How a celebrated officer ended up at Welikada
SPECIAL REPORT : Part 196
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Sri Lanka Navy celebrated its 67th anniversary last Friday (Dec 9) with Vice Admiral Sirimevan Ranasinghe at the helm. Ranasinghe succeeded Vice Admiral Travis Sinniah last October amidst simmering controversy over Sri Lanka’s decision to acquire a frigate from Russia, nine years after the successful conclusion of the war.
The government defended the acquisition, both in and outside parliament, with State Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena likening acquisition of expensive vessel to the purchase of a BMW at the price of a Toyota.
Sinniah, who had duly retired in July 2011, two years after the successful conclusion of the war, was brought back with the change of government, in January 2015 and commanded the Navy for just three months. The number of months, Sinniah, had served the Navy as its commander should be examined against the backdrop of the number of LTTE ships, the Navy task force, under his command, successfully hunted down on the high seas. Certainly, under the then Captain Sinniah’s leadership, the Navy had destroyed more LTTE ships than the number of months he served as the commander.
Sinniah is certainly a hero who had made a name for himself in the 80s in northern waters. The capture of an LTTE vessel, carrying a group of hardcore terrorists, by this junior officer, triggered an unprecedented crisis in Oct 1987, leading to a bloody war between the Indian Army and the LTTE. Had that not happened Sri Lanka’s fate would have been different.
Unfortunately, the decision to promote Sinniah as the Commander of the Navy triggered a battle with various parties exploiting the situation to their advantage. Whatever the accusations, no one could have challenged Sinniah’s suitability to command the Navy though his return to active service, after retirement, is certainly a contentious matter. Then US Ambassador Patricia Butenis intervened on behalf of Sinniah, to secure Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s consent to have him released from the Navy at a time the Rajapaksas were firmly in control. Having secured a second term, beating war-winning Army Chief Gen. Sarath Fonseka, in 2010 January, President Rajapaksa obviously didn’t foresee a political challenge at that time. The rest is history.
Sri Lanka’s most successful Navy chief, Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, wouldn’t have entrusted Sinniah with the challenging task of operations on the high seas during a crucial stage of the war if the officer’s professionalism and capabilities weren’t recognized. It would be pertinent to reiterate that it was Karannagoda, who had the wherewithal to secure the required intelligence from the US to go after the LTTE fleet.
But, at the end, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) recorded then Rear Admiral Sinniah’s statement, too, in respect of a spate of abductions that had been allegedly carried out by the Navy during the Rajapaksa administration. Karannagoda has challenged Sinniah’s statement on the basis it brought him as well as the Navy as an institute into disrepute.
In a strange and shocking twist of events, Karannagoda, who had officially brought the alleged involvement of Navy personnel in clandestine activities to the notice of the police, on May 28, 2009, during the Rajapaksa administration, ended up being treated as a ‘suspect,’ much to the surprise of post-war Sri Lanka.
UN on navy abductions
UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism, Ben Emmerson, at the conclusion of his official visit to Sri Lanka, on July 14, 2017 made reference to what is now dubbed as the Navy abductions case. The writer was among those invited to cover Emmerson’s briefing at the UN compound in Colombo.
Let me reproduce the relevant paragraph verbatim: "During the Special Rapporteur’s visit, the Chief of the Army, Mahesh Senanayake, made a public commitment to ensure that members of the armed forces who had committed crimes would be brought to justice; a senior Naval Commander was arrested for his alleged involvement in the disappearance of 11 people during the closing stages of the conflict, and the Special Rapporteur was assured by the Attorney General that if and when criminal allegations against the military finally reach his office, they will be prosecuted with the full force of the law. The Attorney General recognized that if Sri Lanka was to achieve lasting peace, then its law enforcement institutions must gain the confidence of all sectors of society, including the Tamil and Muslim minorities.
But these indications fall far short of Sri Lanka’s international commitment to achieve a lasting and just solution to its underlying problems, for the benefit of all of its communities, to establish a meaningful system of transitional justice that is governed by the principles of equality and accountability, and to put in place essential and urgently needed reform of the security sector."
Police hq. on Navy abductions
Close on the heels of Emmerson’s statement, police spokesperson attorney-at-law SP Ruwan Gunasekera, briefed the media, at the Government Information Department, as regards the Navy abductions case.
