Thursday, March 15, 2007

The great betrayal

The saga of the Army's Athurugiriya Safe House, and the humiliating ordeal of an officer and five soldiers-national heroes who were treated as traitors-has at last ended.

But the enormous damage to national security, humiliation to officers and men in the Sri Lanka Army, distress in the minds of conscientious policemen, and above all, colossal embarrassment to the United National Front Government continues.

The anger and bewilderment of the vast majority of Sri Lankans, here and abroad, following this tragi-comedy not only highlighted the disgust it had caused but also underscored the hatred against those who caused it. A host of e-mails to Military Spokesman, veteran infantryman, Brigadier Sanath Karunaratne, summed it up.

If it is ironic that one gazetted officer of the Sri Lanka Police could single handedly cause all this, it is tragic that his conclusions came even before his own inquiries could begin. Superintendent of Police Kulasiri Udugampola, brought the full glare of the media, both print and electronic, to publicise all his actions, just two hours after the raid on the Safe House at Millennium Park on January 2.

To a wholly unsuspecting media, unaware of the realities, what he exhibited as startling finds – a cache of weapons including land mines, light anti-tank weapons (LAW), assault rifles and thermobaric shells, among others – were an arsenal used by the Sri Lanka Army not to kill Tiger guerrillas but to be used in a sinister plot to eliminate leaders of the United National Front. The nation and the outside world were told about the great catastrophe portended by a so called conspiracy.

As the news spread, both in Sri Lanka and abroad, officers and men in the Army writhed in deep anger. That wide publicity, repeated locally on TV many times, seemed the beginning of a pubic trial. Morale reached a low ebb. Conscientious policemen, who were in the know of what was going on, were ashamed at what was happening. "This kind of thing has never happened in Police history," declared a retired Police Chief who wished to remain anonymous.

However, there were also the blind fanatics in the Department who believed whatever the Police did was always right. One of them even thought it fit to say DIG Nimal Gunatilleke, Commandant of the Special Task Force (STF) was not a policemen. All because he had chosen to speak the truth – that men from Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRPs) stayed in STF camps before venturing out to Tiger guerrilla dominated territory to carry out attacks.

Some in the upper echelons of the Army, in the know of what has been going on, lamented they were being made to feel like a bunch of killers. Their predicament, they said, had been made worse by the failure of the high command to quickly resolve matters by raising issue with UNF leaders.

But in a matter of just a week, Mr. Udugampola himself learnt, after his own exhaustive investigations, later supported by men from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), the real truth – that the premises he raided at the Millennium City in Athurugiriya, was indeed a Safe House run by the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI). Every single item he found, and later displayed to the media as a startling discovery, have been accounted for. Statements he recorded from Army officials, backed by supporting documents, were to come as further testimony. Even the little discrepancies that existed were resolved. If there was anything seriously sinister, or a cunning conspiracy, to kill any UNF leader, there was no evidence. Not a shred.

Yet, by last Sunday, the officer and five men were still being holed up in two remand cells at the Katugastota Police Station. They were being held virtually incommunicado. These were cells which usually accommodated common criminals and drug addicts as revealed in these columns last week.

An angry Defence Minister Tilak Marapana, directed DIG Mahinda Balasuriya, to immediately release the Army men. To ensure nothing went wrong, Mr. Marapana told him to hand them over to the Army.

After issuing that directive, Mr. Marapana had other urgent tasks to attend to that Sunday. As the new Minister of Transport, he had to rush to Kiriwalpitiya in Rambukkana, where the intercity train from Kandy to Colombo, had derailed killing 15 passengers and wounding over 200. At the scene, during late afternoon, he ran into Brigadier B.H.M.R. Tammita, General Officer Commanding (GOC) the Central Command.

He asked Brig. Tammita whether he had taken charge of the officer and the soldiers from Police custody. The latter had said Police had not informed him of any release.

