When President Chandrika Kumaratunga came to power, after putting an end to the UNP’s 17 years of rule in 1994, she launched a Special Commission of Inquiry into the assassination of Lalith Athulathmudali, which had been an election promise.
On December 7, 1994, Kumaratunga, in a warrant of appointment issued to the commissioners, stated: Whereas Lalith William Athulathmudali, the late leader of the Democratic United National Front was assassinated on April 23, 1993. And whereas numerous allegations have been made that the investigation into the above-mentioned assassination was not conducted in a proper and impartial manner. And whereas it appears to me to be necessary to establish a Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the matters hereinafter mentioned, being matters in respect of which an inquiry will, in my opinion, be in the public interest.
Now, therefore, I Chandrika Banadranaike Kumaratunga, President reposing great trust and confidence in your prudence, ability and fidelity, do, in pursuance of the provisions of Section 2 of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry Law No. 7 of 1978 (as mentioned by the Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry (Special Provisions) Act No. 4 of 1978) by these presents appoint you, the said
1. Justice George Randloph Tissa Bandaranayake
2. Justice Dassanayake Padmasiri Swarnajith Gunasekera and
3. Rajasuriya Appuhamilage Nimal Gamini Amaratunge (Judge of the High Court.)
To be my commissioners to inquire into an obtain information in respect of the following matters:
(a) The circumstances relating to the assassination of the late Lalith William Athulathmudali at a meeting held at Kirulapone, on April 23, 1993 and the person or persons directly or indirectly responsible for such assassination and whether any persons conspired to assassinate, or aided and abetted in assassinating the said Lalith William Athulathmudali at Kirulapone on April 23, 1993. (b) The circumstances relating to the physical attack on Late Lalith William Athulathmudali
(i) At Pannala on November 2, 1991;
(ii) At Madapatha, Piliyandala on April 23, 1992;
(iii) At the Fort Railway Station on August 7, 1992, and
(iv) At Dehiwala on August 29, 1992.
And whether the persons involved in, or connected with, any or all of these attacks were directly or indirectly connected with or involved in the aforesaid assassination.
(c) Whether there was a failure or omission on the part of any public officer to perform any duty required of him by law, in relation to investigations into the incidents referred to in paragraphs (a) and (b).
(d) Whether there was a failure to provide, or intentional withdrawal of security by the authorities at the meeting held at Kirulapone on April 23, 1993, at which the late Lalith William Athulathmudali was assassinated and if so, the person or persons responsible for such failure or intentional withdrawal;
(e) Whether there was failure by the authorities concerned to provide adequate personal security to late Lalith William Athulathmudali despite repeated requests by him, for such security;
And to make such recommendations with reference to any of the matters that have been inquired into under the terms of this Warrant. And I do hereby appoint you, the said Hon Justice George Randloph Tissa Dias Bandaranayake to be the Chairman of the said Commission. And I do hereby authorize and empower you, the said Commissioners, to hold all such inquiries and make all other investigations, into the aforesaid matters as may appear to you to be necessary, and require you to transmit to me within three months from the date hereof, a report or interim reports thereon under your hands, setting out the findings of your inquiries, and your recommendations.
And I do hereby direct that such part of any inquiry relating to the aforesaid matters, as you may in your discretion determine, shall not be held in public; And I do hereby require and direct all State Officers, and other persons to whom you may apply for assistance or information for the purpose of your inquiries and investigations to render all such assistance and furnish all such information as may be properly rendered and furnished in that behalf. And I do hereby declare that the provisions of section 14 of the aforesaid Law No: 7 of 1978 shall apply to this Commission.
These three were the same Commissioners appointed to probe into the assassination of Lieutenant General Denzil Kobbekaduwa and nine others and causing serious injury to another, at Araly, Kayts, on August 8, 1992.
We have already covered the commonality in the inquiry, such as the transfer of weapons to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by President Ranatunga Premadsa, the motion for the vote of no confidence on the President by Athulathmudali and others, and also of the dismissal of Lalith Athulathmudali and others from the ruling party by the President, Ranatuna Premadasa.
At the commencement of the inquiry, the Commission advertised in local newspapers in all three languages, calling for information regarding the matters set out in the warrant. It should be remembered that, Lalith Athulathmudali was shot dead on April 23, 1993. Since then, President Premadasa had died on May 1, 1993 in a bomb blast. Prime Minister Wijetunga assumed the presidency of the country.