Having cleared 11 persons, allegedly abducted by the Navy, of involvement with the LTTE, SP Gunasekera acknowledged that the police received a complaint from Karannagoda, way back in May, 2009, within two weeks after the conclusion of the war on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon. The CID launched an inquiry on June 10, 2009.
Ben Emmerson’s statement, as well as SP Gunasekera’s were made in the wake of Commodore D.K.P. Dassanayake’s arrest, just before the former’s arrival in Sri Lanka, on a 10-day mission.
Karannagoda’s complaint dealt with his chief security officer Lt. Commander Sampath Munasinghe. The then Navy Chief sought police intervention following the recovery of four national identity cards, one passport bearing the name of one of those whose national identity cards were found, one mobile phone, promissory notes worth over one million rupees and approximately 450 rounds of ammunition from Munasinghe’s cabin. Karannagoda wanted to have Munasinghe investigated as regards the officer’s possible involvement with terrorists, primarily due to him being in possession of ammunition not issued to him by the Navy.
SP Gunasekera is on record as having told the media that a Britisher, an eyewitness to one of the abductions, identified the hand phone, recovered from Munasinghe’s cabin, as the one seized from him by Navy personnel at the time of the abduction. The official said that the Britisher had provided vital evidence and investigators were in the process of examining available data.
The lawyer said that the four national identity cards that had been found were issued to the missing footballer, his father and two other residents of Kotahena and Trincomalee.
Following Admiral Karannagoda’s complaint, the CID had received information from the Navy that led to the arrest of Lt. Commander Hettiarachchi.
Navy Captain’s killer squads
The then Captain Dassanayake had been named as the officer in charge of two special teams headed by Lt. Commander Hettiarachchi and Lt. Commander Ranasinghe, responsible for the disappearances.
At the time of Dassanayake’s arrest he was attached to the Office of the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS). The senior most officer, taken into custody, over alleged atrocities committed during the war, Dassanayake is well known as the Navy spokesman. Dassanayake’s rank is equivalent to that of a Brigadier and Air Commodore in the Army and the Air Force, respectively. Besides, Dassanayake functioned as Acting Director, Maritime Special Forces.
Of those seven officers and men arrested by the CID, Lt. Commander Munasinghe, who had been arrested at the beginning of the investigation, received bail.
In spite of police claims, Dassanayake, neither functioned as Director Naval Operations (DNO) nor supervised special teams, commanded by two Lt. Commanders, R. P. S Ranasinghe (since then promoted Commander) and H. M. P. C. K Hettiarachchi, according to Navy headquarters records as well as statements given by senior retired and serving Navy officers to the police.
Ranasinghe has been the senior officer in charge of naval intelligence in the East whereas Hettiarachchi was attached to reconnaissance team assigned to Karannagoda.
Gunasekera alleged that then Captain Dassanayake had been navika hamuda meheyum adyaksha (Director Naval Operations) and in charge of two special teams responsible for abductions and disappearances. SP Gunasekera named those who had been abducted allegedly by them while claiming relatives of some of the victims had met Dassanayake to plead on behalf of their loved ones.
At that time (period under investigation) present Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Admiral Ravi Wijegunaratne and incumbent Navy Chief Vice Admiral SS Ranasinghe held the post of DNO. Dassanayake had been the Deputy Director.
Karannagoda acts on May 2009 complaint
Among those who had been questioned in connection with the disappearance was Rear Admiral J.J. Ranasinghe, Vice Chancellor of the Kotelawela Defence University (KDU), who brought the disappearance of 21-year-old Rajiv Naganathan of Kotahena, one of the missing 11 to the notice of Karannagoda, in May 2009. J.J. Ranasinghe, who had functioned as Navy spokesman, before Dassanayake, sought Karannagoda’s assistance on behalf of a UK-based close relative of the missing youth. As the youth had contacted his family from Trincomalee, using a phone provided by Navy personnel, his family knew of the name of the commanding officer of the base where he was held, hence Karannagoda calling for an explanation from Lt. Commander Ranasinghe. When Lt. Commander Ranasinghe denied the allegation that secret prisoners were being kept, the Navy Chief sent the then Eastern Commander Rear Admiral Thusitha Weerasekera to check the junior officer’s claim. Rear Admiral Weerasekera, too, confirmed that there were no secret prisoners. Sinniah had been Weerasekera’s No 2.
