SPECIAL REPORT : Part 248December 11, 2018, 9:53 pm
Chief of Defence Staff Admiral Ravindra Chandrasiri Wijegunaratne arriving at the Fort Magistrate Court on the afternoon of Nov 28, 2018. Wijegunaratne was ordered to come back in civies after he surrendered earlier in the day in uniform. The CDS was remanded till Dec 5. He was given bail on Dec 5. The case will be taken up again on January 16, 2019
(pic by Jude Denzil Pathiraja)
By Shamindra Ferdinando
An ongoing high profile case before the Fort Magistrate Ranga Dissanayake into the then Navy Commander Vice Admiral Ravindra Chandrasiri Wijegunaratne allegedly helping Lt. Commander Chandana Prasad Hettiarachchi, a suspect in the alleged wartime abduction and disappearance of 11 Tamil youth, to flee the country in early last year, took a dramatic turn on Dec 05, 2018.
Hettiarachchi continues to be in the service though remanded in connection with the disappearance case.
Having repeatedly accused Admiral Wijegunaratne of secretly sending Hettiarachchi out of the country in a Fast Attack Craft (FAC), the CID on Dec 05, 2018, admitted in court that in the absence of evidence to prove Hettiarachchi left the country legally, the outfit assumed the wanted man had been moved out in a naval craft.
The CID, in June 2018, told Fort Magistrate how Wijegunaratne aided and abetted Hettiarachchi to flee the country. At the time allegations were directed at Wijegunaratne, he was the CDS.
Inspector Nishantha Silva, of the Organized Crime Investigation Unit of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), inquiring into the case, made the shocking admission in response to a query posed by President’s Counsel Anoja Premaratne appearing for Wijegunaratne. Premaratne pointed out the police arrested Hettiarachchi in Colombo in August this year after having alleged he fled the country in a FAC.
No less a person than Director, CID, SSP Shani Abeysekera, in April 2018, alleged that Wijegunaratne had aided and abetted Hettiarachchi to flee the country. The other much-touted allegation that Hettiarachchi had received Rs. 500,000 from Wijegunaratne, too, ‘failed’ for want of evidence as an investigation of relevant accounts did not support the charge.
Having relinquished the Office of the Commander of the Navy, Wijegunaratne received appointment as CDS on Aug 22, 2017. Wijegunaratne received the command of the Navy on July 11, 2015. Rear Admiral Travis Sinniah, who played a significant role in the destruction of the floating LTTE arsenal, succeeded Wijegunaratne as the 21st Commander of the Navy.
In the wake of the dismissal of two out of three charges, the Fort Magistrate released Wijegunaratne on two sureties of Rs. 1 million each. The CID did not object to his release.
Wijegunaratne surrendered to the Fort Magistrate court on the morning of Nov 28, 2018. The CID sought to record Wijegunaratne’s statement on Sept. 10, 2018, the day he was leaving for Mexico an official assignment Wijegunaratne asked for a date after Sept. 19 as he wanted to provide a statement immediately on his return from Mexico. Subsequently, the CID called the CDS on Nov 27 and he surrendered to Fort Magistrate court on the following day. The Magistrate fixed the next hearing for January 16, 2019.
Sri Lanka Navy celebrated its 68th anniversary on Dec 09, 2018, with one of its former commanders, the current CDS, under investigation.
The alleged of abductions were supposed to have been carried out in Colombo and its suburbs.
The CID probe has come under the scrutiny of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
At the time of Hettiarachchi’s alleged disappearance, in late March 2017, he had been attached to the Navy welfare section, at headquarters, in Colombo.
At the onset of the case, the CID brought to the notice of the Fort Magistrate the circumstances leading to Hettiarachchi’s disappearance, in spite of two specific requests, made in March 2017, to hand him over to the CID.
The CID alleged that high ranking officers prevented the police from questioning Hettiarachchit. The Navy was accused of facilitating the alleged disappearance of the former intelligence officer to mislead the investigators.