Angered by what he learnt, Mr. Marapana, immediately contacted DIG Balasuriya to ask why his instructions were not carried out. The senior Police officer in charge of the Kandy region said he was awaiting Mr. Udugampola's return to the hill capital. The latter had been in Colombo recording statements from Army officers. Mr. Marapana, a veteran lawyer and one time Attorney General, was prompted to ask why he could not, as DIG of the area, carry out his instructions. He asked why the DIG should wait to contact an SP. That saw Mr. Balasuriya ordering the Katugastota Police to release the men in custody. An order made on Sunday morning was executed only that night.

When he returned to Kandy, Mr. Udugampola found that five of the six Army men he had arrested and detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act were no longer in custody. The officer and four men had been handed over to Brig. Tammita last Sunday night. The sixth person, a Tiger guerrilla surrendee, who had been recruited to the Army as a soldier, was, however, held back at the Katugastota Police Station reportedly for "further interrogation."

Last Monday, (Thai Pongal Day), he had been escorted to a temple by a Police officer. He had also been given a cash reward on account of the religious festival. The following night (Tuesday), plans were afoot to move out the former guerrilla to another "safe location" for "further interrogation."

It was not clear why more "interrogation" was required when the man had been put through question and answer sessions for a whole week and statements recorded. These developments began to baffle those in the higher echelons of the defence establishment. It was past 8 p.m. last Tuesday night when Mr. Marapana, telephoned Defence Secretary Austin Fernando, and asked him to order the Police to immediately release the remaining soldier held at the Katugastota Police Station. DIG Balasuriya,(who has since been transferred to the Police Transport Division) who gave the order for the release, made one point clear – the one time guerrilla and now Army soldier, should be handed over to Brig. Tammita without any delay. Shortly before 9 p.m., this soldier stood to attention before Brig. Tammita, at the Central Command headquarters and was later re-united with the officer and four colleagues.

In these columns last week (RAID ON ATHURUGIRIYA SAFE HOUSE – THE CONFUSION CONTINUES – Situation Report - January 13), I said "……..Whilst the men who fought terrorism are being held as terrorist suspects in sub human conditions at a Police Station, the dilemma for those who arrested them appears to be increasing. If they are released, how does one justify the arrest….."

This indeed has become a dilemma. When the officer and five soldiers were arrested, the Senior Superintendent of Police in charge of Kandy division, had issued a Detention Order under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for three days – the maximum statutory period empowered to the SSP of a division. Thereafter, they are required to obtain a Detention Order from the Ministry of Defence.

DIG Balasuriya had written to Defence Minister Marapana, requesting him to issue a Detention Order to cover the period January 5 to 10. He has flatly refused the request in view of the circumstances. Hence, the arrest and detention of the Army officer and four soldiers (a Detention Order has been issued in respect of the sixth, a one time Tiger guerrilla) after January 5, becomes illegal.

This is one of the many grounds on which the officer and his men are preparing to file a Fundamental Rights petition in the Supreme Court. They are already receiving offers of free legal support from some of the country's leading lawyers.

Dealing with the raid on the Army Safe House last week, I erroneously referred to Kulasiri Udugampola, as a Senior Superintendent of Police.

He is a Superintendent. Hence, he was specifically invited by the Inspector General of Police Lucky Kodituwakku, to a conference of Deputy Inspectors General of Police (DIGs) and Senior Superintendents of Police (SSPs) at Police Headquarters on January 7 (Monday). The idea was to ask him to explain to the DIGs and SSPs, the top most leaders of the country's Police, the sequence of events leading to the raid on the Athurugiriya Safe House.

Soon after Mr. Udugampola, conducted the raid, Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, had despatched his Director of Military Intelligence (DMI), Brigadier Kapila Hendavithana, to the scene. He thought the Army's intelligence chief could explain matters. Lt. Gen. Balagalle had also telephoned Police Chief Kodituwakku from the Safe House. Later, when Brig. Hendavithana telephoned Mr. Kodituwakku from the Safe House to say he could account for all the weapons and explain why the Safe House existed, the latter had wanted to speak to Mr. Udugampola on the same telephone. The Police Chief had tried to tell the SP to take into consideration what the Army's intelligence chief was saying.

