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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The Kumara saga: Govt.’s credibility further eroded

 Sunday Times Political Editor
Most Sri Lankans enjoying the Avurudu festivities may be unaware that the country’s security establishment has been preoccupied for weeks now about the changing political firmament. 

The cause — as exclusively revealed in the Sunday Times of September 18 last year and for weeks thereafter — was the split in the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Whilst the moderates led by Somawansa Amerasinghe were heading a formidable group, another breakaway faction, equally formidable, was perceived to be taking a militant line. After failing to seize control of the JVP, the latter decided time was now ripe to go its own way by forming a new party and launching a membership drive.

Dimuthu in conversation with Gunaratnam via Skype at their party office. Pic by Saman Kariyawasam
The leader of that Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) was going to be the elusive 47-year-old Premakumara Gunaratnam better known among his colleagues as Kumara. He was one of the most wanted men in Sri Lanka. He had a number of other aliases. Among them: Ratnayake Mudiyanselage Dayalal, Wanniyakalage Daskon and Kumnara Karunaratne. With just 72 hours before he assumed leadership of the FSP, a heavily armed unknown group abducted Kumara and his party colleague, Dimuthu Attygalle. Coming as it does in less than a month after the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted a resolution calling upon the government to enforce recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), the alleged abduction was breaking news worldwide. The LLRC report had dealt extensively on the need to address human rights issues.

In Australia, where Kumara is a citizen, print and electronic media gave wide prominence turning the issue into a heated diplomatic row between Colombo and Canberra. Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in Australia, retired Admiral Tissara Samarasinghe went on television networks to first deny claims of abduction and to later accuse Kumara of violating the country’s immigration laws. He repeated the usual military radio communication jargon by using the words “negative” when questions were put to him about abduction allegations and related issues. As pressure mounted on Colombo, Kumara not only surfaced but the government of Sri Lanka paid his air fare to fly him to Sydney. Interesting enough, it was only in December, last year, that detectives of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) detained his wife Champa Somaratne (39), daughter Udini (18) and son Amandaka (13) when they were leaving Sri Lanka for Australia after the Christmas holidays. They were questioned for several hours after being stopped from boarding a flight to Bangkok en route to Sydney. As a result, the surcharge for the ticket change was paid for by the government.

During that brief detention, she had been asked about the whereabouts of her husband. As revealed in the Sunday Times (political commentary) of January 8, she was questioned about her relationship to Kumara. Detectives and intelligence sleuths found copies of letters addressed to the UN Human Rights Commission and some diplomatic missions in Colombo. On that occasion, Dr. Somaratne who is a practising doctor in Sydney denied Kumara was her husband. She said she had not been in touch with him for more than two years. In accordance with Australian law, she said, such a period of separation was grounds for the annulment of their marriage. That she was economical with the truth with the detectives in Colombo to get away became clear this week. She told the ABC network, a premier television outlet in Australia that her husband was abducted because he was a “political activist” and accused the government of “violating human rights.” Both Kumara and Champa have been living in Australia since 2006. Once a doctor at the Chest Hospital in Welisara, she was now practising in Australia. Kumara was engaged then in what was termed as “international activities of the JVP” and thereafter since the split in the party, he worked for the breakaway faction.

Kumara and Dimuthu went missing since Friday April 6. At first, the Police official spokesperson, who is now the main source for media on law and order matters, denied the duo had been “arrested”. In fact, no police station had any knowledge about such an arrest, he insisted.

Leaders of the FSP, however, countered that the two had been “arrested”. Other accounts spoke of “abductions”. As the event reached a crescendo, Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa appeared on the Doramadala programme in the government’s ITN television network last Monday night. This was after the scheduled live programme where Attanayake M. Herath of the Peradeniya University, a regular contributor, was to be broadcast. He had been informed just hours earlier that his programme had been cancelled. Gotabaya Rajapaksa strongly denied any accusations against the military of abductions and declared it was being done by enemies of the government. He was livid about these accusations and said that the military was in no way responsible. At the end of the programme, however, he did admit that Gunaratnam had (days after he had disappeared) “surrendered” to the Police and had “over stayed” his visa.