The Island raised the issue with Admiral Wijegunaratne, in late April this year, after SSP Shani Abeysekera accused him of having facilitated Hettiarachchi’s escape. The serious allegation was made in Wijegunaratne’s presence, at a meeting, also attended by the then Ministers Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, D.M. Swaminathan, Ajith P. Perera, Navy Commander Sirimevan Ranasinghe, President’s Counsel J. C. Weliamuna and senior officials of the CID and the FCID (Financial Crimes Investigation Division).
SSP Abeysekera alleged that Wijegunaratne had provided Rs. 500,000 to Hettiarachchi and moved him out of Sri Lankan waters, in a FAC. Wijegunaratne told the writer last April that he would quit if allegations against him could be proved.
Having declined to discuss the issue with the writer further, the highest ranking serving officer stressed, "Navy Commanders don’t get involved in human smuggling."
Having failed to locate Hettiarachchi, the police sought public assistance to trace him. Hettiarachchi is among five suspects, including three Navy personnel, who faced indictments over the assassination of TNA Jaffna District MP, Nadarajah Raviraj, and his police bodyguard Sergeant Lakshman Lokuwella. They were acquitted by the Colombo High Court, in Dec. 2016. Following that acquittal the widow of Raviraj appealed against it.
The police wrongly and deliberately identified Hettiarachchi as ‘Navy Sampath’, though he had not been previously known by that alias. The police arrested Hettiarachchi in the second week of August this year.
Of those arrested in connection with the alleged 11 disappearances, six Navy personnel, including Commodore D. K. P. Dassanayake and Commander R. P. S. Ranasinghe, received bail from the Colombo High Court, this year.
In addition to them, Lt. Commander Sampath Munasinghe, Security Chief of wartime Navy Commander Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, was also arrested in connection with the disappearance case and given bail. Subsequently, Munasinghe was asked to submit papers and quit the Navy.
The alleged disappearances came to light, in early 2009, soon after the successful conclusion of the war. Karannagoda initiated an inquiry after receiving representations from a close relative of one of the missing persons, through the intervention of one-time Navy spokesman, J. J. Ranasinghe, incumbent Vice Chancellor of the Kotelawela Defence University (KDU).
Lt. Commander Munasinghe quit the Navy several weeks after Karannagoda had complained to police of the recovery of some national identity cards and other items belonging to the missing persons, from his chief security officer’s locker.
The CID initiated a fresh investigation after the change of government in January 2015.
The CID recorded statements, from over 50 officers, including former Navy Commanders, Admiral Karannagoda and Admiral Travis Sinniah.
Sinniah succeeded Wijegunaratne, in August 2017. Sirimewan Ranasinghe replaced Sinniah in Oct 2017.
Lt. Commander K. C. Welagedara, who had been the second-in-command to the then Trincomalee-based Commander R. P. S. Ranasinghe, one of those arrested in connection with the disappearances, was questioned by the CID, in 2013.
The police alleged D.K.P. Dassanayake had supervised Ranasinghe and Hettiarachchi allegedly responsible for the abductions at issue.
Police alleged those Navy personnel, under investigation, had carried out the abductions to extort money.
Wijegunaratne, however, is still under investigation for allegedly threatening a key witness Lt. Commander Laksiri Galagamage within the Navy headquarters.
Welle Suda’s neighbour
Wijegunaratne was remanded on Nov 28 till Dec 5 in the wake of the CID asserting that the highest ranking serving security forces officer could hamper investigations if given bail. Wijegunaratne, too, should take responsibility for what had happened at the Fort Magistrate court premises on the afternoon of Nov 28 when some Navy personnel, in civies, obstructed the media covering the event. Wijegunaratne should have ensured that Navy personnel in civies shouldn’t enter the court premises, under any circumstances, on that day. Wijegunaratne paid a heavy price for the foolish conduct of some of his men. The CDS appeared to have conveniently forgotten how his own conduct as the Commander of the Navy, at the port of Hambantota, on Dec 10, 2016, caused him irreparable damage. The then Vice Admiral Wijegunaratne earned the wrath of the media for manhandling a local journalist covering the Navy trying to break up port workers’ protest.