The police also recorded a statement from Rear Admiral Weerasekera (now retired). Admiral Karannagoda, Rear Admiral KJCS Fernando and several Navy intelligence personnel were among about 50 persons so far questioned by the police. Dassanayake’s statement was recorded in late Feb. 2015 though he was arrested ahead of UN Special Rapporteur Emmerson’s, visit.
Of the 11 persons, five persons were allegedly taken in on Sept. 17, 2008, by Navy personnel, along with a black coloured Tata Indica. Police have identified them as Rajiv Naganathan (21 years/Colombo 13), Pradeep Vishvanathan (18 years/Wasala Rd, Colombo 13), Mohammed Sajith (21 years/Dematagoda), Thilakeswaram Ramalingam (17 years/Bloemendhal housing complex, Colombo 13) and Jamaldeen Dilan (Maradana). Those involved in the operation were believed to have been accompanied by a Navy informant Mohammed Ali Anwar alias Hadjjiar of Karagampitiya, Dehiwela. Subsequently, the 28-year-old informant, too, had disappeared; he has been listed among those 11 missing.
The remaining five persons are Kasthuriarachchilage John Reid (21 years/Kotahena/8-9-2008)), Amalan Leon (50 years/Arippu, north/25-8-2008)) and his son Roshan Leon (21 years/Arippu north/25-8-2008), Anthony Kasthuriarachchi (48 years/Kotahena/10-10-2008) and Kanagaraja Jegan (32 years, Trincomalee)
Due to Karannagoda’s intervention, Munasinghe surrendered to the police, in June 2009, after having accused CoN of planning to assassinate Army Chief Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka. Lt. Commander Munasinghe and Lt. Commander Hettiarachchi received bail while five persons, including Commander Ranasinghe, are in remand, pending further investigations.
Although Navy headquarters lodged a complaint, in May 2009, with the police, the progress of the investigations had been slow. When Vice Admiral Jayanath Colomabge became Commander of the Navy, in late 2012, he appointed Lt Commander Ranasinghe as his PSO.
Three Navy personnel, including Lt. Commander K.C. Welagedera, who had been Ranasinghe’s deputy in Trincomalee, implicated Dassanayake in the disappearances. Following their statements, particularly the one given by Welagedara, who had been investigated by the Office of the Provost Marshal, for his alleged involvement in human smuggling operations, Provost Marshal Dassanayake faced difficulty in taking part in a prestigious US military course. Welagedara accused four officers, including Dassanayake, of threatening him. Although Dassanayake was allowed to proceed to the US in Sept. 2014, the then Navy Commander Vice Admiral Jayantha Perera requested him to return in mid- Feb 2015. The police recorded Dassanayake statement two weeks later.
Lt. Commander Welagedara is currently in Australia on overseas leave.
The travel ban imposed on Dassanayake, by court, on a request made by the police, in Feb. 2015, remains in force.
The allegations in respect of disappearances deprived Dassanayake of due promotion to the rank of Commodore.
The intervention made by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) on Dassanayake’s behalf subsequently led to him receiving the appointment as temporary Commodore with seniority backdated to June 1, 2015. The police arrested Dassanayake before the HRCSL received representations by retired Admirals, Karannagoda and Thisara Samarasinghe on behalf of Dassanayake.
Meanwhile, investigations conducted by the Navy, during the war, implicated at least four of the missing persons (not among those abducted on Sept 17, 2008) and the informant in LTTE operations. Those residents of Arippu North had been involved in the running of a fleet of boats between northern Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu. Those allegedly taken in on Sept 17, 2008, were believed to have been involved in a credit card racket with the knowledge of the LTTE.
The previous government owed an explanation to the country why it failed to investigate Karannagoda’s complaint until the change of government. Sri Lanka is certainly paying a very heavy price for the lapses on the part of the previous government.