For weeks now, the breakaway faction that formed the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) had been making preparations for its annual convention. It was to be held at the Sugathadasa Stadium’s Sport Complex on Monday, April 9. Delegates from foreign countries had been invited. Those from Britain, Italy and Pakistan had arrived. Leaders of what was going to be a new leftist political party wanted it to be a big event, both to send a strong message to their contemporaries and the country at large that a new left group had arrived. A crucial meeting of the key players was scheduled for Friday April 6 — Bak Full Moon Poya Day. It was to be held at 5 p.m. at 29/1 Gemunu Mawatha, Kiribathgoda, a partially built house. Earlier, on April 1, the breakaway group had a meeting of their ‘hard core’ membership and picked an 18 member Central Committee. That was to later select a political bureau.

When the meeting at Gemunu Mawatha ended, Kumara decided he would spend the night there. Knowing that he was most sought after, he has been shifting abode every now and then. A few members including Dimuthu Attygalle stayed behind for a discussion with Kumara. Others had left. Dimuthu was the first to fall victim to an armed group. Later, the same befell Kumara. That same evening, Dimuthu left the meeting on the pillion of a motor cycle ridden by a FSP member Duminda Nagamuwa. At the Polwatte-Talawatugoda junction, she alighted. She boarded a bus to travel to Boralesgamuwa where she lived. As she walked towards her house, she saw men alighting from a white van. She also saw a “few of them” in civilians clothes carrying weapons in their hand seated inside the van. She said it would be six or seven of them.

The next moment, she was mugged and bundled into the van. She was blindfolded. Her abductors clapped her hands and legs with manacles. One or two of them assaulted her. As she remained helpless, for “one or one and half hours” she travelled in the white van. Then she was taken to the upstairs of a building and interrogated. The questions had focused on three issues. The first was about the new party, how it was funded and about its leaders. She was also asked details of the convention and claimed her interrogators were “well aware of those who had arrived from abroad”. The other line of questioning was the JVP breakaway group’s connections with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who were militarily defeated in May 2009. And then she was asked whether there were plans by this group to resort to an armed rebellion. The suspicions centred on the breakaway faction’s publicised statements during the crisis where it accused the JVP leadership of departing from “declared objectives”. That departure they referred to included supporting the candidature of former General Sarath Fonseka for the presidential elections last year and joining hands for that purpose with the “right wing United National Party (UNP)”. Thereafter, according to Dimuthu, she was “questioned professionally” by some persons who treated her well. The manacles were removed only when she wanted to use the toilet. There again, she was escorted by a female.

According to Dimuthu, the first place where she was held “appeared to be a village outside Colombo”. There was stoic silence and she could only hear sounds of birds singing and crowing of cockerels or cock birds. She opined that such a hideout could be at least an hour or more away from Colombo. The next morning (Saturday April 7) she was blindfolded and taken with manacles on a journey. It also took one to one and half hours. Thereafter, she arrived at what she thought was an “important place”. This was because there was a “lot of activity.” Throughout day and night there were “sounds from the movement of vehicles.” They were travelling “at high speed judging from the roar of engines”. She could hear “children cry” from a close distance. She was told that Kumara was also held and had made a statement. Different persons “interrogated her” at “different times”. During these “interrogations” she was asked “how much contributions were made by their faction” to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva where a US-backed resolution was adopted by a majority vote last month. They “even mentioned the names of the delegates who took part in the convention,” according to Dimuthu.

Then Dimuthu was given the good news by her armed abductors. She was told that Kumara was being released the next morning. She was told the he was being deported to Australia. She had been asked “where she should be dropped?” When she replied that it could be her party office at Madiwala, one of the men had said “that cannot be done.” It was agreed that she would be dropped at a point along the Naduhena Road. She was given Rs. 800 and told to find her way to the party office which was half a kilometre away. After she was asked to get down, Dimuthu said, she was told not to look back until the sound of the engine of the white van is not heard by her. Otherwise, her abductors warned, she would be “shot dead”. Before releasing her, the men removed the manacles from her hands and legs. From there, she went to the party office to relate the story to her colleagues.