Premadasa and Wijetunga’s governments informed the public through the media that, Lalith Athulathmudali was the victim of assassination by the LTTE. It was reported that, Athulathmudali had taken action against the LTTE while he was the Minister of National Security, since March 1984, and as Deputy Minister of Defense thereafter, until 1989. According to the government’s version, therefore, the LTTE sent its suicide cadres to shoot and kill Athulathmudali. Accordingly, a gunman killed Athulathmudali and then committed suicide by biting into a cyanide capsule.
This position was supported by seeking to connect the death of a Tamil youth found dead in Mugalan Road, Kirulapone on April 24, 1993, a few hundred meters from the scene of the shooting of Athulathmudali. The police determined that, the youth known as Ragunathan, was a LTTE activist. The findings of the Judicial Magistrate Officer in Colombo that the youth had died of cyanide poisoning were presented, as confirming the government version of the killing. It was therefore suggested that the two deaths were connected, that having shot Athulathmudali the youth found that he could not escape as he had himself received a gunshot. His cause of death as given by the Magistrate in Colombo, was sought to be supported by a visiting team of foreign detectives (including from Britain’s New Scotland Yard) and pathologists, who arrived in Sri Lanka on April 26, 1993. They reported to Wijetunga’s government that they had found a minute trace of cyanide in a blood sample they had taken at a second post-mortem of the youth.
This was done by Dr R T Shepherd, but Magistrate M A de Silva told the investigative Commission that no application had been made to the court for permission, and neither had he given any. According to the Commission Report, the fact that Dr Shepherd was permitted to do a second post-mortem without informing or obtaining permission from the magistrate, who had already commenced inquest proceedings, shows the high handed manner in which the local police conducted themselves.
In the meantime, Detective Superintendent Alec Edwards of the Investigation and Crime Branch of New Scotland Yard forwarded an undated report. According to his conclusion:
(i) That the person now known to be Ragunathan alias Appaiah Balakrishnan shot and killed Mr. Athulathmudali and was later found dead at scene 2.
(ii) Seriously injured and fearing imminent capture, he undoubtedly took his life by way of cyanide poisoning;
(iii) There is no evidence, direct or circumstantial, to support the allegation that this tragedy was orchestrated by or in any way linked to the Sri Lankan Government, UNP members or other official agencies including the police;
(iv) An analytical study of LTTE modus operandi showed that this act was in total concert with their current subversive activities.
The Presidential Commission concluded in its investigation as follows:
The Commission has come to a finding that the firearm wound on Ragunathan was caused by a shot fired at a very close range with a doctored and tampered 9 mm cartridge. To do this, Ragunathan had to be in someone’s captivity and it is nobody’s case, and there is not an iota of evidence that the wound was caused at very close range, maybe from two feet away at the playground. No one says the assassin was shot in his back from two feet away. No bodyguard would want to shoot at an assassin with a reduced-charge cartridge.
As it manifest from all of the evidence considered collectively, that Ragunathan was in captivity at the time he was shot, then it must follow that the poison, which caused his death, was administered to him. This alone absolves the LTTE from any involvement in these crimes. We accordingly reject totally and unreservedly all four conclusions stated by Detective Superintendent Alec Edwards of Scotland Yard. According to the Presidential Commission Report, Ragunathan was a Tamil. He had come to Colombo to go abroad. He was really alone. His few associates were Tamils. Thus there were people who could confirm that he was a Tamil, but who would not be searching for him. This is an important connection as being classified as an LTTEer.
The deaths of Lalith Athulathmudali and of Ragunathan are closely linked. The police investigation of 1993 into these deaths suggested the assassination of Athulathmudali by the LTTE and a suicide by its agent when confronted with arrest.
