bharatha Lakshman too followed in their footsteps and was one of the founder members of the SLMP. He immersed himself in developing a trade union movement within the party and was particularly successful at the Colombo harbour..Bharatha along with Dayan Jayatilleka was elected Assistant Secretary of the party. Later he was appointed SLMP organizer for Kolonnawa electoral division.
While working as a trade unionist within the SLMP Bharatha Lakshman also got involved in electioneering. He first contested and won a seat at the Kotikawatte-Mulleriyawe Pradeshiya Sabha. Later he contested the Kolonnawa urban council polls and was elected in 1979 and 1983.He was leader of the opposition in the Kolonnawa urban council in 1983.After joining the SLMP Bharatha Lakshman contested the western provincial council elections in 1988. He was elected as a Western Provincial councilor.
Acquired a “Chandiya”Persona
This was the time when the JVP was targeting politicians participating in provincial councils created because of the Indo-Lanka accord. One day a lone gunman suspected of being JVP targeted Bharatha Lakshman at his residence. But Bharatha’s father despite his age bravely confronted the would be assassin.There was a scuffle and Bharatha too plunged in.Then in an unbelievable feat of bravery , Bharatha Lakshman seized the firearm and shot dead the man who came to kill him.This incident increased Bharatha Lakshman’s image and stature within the party and area. He was now regarded as a tough guy and acquired a “chandiya”persona. The fact that he had fought and killed in self – defence was overlooked.Nevertheless this chandiya image helped him counter the twin threats posed by UNP and JVP.
Chandrika Kumaratunga retuned from her self –exile in Britain and engaged in politics. After breaking up with the SLMP she teamed up briefly with Dr. Rajitha Senaratne and then returned to the SLFP. Bharatha contested the Western provincial council elections again in 1993 and won Chandrika forged a multi-party front led by the SLFP known as the Peoples Alliance(PA) Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra too aligned with her and in 1994 contested on the PA ticket. He was elected as a Parliamentarian from the Colombo district. He was elected MP in two subsequent elections held in 2000 and 2001. He was not assigned any ministerial portfolio then by Chandrika.
Worked Tirelessly For Mahinda Rajapaksa
Disappointed, he drifted away from Chandrika Kumaratunga politically and personally. Bharatha had always enjoyed good rapport with Mahinda Rajapaksa but now he got even more closer. This was a time when the man from Medamulana was a virtual loner in the SLFP where the Bandaranaike family hold was firm.Bharatha however was not lukewarm in his support to Mahinda within the party and backed him strongly as opposition leader, Prime minister and Presidential candidate. He worked tirelessly for Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2005 presidential campaign.
Despite Mahinda’s success Bharatha had not been so fortunate. He had failed to get elected in 2004 to Parliament. This effectively deprived him of an opportunity to be a minister or deputy minister. He also lost the post of organizer for the electoral divisions of Borella and Kolonnawa to UNP “crossers over” Thilanga Sumathipala and Duminda Silva.
President Rajapaksa appointed him as a special presidential adviser on trade unions and provided him with an office at the Presidential secretariat. He was also given two bodyguards from the Presidential security division. Premachandra functioned effectively and helped resolve some prickly trade union issues through behind the scenes negotiations.
After Premachandra’s demise, then President Mahinda Rajapaksa was to tell media heads of how he had offered the Ratmalana electorate organizer post to Bharatha who had turned it down He had also declined an invitation to contest the mayoralty stakes as UPFA nominee for the Colombo city.
Pugncious Political Fighter
President Rajapaksa’s statements indicate that being a pugnacious political fighter , Bharatha Lakshman did not want to be driven out from his home turf. After all this was the area where he spearheaded a SLFP renaissance against the formidable UNP amidst tremendous hardship. He was in no mood to abandon the electorate he nurtured to a Johnny come lately with a disreputable track record.
Premachandra defied the party leadership in his own way by continuing to nurse the Kolonnawa electorate despite being replaced as organizer. He rejected offers to move elsewhere and with dogged determination aimed at re-establishing his hold on the area and regaining his lost status.
The local authority elections of 2011 saw a proxy battle for preference votes within the UPFA between Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra and Duminda Silva in the Kotikawatte-Mulleriyawa Pradeshiya Sabha. Bharatha backed his disciple and incumbent chairman Prasanna Solangaraachchi.Duminda Silva worked against him and propped up others. It was widely alleged that Duminda was in cahoots with drug kingpins like “Wele Sudha”..Rightly or wrongly many people believed this. He was nicknamed “Kudu Duminda” by some.
Moral Crusade Against “Kudukaraya”Menace
The campaign was nasty and affected by violence. Bharatha Lakshman with three decades of political experience turned it into a moral crusade against drugs and drug dealers.Popular antipathy towards the “kudukaraya” menace struck a responsive chord in the hearts and minds of the voters.
