By Shamindra Ferdinando
A high profile-government inquiry into the alleged abduction and disappearance of 11 Tamil youth by the Navy during Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannaoda’s tenure as the Commander of the service has taken a dramatic turn with the arrest of Lt. Commander Prasad Chandana Hettiarachchi allegedly involved in the case.
Police headquarters yesterday confirmed the arrest of the officer whose recent disappearance led the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to accuse the incumbent Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Ravi Wijegunaratne of having helped him to flee the country in a Fast Attack Craft (FAC).
The disappearances took place mostly in 2008. The majority of abductions were allegedly carried out in Colombo and its suburbs.
The on-gong 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 in Colombo.
The CID recently brought to the notice of the Fort Magistrate the circumstances under which Hettiarachchi disappeared, in spite of two specific requests, made in March 2017, to the Navy to hand him over to the CID.
The CID has alleged that high ranking officers prevented the police from questioning the suspect. The Navy has been accused of facilitating the alleged disappearance of the former intelligence officer to mislead the investigators.
The Island raised the issue with Admiral Wijegunaratne, after CID Director SSP Shani Abeysekera had accused him of having facilitated Hettiarachchi’s escape. The serious allegation was made in Wijegunaratne’s presence, at a meeting, also attended by Ministers Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Rajitha Senaratne, D.M. Swaminathan, Ajith Perera, Navy Commander Sirimevan Ranasinghe, President’s Counsel J. C. Weliamuna and senior officials of the CID and the FCID.
SSP Abeysekera alleged that Wijegunaratne had provided Rs. 500,000 to Hettiarachchi and moved him out of Sri Lankan waters using an FAC. Wijegunaratne said that he would quit if allegations against him could be proved.
The highest ranking serving officer Admiral Wijegunaratne told The Island, “Navy Commanders don’t get involved in human smuggling.”
Having failed to locate Hettiarachchi, the police recently sought public assistance to trace him. Hettiarachchi is among five suspects, including three Navy personnel acquitted by the Colombo High Court, in Dec. 2016, but facing fresh indictments over the assassination of TNA Jaffna District MP, Nadarajah Raviraj and his police bodyguard, Sergeant Lakshman Lokuwella.
The police have identified Hettiarachchi as ‘Navy Sampath’, though he had not been previously known by that alias. Sources said that the officer known as ‘Navy Sampath’ functioned as Karannagoda’s Chief Security Officer during the war.
Of those, arrested, so far, 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, too, was arrested in connection with the disappearance case and given bail.
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 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 was the second-in-command of Trincomalee-based Commander R. P. S. Ranasinghe, one of those arrested in connection with the disappearances was questioned by the CID in 2013.
Police spokesman SP Ruwan Gunasekera told the media that Dassanayake had supervised Ranasinghe and Hettiarachchi allegedly responsible for the abductions at issue.
Gunasekera said those Navy personnel, under investigation had carried out the abductions to extort money.