The evidence now available proves beyond any doubt that Ragunathan was murdered by those who killed Athulathmudali, by an administration of poison, to wit; potassium cyanide. In conclusion, the Presidential Commission served notices under section 16 of the Law No: 7 of 1978: Cap 9: LEC who in the opinion of the Commission were implicated or concerned in the matters under inquiry and subsequently implicated were:
1. Arambawalage Don Ranjith Upali de Silva alias Sothi Upali. There is satisfactory evidence that suspect Sothi Upali was directly concerned in the murder of deceased victim 2 – Ragunathan earlier named Appaiah Balakrishnan. The acceptable evidence implicates Sothi Upali as conspiring with others to abduct Ragunathan, receive him as a prisoner, keep him in secret wrongful confinement, starve him of food and water and have him killed by probably secret administration of poison, to wit, cyanide and then make up false scene as if he committed suicide by biting on a cyanide capsule, when he faces imminent capture. All this was done to suggest that Ragunathan was a member of the LTTE, who assassinated Athulathmudali.
The Commission recommended that Arambawalage Don Ranjith Upali de Silva alias Sothi Upali be made subject to civic disability. Apart from the above the Commission recommended that the evidence was sufficient to consider indicting him with conspiracy and abetment with others of the murder of Ragunathan and in the same transaction, conspiring and abetting Janaka P Jayamanna alias Sudumahattaya to assassinate Lalith W Athulathmudali, offences punishable under Penal Code.
2. Uswatte Liyanage Senivaratne. A Provincial Councilor of the UNP for the Western Province. The Commission while recommending the subjection of the civic disability, also reported that there was sufficient evidence to indict U L Senivaratne with having conspired and abetted the commission of the offences of unlawful assault, voluntarily causing hurt while being armed with deadly weapons to wit; pistol, iron rods, clubs etc and wrongful restraint, criminal intimidation, offences punishable under the Penal Code in respect of the Fort Railway Station incident on 07.08.1992 and conspiracy with Janaka Priyanka Jayamanna and others to assassinate Athulathmudali on 23.04.93 and conspiracy with others to abduct and murder Ragunathan between 23 and 24 April 1993, all offences punishable under the Penal Code.
Also with the same charges against (3) Janaka Priyanka Jayamanna alias Wellapittye Sudumahattaya, (4) Wanadula Bandulage Somaratne alias Konda Some (5) K Nandasiri Karunatilake alias Nandana, (6) Bulathsinhalage Srisena Coorey – the former minister of Housing and Construction in the Premadasa government, and earlier the Colombo mayor and subsequently after becoming the minister was also inducted as the general secretary of the United National Party by President Premadasa The last indicted person was Bulathsinhala Ajith Coorey, the son of Srisena Coorey.
The Commission report said that, it had dealt at length with the conduct of public officials, mainly police officers with regard to the several incidents of physical attacks on Athulathmudali at Pannala, Madapatha, Colombo Fort and Dehiwala. It was no different at Kirulapone.
Reports further add that, before the assassination, the conduct of the police officers in shifting the venue of the meeting and withdrawing police strength from the meeting is evident. It says that after the assassination there was the recording of the false statements submitting incomplete report to the Magistrate’s Courts and avoiding questioning witnesses on relevant matters. Further it shows the falsification and tampering suppression of evidence and fraudulent conduct. Those involved were, according to the Commission report, A S P Lugoda, I P Dharmawardene, S I Sunil Shantha and I P Ekhanayake.
The investigation regarding the death of Ragunathan was most unsatisfactory. Those involved were, as pointed out in the Commission report, Senivaratne, Gunaratne, Dharmawardene, Basil, Jayasinghe, Devasundara, Aabdeen, Nilaabdeen, Deepthi Wijewickrema and other CDB officers. Galgamuwa of the Wellawatte police is seen showing weapons to underworld gagsters at the police station. Adhikari of the Borella police had given protection to criminals, particularly to Sothi Upali, whom he addressed as “Chief”. Devasundara and Ilabdeen visited Ragunathan, who was held in captivity in Gothami Road. According to the Commissioners, the IGP should have had their conduct investigated through the entries they made in police books, the omissions and failures to perform their duty as seen in those entries and statements recorded by them, and meaningful disciplinary action taken against them. The report was replete with criticism of their conduct.
The Commission report in it concluding paragraphs reported that it remained to say something about President Premadasa in relation to the terms of reference. It was he who had the strongest possible motive to eliminate Athulathmudali. He was badly insulted by the contents of the so-called impeachment motion, his place as head of state publicly ridiculed and undermined, a political force headed by Athulathmudali was developing against his continuance as president. Ministers who were supporters of him were from the Colombo district and were grouping in the political firmament. They all had connections with the underworld, the world of gunmen, smugglers, drug dealers and outlaws. He also had the support of corrupt policemen.