President’s Counsel Premaratne failed to convince the Fort Magistrate to give Wijegunaratne bail, having allegedly threatened key witness Lt. Commander Laksiri Galagamage. Wijegunaratne had caused himself immense harm by unnecessarily inquiring into Galagamage’s conduct on the afternoon of Nov 25, in Navy headquarters, where he had consumed liquor. The incident triggered allegedly by Wijegunaratne’s intervention three days before he surrendered to court directly without reporting to the CID on Nov 27 obviously caused the CDS harm. His action earned him bad press. Wijegunaratne and those accompanying him at the time of the Nov 25 incident should blame themselves for giving the other party an opportunity to exploit the situation.
Wijegunaratne, with nearly 40 years of military service and a recipient of four gallantry awards, including Sri Lanka’s second highest Weerodhara Vibhushana was sent to the Magazine Prison in a Black Maria. Wijegunaratne was directed to hand over his valuables to his Personal Security Officer (PSO). In addition to plastic money, nine-gems embedded ring which Wijegunaratne had received from his wife Yamuna in 1989 and his ‘fit bit wrist watch’ which measured the CDS daily exercise regime.
Wijegunaratne received Prisoner No 9550. The highest ranking officer was reduced to just a Number. Prison authorities also expressed concern as there were hardcore LTTE cadres held at the Magazine Prison. Subsequently, No 9550 was transferred to the ‘High Security Section’ at Welikada where Wijegunaratne was ‘accommodated’ in a British colonial era stable - much better accommodation given to ordinary prisoners. Wijegunaratne received a mat, chair, pillow, two white bed sheets and granite bench. In addition to them, there was a toilet with a squatting pan and water tank with a bucket.
On the following day (Nov 29), a condemned prisoner delivered a hot cup of tea to Wijegunaratne, whose neighbour was Welle Suda, notorious narcotics dealer whose arrest in Pakistan was made possible by support extended by the Pakistan Military. Pakistani authorities arrested Welle Suda, living in luxury, close to Pakistan Navy War College at Lahore.
Navy’s role in triumph over terrorism
Wijegunaratne earned the respect of colleagues when he volunteered in early Nov 1993 to join troops assembled to rescue those who had been trapped in isolated Nagathevanthurai detachment. The detachment established during the tenure of Vice Admiral Clancy Fernando to intercept LTTE movements across the Jaffna lagoon played a critical role in the then overall security strategy meant to isolate the Jaffna peninsula. The LTTE responded by assassinating Fernando in Nov 1992 on the Galle Road, opposite Taj Samudra. Having received valuable experience with Special Forces of the Indian Navy during the deployment of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Northern Sri Lanka, Wijegunaratne, in 1993, played pivotal role in forming Sri Lanka’s own Special Boat Squadron (SBS). Special Forces of the Indian Navy hadn’t been previously engaged in actual operations at the time of their deployment here in terms of the Indo-Lanka Accord forced on the then President JR Jayewardene by India. It would be pertinent to mention that at the time the Navy established Nagathevanthurai boat point on the Vanni mainland, SBS hadn’t been envisaged. In spite of on and off setbacks, the Navy played a significant role in the war against the LTTE, with ensuring regular supplies to Jaffna-based forces by sea being the extremely difficult task. The Navy, with the support of the Air Force, ensured supplies to the peninsula though there were deficiencies.
With nearly a decade after the successful conclusion of the war, the Navy should really examine its role in the war and post-conflict period. Unfortunately, except for The Aerial Tribute: The Role of Air Power in Defeating Terrorism in Sri Lanka that extensively dealt with the air campaign during Eelam War IV, the Army and the Navy are yet to release their own versions.
Authored in Feb 2014 by Nirosha Mendis, a medical practitioner, the 350-page book dealt with the extremely difficult circumstances under which the SLAF conducted the campaign. The well-researched book wouldn’t have been a reality if not for the then SLAF Chief Air Marshal Harsha Abeywickrama, wartime Director Operations/Air Operations inquiring from Dr. Mendis whether he could accept the challenging task.