As he finished the conversation, Mr. Udugampola rang Interior Minister John Amaratunga, to complain of pressures on him. Minister Amaratunga despatched his relative and now a senior official in his Ministry, former DIG Lal Ratnayake, to ensure nothing was done to suppress matters.

Mr. Udugampola took the officer, men into custody, seized the stock of weapons found and drove to the Military Police Headquarters in Narahenpita.

The word soon spread and that was how a top "State secret" became public. Tiger guerrillas became aware that the Safe House was one used by the Army's Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRPs). The men arrested were part of the dare devil group that went deep into guerrilla dominated territory to attack targets.

By January 4 (Friday), Tiger guerrilla teams in the Batticaloa district had launched a crackdown on civilians suspected to have helped the LRRP teams. The Sunday Times learnt that an unknown number of civilians have been "arrested" for interrogation by guerrilla intelligence cadres.

The UNF Government, needless to say, was grossly embarrassed by the manner in which the raid on the Safe House was carried out. Minister Amaratunga requested Senior DIG H.M.G.B. Kotakadeniya, to seek the help of some Criminal Investigation Department (CID) officers to conduct his own inquiry and ascertain the truth behind the raid. The move saw D.S.Y. Samaratunga, an SSP in the CID, overlooking investigations conducted by Mr. Udugampola. Last Tuesday, both were present at Army Headquarters when the statement of Brig. Hendavithana, DMI, was recorded for over five hours.

At the January 7 conference of DIGs and SSPs, Police Chief Kodituwakku had invited Mr. Udugampola to explain how and why he conducted the raid. However, when he began to explain matters, Senior DIG Kotakadeniya objected on the grounds that it would be prejudicial to inquiries he had been told by Minister Amaratunga to conduct. The Police Chief declared he was completely unaware such an investigation had been ordered. DIG Balasuriya was to intervene to point out that Mr. Udugampola had neither kept him briefed of investigations into the Safe House nor sought his permission to conduct the raid outside his own division.

By the time objections were raised, Mr. Udugampola had already told the most senior men in the Police, DIGs and SSPs, that the information to conduct the raid came from a "very reliable informant" who had given him important tip off in the past. When Mr. Kodituwakku asked how it had happened, Mr. Udugampola had replied that he was at the Magistrate's Court in Teldeniya when he received a call on his mobile phone that a weapons cache was hidden in a private house at Athurugiriya.

He had immediately written the address on a white piece of paper that was in his pocket and obtained a warrant from the Magistrate the same day.

What transpired at the DIGs and SSPs conference revealed how procedural flaws can pose serious threats to national security. In this instance, it became clear that Mr. Udugampola did not reveal to his own superior, DIG Balasuriya, the information he had received from a "reliable informant who had earlier given him valuable tip off. Nor did he obtain his permission to leave Kandy division and proceed to Athurugiriya. Nor did he obtain permission from the next highest authority, the Police Chief himself. Therefore, by his own admission, Mr. Udugampola acted almost entirely on his own and seemed blissfully unaware of the harm he was going to cause to national security interests.

Even if his investigations did not reveal anything incriminating, like a conspiracy to assassinate any UNF leader, Mr. Udugampola was yet keen to find out why a Safe House had to be located, of all places, in Athurugiriya – a question that was in the lips of many. He posed this question to almost every one from whom he recorded a statement.

Mr. Udugampola, who has risen to the ranks of a SP, is no doubt aware of the concept of Safe Houses. A plethora of them existed under the Police and the security forces when they combated the violence of the then outlawed Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in the late 1980s. Suspects were arrested and grilled at these Safe Houses not to mention the complaints it drew from human rights group of torture. In the later years, major state intelligence agencies had their Safe Houses to detain and question Tiger guerrilla suspects.

A Safe House, which functioned elsewhere and used by Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols was shifted to the house in the Millennium Park in Athurugiriya on December 15, last year. The house belonged to an Army officer and had been obtained for a monthly rental of Rs 12,500. An intelligence source explained that the house belonging to an Army officer was picked since movement of soldiers there would not arouse any suspicions in the neighbourhood.

Dismissing arguments that it could have been located somewhere in the east, close to the battle zones, the source said "Tiger guerrilla surrendees, recruited as soldiers would have been found out in no time." Responding to a question on why weapons had to be kept in the Safe House and not drawn from any nearby Army camp, the source said "the practice of retaining weapons in a Safe House is nothing new. It is part of measures to ensure strict confidentiality during top secret operations. Drawing weapons from a camp regularly would draw both suspicion and unwarranted attention."

The full report of Mr. Udugampola's investigation, later backed by the CID, is now being awaited by Interior Minister John Amaratunga. Similarly, Defence Minister Tilak Marapana is awaiting the final report of the Army Court of Inquiry headed by Major General Ivan Dissanayake. In their preliminary report, the Court said no illegal operations have been carried out from the Safe House. The final report, among other, matters, deals with measures to be adopted in determining Safe Houses and other related procedures.

The final report of the Court has already been handed over to Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle, who himself has come under strong criticism for his inability to secure the release of his own men and also for being completely slow in reacting to the raid on the Safe House.

Nor has he been successful in preventing degrading treatment being meted out to the officer and five soldiers when they were in a remand cell.

There was also no visit by him, although he has once been the Director of Military Intelligence. It is extremely unlikely the Police would have rejected if a request was in fact made at the highest levels. After all they were not ordinary officers and men. They were extraordinary in every sense in view of the heroic role they played. (See box story on this page)

The Sunday Times learns that President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who is Commander-in-Chief, was also displeased the way Lt. Gen. Balagalle handled matters. She is learnt to have told him that he should have kept UNF leaders briefed on the existence of the Safe House and its activities. This was particularly in view of some doubts that arose during the general election campaign.

In November last year, then UNP Chairman, Charitha Ratwatte, alleged that thermobaric explosives had been brought from the operational areas in the North to the Panaluwa Army Testing Range and that certain persons alleged to be attached to a northern Tamil political party were being trained in its use. The training, he alleged, was being co-ordinated by the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) together with Army instructors from the north. He said there may be an attempt to use these weapons on the meetings held by the UNP leadership and the leader's campaign bus. Lt. Gen. Balagalle, however, denied the allegations.

During the period when the raid was conducted on the Safe House, Lt. Gen. Balagalle, was otherwise busy. He was locked in a strong move to retire his deputy, Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Neil Dias, by using the very Regulations which President Kumaratunga promulgated to keep him in office when he was due to retire at 55 years on June 14, 2001. President Kumaratunga rejected his recommendation that Maj. Gen. Dias should step down on December 31, last year, and extended his term until April 12, 2002. She pointed out that the services of experienced officers like Maj. Gen. Dias should be retained. (Situation Report – January 6)

The UNF Government last week accepted President Kumaratunga's recommendation. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, requested Defence Minister Tilak Marapana, to request Maj. Gen. Dias to resume work. He had been out of office since December 31 but reported to work, in accordance with this directive, on January 15.

The absence deprived him from taking part in a seminar in Washington for Chiefs of Staff. Lt. Gen. Balagalle had nominated Deputy Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Lohan Gunawardena. He is already away and is not due in Sri Lanka until next month.

Now comes the news of a failed attempt during the tenure of the last Government to have Maj. Gen. Dias investigated. It was on purported grounds that he was a staunch UNP supporter and had indulged in extra legal activity.

A high ranking intelligence official, to whom a three page document was handed over, not only laughed at the request made by a top man in uniform but also briefed a PA leader about the sinister attempt. No probe was conducted but PA leaders took note that a plot was afoot to malign the senior officer in a campaign riddled with intrigue, power politics and devious manipulations.

In this backdrop, internal Army investigations have brought out some startling revelations. Some disgruntled officers, in the Directorate of Military Intelligence it has now come to light, had leaked information about the Safe House and other matters – a case of traitors within the system causing more damage to national security than the enemy itself. They are likely to face a Court Martial after the inquiries are completed. How others twisted the information and passed it down to interested parties is also now being probed.

The saga of the Safe House and the arrest of six Army men, all heroes in the ongoing separatist war, has set a number of posers to the United National Front Government.