It was 4.30 a.m. on Saturday April 7 when a group of armed men arrived at No 21/9 Gemunu Mawatha. A female worker in the neighbourhood, who rose early to cook her meals before going to work, said in a statement to the Kiribathgoda Police she, saw the armed men. One of them had come to her and asked her to close the window, switch off her lights and remain inside. She had later learnt that similar warnings had been issued to other neighbours, too. She told Police she believed around 25 armed persons were present. She said that by 5.15 a.m., the armed group had left the area. The armed men had seized Kumara. He alleged that he was stripped naked, handcuffed and his legs manacled. Kumara claimed he was assaulted and his abductors hurled filthy abuse at him. He also made a string of other allegations. Kumara was taken to a building where he was “interrogated” about the new political party, its alleged links with the LTTE, international connections and other matters. On Monday night or early Tuesday morning (April 9) Kumara’s abductors, it is claimed, told him “Omba Policiya athulata palayang. Nethi nam vedi thiyanawa…” (Go inside the Police Station or you will be shot).

How we reported the infighting within the JVP

The next morning (Tuesday April 10), Kumara appeared at the Colombo Crimes Division’s main office in Dematagoda. Some government officials said he had “surrendered”. The Police hurriedly informed the Australian High Commission. None other than Australian High Commissioner Robyn Mudie, drove to the CCD office accompanied by her officials. From there, she accompanied Kumara to the airport. She remained there until the Sri Lankan Airlines flight UL 317 took off to Kuala Lumpur.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s government, the Sunday Times learnt, had taken a “serious view” of the incident. According to one source, High Commissioner Mudie has asserted strongly her government’s position that it was an Australian national who had been abducted by an armed group in Sri Lanka. However, senior government officials insisted that Kumara had arrived in the country under a different name and was on a visa over-stay. This was after pointing out that he faced Police action for a jail break in 1987.

Kumara held a passport under the name of Noel Mudalige. The Australian government, the Sunday Times learnt, had given him citizenship under this name. This is taking into consideration his grounds for asylum for political reasons merited a name change — a position that made clear the Australian authorities were aware of his previous names and positions. As for Kumara’s backers, they argued that he still went as Kumara Gunaratnam and held a (Sri Lankan) National Identity Card to prove it. This was whilst in Sri Lanka. However, he had no dual citizenship. It gave his address as 211/26 Anguruwella, Kegalle. However, government officials said he obtained a Sri Lanka visa under the name of Noel Mudalige and that the term of that visa had expired. Hence, “officially he is an over stay” and someone wanted by the Police for a jail break and other offences.

Kumara arrived in Kuala Lumpur from Colombo. He telephoned his party office at Madiwala to say he was “safe and well”. He said a detailed conversation would follow when he got to Sydney. As he promised, from the Australian city he used his wife’s mobile phone to speak to FSP leaders to tell his story. Later, the latter arranged for a news conference from their party office in Madiwela where Kumara related his story through a Skype link up.

He accused the security forces of abducting him, a charge strongly refuted by Defence Secretary Rajapaksa. Here is an extract of what was reported from the news conference:

From the time the group of men broke down the door and entered the house he was staying in at Kiribathgdoa, he was subject to physical and sexual abuse.

“I was staying at a friend’s house in Kiribathgdoa on the 7th night. It is a partially built house. I was staying there alone. Around 4 or 4.30 a.m., I heard a loud sound. When I looked out of the window, I saw some persons had surrounded the house. I had no way to escape. I thought they had come to arrest me. They broke down the door and entered the house. They removed my clothes and blind folded me using some of the clothes. I was bundled into a vehicle which seemed like a van. I was driven around for about 45 minutes.

“From the time I was captured, they subjected me to various forms of harassment. But there was no serious assault on me. I was thoroughly questioned. Then they took me to some place. I was questioned once again over there. ………

“For the next 48 hours or so, I was kept blindfolded. I had given up hope of getting out alive. My captors threatened to kill me. I answered the questions they asked me truthfully. After the first night of my abduction, they started treating me differently. I was given the opportunity to have a bath as well. The next day they were gentler. I knew that Dimuthu Attygalle too was in the same place as I was when I heard her voice. We were questioned alternatively. I had lost track of time and day by then the next night I was taken in the van. My blindfold was removed and a gun was pointed at me and I was told to go to the CCD.
“I went there. From there I was taken to the Katunayaka Airport where there were officials form the Australia High Commission. I was then deported from the country. I was in Sri Lanka for nearly six months. There were around 56 abductions and disappearances during this time.”

An official government response to Kumara’s episode came from the Ministry of External Affairs. Here is the full text: “The Ministry of External Affairs wishes to inform the Diplomatic Missions, the United Nations and its Specialised Agencies and other International Organisations based in Colombo of several matters relating to the sequence of events involving Mr. Premkumar Gunaratnam and Ms Dimuthu Attygalle.
“These events have been the subject of extensive media attention during the last few days. Statements with regard to the matter have captured headlines in the media and have been the subject of vigorous comment by leaders of political parties, academics and civil society activists. All these persons have united in making a variety of grave allegations, the gist of which is to impute responsibility to the Government for an alleged abduction.

“Mr. Gunaratnam has now re-appeared and has in fact been deported from Sri Lanka because his stay in this country was in breach of Sri Lanka’s immigration laws and therefore illegal. Ms Attygalle has also re-appeared.

“The Ministry wishes to emphasize to the diplomatic community the following aspects of the situation:
(a) It appears that Premakumara Gunaratnam has changed his name three times. The first name, Wanninayake Mudiyanselage Daskon, appears in his marriage certificate. A different name, Rathnayake Mudiyanselage Dayalal, is used in the passport which he obtained from this country. Yet another name, Noel Mudalige, was used when he obtained the Australian passport which he produced on his arrival in Sri Lanka on September 4, 2011.

“(b) Other circumstances relating to his previous history, which are clearly relevant in assessing the credibility of his statements, will be communicated to the Australian High Commission in Colombo. These are circumstances which have come to light in the course of detailed interrogation by the Police, who have questioned Gunaratnam and members of his family.

“(c) There are many features relating to the alleged abduction which throw considerable doubt on the reliability and trustworthiness of the version of the events which have been released to the media. For example, the abduction of Gunaratnam is alleged to have occurred at 4.00 am on April 7, 2012. A complaint to the Police in this regard was made only at 4.10 pm in the afternoon. There was a lapse of 12 hours.

“(d) With regard to Ms Dimuthu Attygalle, the abduction was alleged to have taken place at 8.00 pm on April 6, 2012. However, the complaint with regard to this matter was made to the Police only at 3.35 pm on the following day, April 7, 2012. The interval was therefore almost a full day. It is quite obvious that a genuine abduction would have been reported to the Police far more swiftly.

“(e) The story of Gunaratnam stands entirely on its own without corroboration in any manner whatsoever. It suffers from a series of infirmities which significantly detract from its credibility. For example, although there is clear evidence that elaborate arrangements were made by his political group in respect of his security, which had been entrusted in particular to a definite person, it is claimed that at the time of the alleged abduction, he was occupying a room in the upstair portion of a partly constructed house, which had not been inhabited for a long period.

“(f) Mr. Gunaratnam’s wife who made several public statements about his alleged abduction, had stated categorically to the Police that she had not lived with her husband since November 7, 2006 and had no knowledge of his whereabouts.

“(g) It is quite clear that Mr. Gunaratnam was staying in this country illegally for more than five months. His visa had expired five months ago. “(h) It is evident even at a glance that there are significant discrepancies between the versions of Mr. Gunaratnam and Ms. Attygalle.

“The Ministry of External Affairs wishes to state that, while the government is responsive to constructive criticism, it is important that allegations of a volatile nature should be based on facts properly ascertained and objectively assessed. Whenever a person chooses to withdraw from the community for personal reasons, or with the deliberate intention of causing embarrassment to the government, it is grossly unfair to arrive at the conclusion that there has been abduction and to point a finger at the State.