With disrespect to no one, it must be stated that the Navy really got its act together following Rear Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda receiving the command on Sept 1, 2005. Having called off longstanding ‘Operation Waruna Kirana’ off Mullaitivu meant to intercept LTTE vessel movements, Karannagoda re-deployed available assets to hunt down floating LTTE arsenals on the high seas. The Navy launched ‘Operation Waruna Kirana’ in May 2001. Acting on information received from the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), the US as well as its own, the Navy, within a matter of months crippled the once powerful LTTE sea supply route. Admiral Karannagoda, on his own succeeded in securing vital US intelligence output which enabled the Navy to destroy LTTE weapons stores on the high seas. In spite of undertaking high risk operations on the high seas, the Navy deployed required assets to thwart LTTE attempts to use Tamil Nadu as a strategic transit point for arms, ammunition and equipment. But perhaps, the most difficult and dangerous operation sustained by the Navy was moving the converted passenger vessel Jetliner between Trincomalee and Kankesanthurai during Eelam War IV.
The destruction of eight LTTE ships, categorized by the SLN as floating arsenals, in four separate forays on the high seas, delivered the enemy a knockout blow. According to the SLN, the ships, which were between 45 to 75 meters in length, had the capacity to carry 1,000 to 1,500 tonnes of cargo each. The seven ships sunk in 2007 and the vessel destroyed on September 17, 2006, off Kalmunai, had been loaded with several thousand tonnes of military cargo at the time of their respective destruction.
The SLN had access to some of those involved in the transfer of LTTE armaments when the Maldivian Coast Guard intercepted an Indian trawler commandeered by the LTTE carrying arms in Maldivian waters, in May 2007. Maldivian assistance certainly made things easier for the Navy.
The Navy was also successful in curbing the Gulf of Mannar supply route by increasing patrols in the region. The LTTE’s efforts to move supplies, in many instances with direct or indirect involvement of Tamil Nadu fishing fleet to Vidathalthivu-Pooneryn area on the west coast, were thwarted by stepped up naval operations.
The Navy prevented Sea Tiger movement with reinforcement of cadres and supply arms and ammunition hugging the coast using indigenously built "Arrow" and "Wave rider" boats.
Triumph over the LTTE would never have been possible without unprecedented success achieved by Karannagoda’s Navy. The Navy accomplished unthinkable success in spite of the intimidating challenge posed by Sea Tigers, especially ‘sea suicide squads.’ Those who knew the deployment of a range of assets and placing Katunayake-based jet squadrons on alert on the days Jetliner carrying 3,000 officers and men moved between Trincomalee and Kankesanthurai realized the massive threat. Had Sea Tigers succeeded on smashing through the FAC cordon, the outcome would have been catastrophic and created a situation that may have led to the termination of the vital sea supply route. It wouldn’t have been too hard to realize the crisis against the backdrop of the Army losing the overland Main Supply Route (MSR) to Jaffna way back in 1990 and the SLAF lacking sufficient aircraft to ensure required supplies.
The Navy deployed around 24 FAC (Dvora craft), 4 FGBs, 2 OPVs and over 80 Arrow and Wave rider craft during this once-a-week movement. The Jetliner left Trinco harbour with troops by first light (before 5 am) and returned to Trincomalee by 6 pm. The preparations started 12 hours before the departure of "Jetliner" by deploying over 16 FACs, 4 FGBs and 2 OPVs ithe previous evening to sweep the path to ensure that there are no floating mines, suicide boats disguised as fishing boats waiting in ambush, etc. After they give the all clear signal only the main body left the harbour escorted with 8 to 10 Facs. The craft/ships that left the harbour, the previous evening, maintained their positions along the route until the "Jetliner" returned to the Trinco harbour in the evening. The entire Navy got involved in this operation and all the Area Commanders, including the Southern Commander, were present in the operations room from 3 am until the task was over