When results were announced it was a great political triumph for Bharatha.His “candidate” had got a record number of 42,322 preferences. His rival’s nominee had only got 5811 preferences. The voters had overwhelmingly endorsed Bharatha Lakshman’s war against the drug mafia.In the process he had demonstrated that he was still a political force in the area.Sadly Bharatha Lakshman was not alive to savour his victory.Fate’s moving finger had written his epitaph already.
On Local election day Bharatha was campaigning in one area and Solangaraachchi in another. Duminda Silva and his group campaigning in another area were reportedly in high spirits after imbibing liquor.At one stage Duminda and his accomplices went up to a polling booth in close proximity to Solangaraachchi’s residence. Duminda asked Sollangaraachchi’s wife Madhu whom she voted for.There was a verbal altercation. When Madhu’s mother in law remonstrated Duminda Silva abused her also using obscene words. Some allege that both women were roughed up. Duminda also continued to intimidate and threaten Solangaraachchi’s supporters at the spot.
Bharatha Lakshman was informed of what was happening. Since he was close to the spot, Bharatha rushed to the area with his comrades. Duminda heard that Bharatha was coming and left the place. Both convoys met on the roads near Walpola junction. Bharatha and Duminda both got down from their vehicles and moved towards each other.
Bharatha asked Duminda why he was trying to bully and frighten women in a cowardly manner. Duminda suddenly hit Bharatha and also kicked him. Taken by surprise Bharatha fell down. At this point Duminda ordered his men to open fire. Realising the seriousness of the situation , Bharatha’s armed “Official” body guard also opened fire. Apparently it was he who fired first.Bharatha’s comrades who served as his unofficial bodyguards were unarmed.Bharatha and three of his comrades were shot dead. Bharatha was fired upon while he was lying on the ground. His official body guard too was injured
Massive Cover-up Exercise
.Instead of the perpetrators being arrested the country was regaled with a massive mind – boggling cover up exercise. It was alleged that Duminda Silva was seriously injured in the shoot – out. He was admitted to Hospital. The then President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa visited Duminda in hospital. Special protection was provided. Outsiders were not allowed to go near Duminda. Finally he was escorted amidst great security and was flown to Singapore. It was said that he had sustained many injuries and needed extra medical treatment. Later when Duminda returned to Sri Lanka , he told courts that he was suffering from partial memory loss and could not remember what had transpired on the day in question. The ordinary people however knew and realised what had really happened.
Whatever the actual situation concerning Bharatha Lakshman’s death, in popular perception he died a heroic death at the hands of cowardly assassins There was also sympathy because of the opinion that he had been betrayed by those for whom he fought valiant political battles.The manner in which Bharatha Lakshman was killed and the cover up that followed evoked widespread anger and resentment. When President Mahinda Rajapaksa went to the Premachandra residence to pay his respects the reception from people gathered there was cold. Namal Rajapaksa was hooted at when he went to the funeral parlour.
Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra’s friends, supporters and well-wishers perceived their beloved “Lucky Aiya” as a knight in arms who was constrained to take up arms to fight against the forces of evil.In an exhibition of modern chivalry he had apparently rushed to the aid of a distressed damsel or dame and was murdered in a cowardly fashion.
While the main narrative of Premachandra’s death was viewed through the prism of political rivalry and law and order there also emerged a subaltern narrative that looked upon him as some kind of a latter-day folk hero. The massive crowds attending his funeral at Umagiliya grounds and the spontaneous popular response to his daughter vowing to follow in her father’s footsteps were indicators in this respect.
Daughter Hirunika Premachandra
In the emotional aftermath following his murder,Bharatha Lakshman’s doting daughter Hirunika Premachandra announced that she would emulate her father’s example and take to politics.
In 2014 Hirunika contested on the UPFA ticket at elections for the Western provincial council. She won from Colombo district topping the preference votes list. In 2015 Hirunika contested Parliamentary elections from Colombo district on the United National Party(UNP) ticket and won.Duminda Silva however was denied nomination for polls by President Maithripala Sirisena. Hirunika Premachandra contested as a Samagi Jana Balavegaya candidate in Colombo in 2020 but failed to get elected.
It is noteworthy that Hirunika Premachandra while addressing an SJB media conference a few days before the 2020 Parliamentary elections stated openly that all documentation had been completed to facilitate the release of Duminda Silva after the elections. Hirunika alleged then that Duminda Silva was going to be given a Presidential pardon and released. What she predicted then seems to be coming true now.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is an Enhanced Version of an Article written for the DBS Jeyaraj Column in the “Daily Mirror” of October 31 2020. It can be accessed here: