PRRA, Black Cats and other death squads and the proposed commission for reconciliation


( May 22, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The proposed commission for reconciliation and discussion of the lessons learned should be an occasion for an in-depth study into the operation of death squads over a long period of time. In the popular imagination, names like PRRA (People’s Revolutionary Red Army,) Black Cats and other sometimes nameless groups, have operated in sometimes the most sinister abductions and killings in Sri Lanka.A Los Angeles journalist coined the word ‘white van’ as a special kind of experience in Sri Lanka. The very mention of white van or of abduction brings many gruesome experiences and memories to the mind of any Sri Lankan. Depending on which area of the country they live, the incidents that come to their mind would be different.

In a recent article, one-time secretary for several of the commissions on involuntary disappearances, MCM Iqbal cited many cases from his memory of the stories told by the complainants he heard. The citation of a few cases from this article will illustrate the kind of stories that come to the mind of Sri Lankans when they hear the names of PRRA, Black Cats and other death squads.

“Since I was secretary at two of the separate evidence commissions that were conducting inquiries into disappearances during the so-called period of terror, from the late 1980s to the middle of the 1990s I was able to listen to the evidence given by many of the complainants personally, I was present when the inquiries were being conducted.

And some of the cases remain in my mind, because they were so gory, such brutal cases that I can recollect most of the information pertaining to them. I will just narrate a few of them to give a sample of the kind of brutality that existed during that period.

There was a mother, she was about 60 or a little more than that, who came before the commission. She said that since her son had disappeared, she had been looking for him everywhere until she heard from somebody that there were hundreds of heads of people who had been killed and planted on posts around the valley, on Kappetipola Road in the hill country of Sri Lanka. And she thought she should go see whether her son’s head was there. She took all the trouble to go to that place and walked, according to her words, walked from head to head, some of them had decomposed, to see if her son’s head was there. I was so sad, she said, his head was not there. And when she said this, the old woman, was almost sobbing. I just can’t forget the words she said and the manner in which she said it. This is one of the cases to show how brutally youth had been killed, and their heads disposed of in such a ghastly manner for the people to see.

Another case which I can remember is of a mother, who was a widow, who had three grown children, and one of them had been a bodybuilder and had been conducting self-defence classes, karate classes, she said. And during this particular period, some unknown people came and took away two of her sons. And she knew that they were police officers because the vehicle that took them was a vehicle marked ‘police.’ She tried to run behind the jeep to see if she could do something to retrieve them but she couldn’t catch up. So the following morning, first thing, she went to the police station and asked them to show her sons that they had taken. They denied having taken her sons. She insisted, she argued with them, she said, I’m sure you all came. She argued so loud that the sons who were inside the cell, shouted saying ‘Mother, we are here!’ The police officers who had denied taking them couldn’t say anything, they just pushed her away and went on. This lady was so persistent, she didn’t want to go away until she was given a chance to speak to her sons. She stayed there the whole day and by evening, the roster changed, and a new set of police officers came on duty. They asked her why she was waiting, she said, I’m waiting to see my sons who are inside. They said wait, and they went in. After about a half hour or so, they came back and said okay, come, let’s see your sons. They took her in, and according to her words, they raped her. All of them. There were five police officers there, they all raped her. And to use her words, she said ‘I will die, please let me go.’ In spite of that, they continued to rape her. And she knew the names of the police officers, she mentioned that, and they were still serving in the police at the time the enquiries were being made. We recorded all the evidence and two days later, she came running back to the commission and said, my other son has been taken away. Now it was not difficult for us to assume that because she had come in to give evidence to punish, someone must have taken the other son away. An investigation unit was set into motion and they made enquiries and were able to find out that he had been taken in under suspicion of having snatched away someone’s salary packet and he was in remand. His mother was told, we’ll see what we can do and was sent away. We checked with the prisons, and with the magistrate court, the case was there. At the prisons, the investigating officers were able to find out that the police officers had taken photographs of this chap who was in remand, which is an unusual thing, because police are supposed to have no access to people who are in prisons and they can’t photograph them. And the superintendent in charge confirmed that he couldn’t stop them, and they had taken photographs. It was not too difficult for us to guess that they were going to use it in an identification parade. The magistrate was informed, the magistrate was good enough to cancel the parade. The identification parade was cancelled, and thereafter the suspect was discharged. His mother came running to us with her son, and fell prostrate in front of the commissioners and said ‘you are the gods who saved us.’ The commissioner said, we are not here to save you all the time. Please take your son and leave this district. We can’t ensure your safety because we are going away in a few days. That’s one of the cases that I can’t forget.

Another case that comes to my mind is the case in Kandy where a young boy came and gave evidence that he was one of the victims taken to be disappeared but he was kept in what was later called, a torture chamber, Silvester’s College, Kandy. He gave evidence on what was happening in the torture chamber where he said more than one thousand had been detained and he also mentioned that the person who was in charge was a superintendent of police called Laksham Senevirathna, I can still remember that name. He was supposed to have been a classmate of the then Defence Minister Anuruddha Rathwatte. Now he said from time to time, they would get down loads of cane, to be used for torturing the people who were there. And then, he also mentioned from time to time they used to take people in batches of ten to fifteen to be sent to other detention centres, but they never returned. On Monday, it was his turn to get into a truck at night to be taken to another detention centre and he was able to see what happened there. He said that when the vehicle goes through dark, open stretches of land, they were all with their hands tied behind their backs, there were two other vehicles following the truck in which they were being taken. At some point, the police officer who would be inside with the detainees would push one person down and say ‘run.’ When the person falls down and starts running, somebody from the other vehicle will shoot, target practice. And this fellow will get shot, and the body lies there. The third vehicle that is following behind stops at the body, somebody gets down with a petrol can, pours petrol on their face, sets fire to him. They get back into the vehicle and the caravan goes on. When it came to his turn to be pushed out, fortunately he said, the vehicle that had the petrol shouted saying ‘enough for the day. The petrol is over.’ And so it happened that he was not pushed, he was taken back to the camp. And everybody in the camp called him the lucky one. Then, due to certain circumstances, after that he was sent to a rehabilitation centre, and he was released a few years later. He came before the commission to narrate all that he saw in that place. This also, I can’t forget, because that boy was a young chap, he was about 18 or 20. The way he narrated all that happened, and the way he said those boys were tortured. The commission made it a point to report this to the president and ask that this Laksham Senevirathna be transferred out of the district because witnesses were afraid to come and give evidence when he was in that area. After much pressure, he was transferred out from Kandy to Kurunegalle and we were able to learn that because he was a classmate of the Defence Minister at that time, he was able to see that he wasn’t punished by being sent further away. Read More on Samples of brutality that happened in the late eighties

At no time has the phenomena of death squads been seriously examined; perhaps the prevalence of the bitter struggle with the LTTE prevented any kind of serious examination of these death squad groups. The former Deputy Minister for Defence, Mr. Ranjan Wijayaratne, coined the phrase ‘dealing with poison’ to explain the methodology adapted in the counter-insurgencies in dealing with the barbaric practices of these terrorists. And with that came the justification of any kind of killing. A legal basis was provided from the same Deputy Minister when he stated that these things cannot be done according to the law; the idea was to operate outside the law.

However, this was not just a counter-insurgency experiment. Throughout the country, the result was all kinds of abductions of many innocent persons. In fact, the numbers of such innocent persons can be counted into the thousands. These numbers began to spill into pure money-based abductions, as has been demonstrated in the cases of abductions of little girls from Trincomallee in the East and now, in Colombo. The recent abductions of two girls - one of whom was fortunately found, the other is still missing - from Kalaniya and Handala Palliyawatte, are examples of the way the culture of abduction and extortion has spread.

Without serious studies which bring the details of these things that happen to light, society cannot come to grips with these problems. So long as the truth about these things remains hidden, these practices will remain unchallenged. Any lesson to be learnt from the past can only come when the lesson is brought forward by way of revelation. No lesson is learnt by hiding the truth. The very idea of learning lessons is to put before the student the details of an experience and thereafter, drawing the lessons from actual realities. All attempts to encourage the truth about these matters to remain hidden is the very opposite of learning lessons. Since the commission proposed lessons to be learned, the first attempt should be to reveal the details of the truth. It is not difficult to have the truth revealed; the victims, independent observers who have investigated these matters and the perpetrators themselves who know the details of these incidents. In the particular instance of death squads, the Sri Lankan state is in possession of the truth on these matters.

Many people who operated these schemes did so with the approval of the highest authorities, and are still in various government agencies, such as the police, military, intelligence services. Some of them may have retired, but a large number of people exist who know the truth of these matters. They need to speak the truth if it is their intention that in the future there should not be a recurrence of these events. The proposed commission states that the whole exercise is to prevent the recurrence of these incidents. If so, the revelation of these truths becomes necessary. How these encouragements should be given for the revelations of these truths needs to be discussed within the society. The South African Truth Commission developed one way for getting the truth revealed by giving various amnesties. This approach remains controversial, but the attempt to gain the truth stands. Any serious attempts for a commission of enquiry should deal with this problem of revelation of the truth relating to these matters.