Underworld gunmen and thugs did these killings. Before that, Athulathmudali was hunted, assaulted and humiliated during his election campaign. The killings were elaborately planned, the need for deception being of paramount importance. Who could enlist the support of so many policemen all over the country to interfere with, fabricate and tamper with evidence after the numerous physical attacks on him by assorted thugs and politicians.
The Commission expressed that it was of the view that President Premadasa was himself directly involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Athulathmudali and that others did his bidding. He has preferred deception to debate.
The Commission, after deliberating for two years, submitted its final report to the Sri Lankan President on October 7, 1997. The findings pointed the finger at former President Ranasinghe Premadasa (1988-93) and security force personnel who were close to him as directly responsible for the killing of Athulathmudali.
Earlier in an interview with the Sunday Times of May 4, 1997, the former UNP kingmaker Sirisena Coorey, looking relaxed and confident despite uncertainty over his position, insisted that he had retired from the UNP and from politics and had no intention of making a comeback. Cooray suddenly re-appeared in Sri Lanka (he had been in Australia) and said that he had nothing to hide or fear, especially relating to the Athulathmudali assassination, on which the Presidential Commission was finalizing a report.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q. Wasn’t it bad for your image to be considered a sort of fugitive from justice with a warrant out for you?
A. It is all nonsense, there is a Sinhala saying rata wate vetak bandath kata wate bandinda be. You can fence the country but you can never fence the tongue. I was by no means a fugitive from justice for the eight months I was away. I was never accused or convicted to be a fugitive. Like any ordinary person I was out of the country, and that does not mean I was in hiding.
Q. But there were aspersions that you, one time strongman of the UNP, was keeping away from the country. What were you doing?
A. I traveled in America. My sons live in Australia and there got involved in retirement villages, not homes for the elderly as such. Another son met with an accident and he was in a hospital in Bangalore for two weeks, and he is still in Madras undergoing treatment. So you see I spent my time profitably.
Q. Why did you not appear before the Special Presidential Commission inquiring into the assassination of Lalith Athulathmudali?
A. As I said before, people talk a lot of nonsense, not knowing the full story. I requested the Commission to allow me to appear before it and believe it or not I did not even get a letter of acknowledgment from it for three months. Therefore, is it wrong for me to presume that I was not required by the SPC and so I legally left the country like any citizen and did not go stealthily.
Q. When did you get to know the Commission wanted you?
A. I first read about it in the papers three months after I had left. So I took the obvious step of asking my lawyers to get a date for me to come in time. I never showed reluctance to appear before the Commission. I don’t think there was any concrete evidence against me. It was largely loose talk and hearsay. Would I have offered to go before the Commission if I was guilty? Even when I wrote to the Commission it never asked me to stay on in the country.
Q. It is alleged that you were associated with men like Sothi Upali who were linked with the Athulathmudali killing. Would you comment?
A. You cannot just indulge in drawing room and cocktail party gossip and assassinate people’s character. There must be acceptable evidence and it was conclusive that the LTTE had planned the killing.
Q. Then why all these allegations and innuendo?
A. Ask those who talk. It may be to tarnish my political image. What can I do about it?
Q. Will you remain in Sri Lanka or are you planning another long trip?
A. Why should I leave my country unless it is for a holiday? I am too old to start a new life. I will definitely not leave. Charges were earlier made against President Premadasa and Minister Ranjan Wijeratne. Now people are pointing a finger at me over various killings. Such people either don’t have anything worth doing, or they are afraid I will get back to active politics.
On September 8, 1988 one Devasundara, Inspector of Police in charge of the local unit of the newly formed Terrorism Investigation Department (TID) was arrested in Anuradhapura in connection with the murder of Athulathmudali.
The other accused arrested in the case were W Bandulalage Somaratne alias Malwatte Some, U L Seneviratne, B G Devasurendra and A Abdeen. They were all charged with conspiracy, aiding and abetting to commit the murder of Lalith Athulathmudali and unlawful detention of Ragunathan. Subsequently two of the accused were killed.