It has not only embarrassed the Government but has come at a time when Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, has called a halt to the war and embarked on peace initiatives with the LTTE. It has demoralised the rank and file of the Army. It has brought out serious lapses that endanger national security.

Since the Government was in no way associated with the raid on the Safe House, a full public statement of the events leading to the raid would become imperative.

And punishing those responsible for the great betrayal will not only inspire confidence in the Army but the public at large too. And an equally important job that has to be done immediately is to depoliticise the Army and place it in the hands of capable young men. They can not only infuse professionalism but also prepare the men for battle whenever the Government wants one. To neglect this aspect would be suicidal.

How they were treated in the remand cell

Accounts of the drama that followed the raid on the Army's Safe House at Athurugiriya by a Police team led by Kulasiri Udugampola, SP (Special Operations) Kandy Division, has been pieced together after an investigation by The Sunday Times. Here are excerpts:

With the raid over, Mr. Udugampola and party bring the officer, five soldiers and weapons seized to the Military Police Headquarters at Narahenpita. It was around 11.30 p.m. on the night of Wednesday, January 2. The media, both print and electronic, were already waiting for them. Someone had tipped off the unsuspecting media but Military Police prevent them from entering their headquarters.

Later, Mr. Udugampola and party escort those arrested and the seized weapons to the Cinnamon Gardens Police Station. There was a power failure when they arrived. Video and still cameras are aimed when the officer and five men get down from their vehicle. The officer shouts out loud not to take their pictures. But some had already taken shots. The men are taken inside the Police Station and ordered to remain there.

In the meanwhile, the Police team that raided spread out all the weapons seized at the Safe House on the floor of the Police Station . Media is allowed to film and photograph what was found.

The five Army men and the weapons are taken to Asgiriya Police Kennels/Quarters. A while later they are taken to the Kandy Police Station. A Sub Inspector asks the officer and five men to alight from the vehicle and makes an entry in the Information Book.

The officer and men are told to remove their belts and shoes. They are told they would have to be inside a remand cell. The time is around 5.30 a.m. on Thursday.

There are two cells – one with smelling toilets occupied by three suspected criminals. The other, which is neat and clean, is occupied by only one crime suspect. The six are told to enter the latter. But the man inside says they cannot sit with him on a concrete bench. So the six of them sit huddled together in the other remaining concrete bench. The man screams mawa maranawo (I am being murdered) and accuses the soldiers of assaulting him. Soldiers deny the charge and say he is trying to get rid of them.

A Police Assistant (PA) comes in and shouts at the officer and soldiers in indecent language. They are all pulled out and put into the remand cell where there are three criminals. Nine of them occupy the remand cell for a night. After they go inside, the PA shouts in Sinhala that the Army Commander too would be arrested soon and put in the same cell.

On Friday, the three suspected criminals are taken out. The officer gives money to a helper to bring a brush, disinfectant and detergent. The men wash and clean the remand cell and the toilet. They spend the night in the cell together. Attempts to obtain foam mattresses are refused by the Police. They are told to sleep on the floor. They hear occasional vulgar abuse hurled by a sergeant.

The next day (Saturday), the remand cell is open and the officer and the five men are handcuffed. An Inspector pushes them by their neck and tells them to walk out of the cell to a waiting vehicle. After they board the vehicle, Police motor cycles with sirens wailing, escort their vehicle from Kandy to the Katugastota Police Station.

There, the six men are put into two remand cells – also once used to detain common criminals and drug addicts. Some policemen who had served in operational areas recognise the officer and men. Evidently, they are aware of their role and try to console them. They even offer to help in any way possible and confess some of their "senior bosses have gone mad." That included offers of plain tea and buns. The Policemen are soon ordered not to speak to the Army men.

All three meals for them were arranged by the Second Volunteer Battalion of the Sinha Regiment in Kandy. But visitors, including a large number of relatives who had turned up, are not allowed. Only the wives were permitted entry.

On Sunday night they are released after an order from Defence Minister Tilak Marapana. Only the one time guerrilla who has now become a soldier is detained. He is also released on Tuesday night following an order from Mr. Marapana.


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