“This has happened on many occasions and now seems to reflect a recurring pattern. The objective of this is clearly to target Sri Lanka in international fora on the flimsiest of evidence. What is lacking by way of evidence seems to be amply compensated by emotion, surmise and invective. The government asks nothing more than that objectivity and basic fairness should be the criteria governing reactions to these irresponsible and malicious campaigns.”

For some unexplainable reason, the above statement has not been placed in the official External Affairs Ministry website. In other words, an event that drew international attention was not on the internet for interested governments and foreign citizens to read about the position of the government of Sri Lanka. When the EAM says that both Kumara and Dimuthi have re-appeared, the logical conclusion in one’s mind is that they have had to disappear first to re-appear again. Since the Ministry is conceding this, it is nothing but logical again to ask why the disappearance of the duo should not be probed to determine the correct answers. The EAM’s assertions come even before a full scale investigation.

Without doubt, Kumara has violated Sri Lanka’s immigration laws. There is also no doubt that he has been wanted by the Police with regard to the jail break which occurred during the JVP insurgency in 1987. However, there are some aspects which the EAM statement has not addressed for the benefit of Sri Lankans, the international community and those in the outside world. Firstly, besides Kumara’s own misdemeanours, the Australian government raised issue over one of its own citizens forcing the government to cave in.

If it did not, even next year’s summit of Commonwealth Heads of Government in Colombo would have seen the absence of Australia, not because of Kumara but because of Canberra’s insistence that one of its citizens was abducted, assaulted and abused. The EAM should have, particularly in the light of denials by none other than Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, called for a full investigation to ascertain the story behind the abductions. If there were no such abductions, it would have called a lie to the allegations and Dimuthu as well as Kumara would have had to face charges for fabricating a story and discrediting the government’s Security Forces. Moreover, that would have exposed the abductors if indeed such an incident took place. The situation was confounded by other developments.

Galle District parliamentarian Ajith Kumara, who heard the news of the reported arrest of Kumara telephoned the Inspector General N.K. Illangakoon. The latter was unaware and assured he would check and call back. An hour later, he had told Ajith Kumara that the FSP leader in waiting, Kumara, was at the Dematagoda Police Station. At the same time, Kumara’s sister Niranjala Gunaratnam phoned the Police Headquarters. There, a police officer who answered the call said Kumara had not been arrested.

Meanwhile, there was glee on the part of some leaders of the JVP over the fate that befell the leader-in-waiting and his senior female colleague of the new Frontline Socialist Party. According to one of them, 24 different posters appeared in various parts of the country demanding the release of Kumara and Dimuthu. “From where is the money coming to them,” asked a senior JVPer who did not wish to be named. Funny enough, the response came from an FSP leader who also wished to remain anonymous.

“Our membership has been collecting money in various towns for the past many months. We function with their contributions,” he maintained. Attempts by the FSP leaders to register their political party would have to wait till the remaining local government elections are over. So have officials of the Department of Elections told them. The annual convention of the FSP went ahead without its new leader. A cultural event, however, was postponed. Instead, a protest march by FSP supporters against “the abductions” began at the Sugathadasa Stadium and ended at Panchikawatte in pouring rain.

There are two claims. One is by two leaders of the Frontline Socialist Party that Kumara and Dimuthu were abducted, subjected to assault and filthy abuse. The other is by the government, through the External Affairs Ministry blaming the media and saying no such thing has happened. The government has called it “irresponsible and malicious campaigns”.

Notwithstanding the two positions, news of the “abductions” spread worldwide and has given both the government and the country a bad name. Worse enough, this is at a time when Tiger guerrillas have been militarily defeated and the threats of terrorism have receded, but an international campaign is in full swing to throw mud at the Sri Lankan government on its human rights record. With last month’s UNHRC resolution in Geneva adopted, these incidents will no doubt add grist to the mill. Beyond flat denials that such events occur, the government should probe who is responsible. Its credibility is seriously at stake


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