The writer had an opportunity to visit Chalai in late April 2009 as the LTTE was waging a desperate struggle to thwart the Army on the Vanni east front. Dassanayake was there as the senior officer responsible for an unprecedented naval blockade meant to prevent a possible attempt to evacuate LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, his family and senior most cadres, such as Pottu Amman and Soosai, heads of Intelligence Wing and Sea Tigers respectively. Then Commanding Officer of the Trincomalee-based Fast Attack Craft (FACs) Captain Noel Kalubowila, too, joined journalists from Colombo, taken to Chalai seas, where dozens of heavily armed SLN craft maintained watch. The writer was among the group that returned to Chalai again in the night to observe what was going on. Dassanayake was not among us. Dassanayake was with his units engaged in the blockade. Having vowed not to allow Prabhakaran to escape by sea, Karannagoda placed dogged Dassanayake in charge of the blockade. Those who had been deployed there operated under extremely difficult conditions. They faced the unenviable task of rescuing civilians, fleeing the war zone in boats, apprehending terrorists trying to escape along with civilians, and thwarting terrorists and their families escaping through the naval cordon. Dassanayake’s men performed their task admirably. Among those who had been apprehended by the Navy were Sea Tiger leader Soosai’s wife and children, though at the time of their arrest the Navy wasn’t aware of their identity.
The writer worked closely with Dassanayake during the war, and after, and considered the seizure of an LTTE vessel by the Navy overseas in early Dec 2009 a significant and unprecedented achievement. The writer was certainly privileged to go on-board the captured LTTE vessel ‘Princess Christina’ aka Feng Shun 7 on the afternoon of Dec 21, 2009 when it was brought to the Colombo port. Karannagoda’s successor, then Vice Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe had been there to welcome the Navy team that brought the vessel. Dassanayake had led the six-member team, comprising four officers and two men who flew in to a South East Asian country, separately and surreptitiously infiltrated the harbour situated at a remote island before taking control of the asset in an operation details of which cannot be disclosed.
Interrogation of Prabhakaran’s successor in Colombo after having captured him in Malaysia, in early August 2009, led to the seizure of the vessel. The Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) played a significant role in both the Malaysia operation and the subsequent seizure of the vessel. But, it was Dassanayake’s team that had to seize the vessel that was to be used in a possible rescue mission. A smiling Dassanayake told the writer how their achievement could be the basis for a movie or a book (Navy brings in captured LTTE vessel involved in bid to evacuate P’karan with strap line A light chopper was to be used to remove P’karan to the ship - The Island, Dec 22, 2009)
The vessel had been among a fleet of five ships that was legitimately acquired by the LTTE, bought through various front companies. Unlike the LTTE-operated eight vessels, hunted down during Sept 2006-Oct 2007 during Karannagoda’s tenure, the five vessels had never been used to smuggle in arms, ammunition or equipment to the LTTE. The vessel hat had been captured was the one to be used for rescue operation.
Dassanayake played a central role in government media project. Dassanayake and the writer ‘handled’ the Kanyakumari massacre, in early 2007, subsequent to the sinking of Indian trawler Sri Krishna commandeered by the LTTE in Maldivian waters, and detection of explosives belonging to the LTTE in Indian waters and other events whereas the Media Center for National Security (MCNS) addressed day to day issues. The MCNS never focused on the big picture.
Who would have thought Dassanayake would have to be at the maximum security Welikada prison, as an accused, on a day the Navy celebrated its anniversary?
With the Colombo High Court, on Dec 7, 2017, further remanding six Navy personnel, including Dassanayake, till January 11, 2018, they will be spending the dawning of New Year, too, at Welikada.
Ranasinghe, too, had been responsible for dismantling the LTTE networks and won admiration for apprehending and driving an explosives packed LTTE vehicle meant to mount an attack in Colombo at the height of the war.
Had they committed atrocities they should certainly be subject to the normal law of the land. They should face the consequences for their actions. Uniforms do not give license for those who wear them to put innocents to death.
Had the previous Government ensured proper and speedy investigations, at least after the UNSG Panel of Experts (PoE), released its damning report on Sri Lanka, in March 2011, Navy abduction case could have been addressed much earlier. Unfortunately, those who had been in power lacked political courage to do so. Having plunged the post-war Sri Lanka into crisis, those who had been in power, and the present government, refuse at least to review their actions. What a pity!