Julianne Porter, Journalist, Hong Kong
In September 2008 Sugath Nishanta Fernando was shot dead while sitting in his lorry with his 12-year old son. His murder wasn’t entirely out of the blue. He, his wife and his two children had been caught in a maelstrom of events that had been increasing in violence for five years. Sri Lankans with a little knowledge of the case have since been heard opining that the family brought it on themselves. Perhaps they are right.
Sugath’s death came not because he was tangled in the country’s bloody civil war, or because he was caught up with members of its underworld gangs, but rather because he challenged his local police with a once-lethal weapon. He went to them with the law, and as many Sri Lankans will now tell you, he didn’t stand a chance.
The following tale is not intended to read like another Sri Lankan horror story—it has not been told dramatically—it is just the true story of a normal, middle class Sri Lankan family with a stubborn streak, who, when crimes were committed against them, went through official channels. Unfortunately they found that the more you do this in Sri Lanka the bigger your problems tend to get. But there was that stubborn streak… and thus the tale descends, by way of the police, into the stuff of nightmares: into harassment, assault and bribery, into fabricated charges, bogus witness reports, attempted murder, and murder. It paints a big, bright picture of the Sri Lankan police as a league of bullies who thrive on intimidation, blustery insults and physical violence. Most importantly this story lays out the scale and the systematic, entrenched nature of this bullying.
The Fernandos were a normal middle class family, but now they are remarkable as an example of the few in the country who are willing to push on through the red tape, bribery, court delays, physical assault and murder. Though consistently cowed by the abuse of the Sri Lankan law, they honestly believed—as Sandamali Pathmini, Sugath’s wife, still does—that it is in the law that the family, now one member less, will find salvation and peace.
In 2003 on the 24th May, the Officer in Charge (OIC) of the Kochikari police, Mahinda Pathirana, sold Sugath Fernando a lorry for 500,000 Rupees, but without the registration book and identity details. Sugath made four or five unsuccessful visits to the inspector’s office to get the documents, before Mahinda finally arranged for the couple to meet his car so that he could hand them over. But instead of getting the details, the couple arrived to be shouted at and told to stop contacting him. They fled, and filed their complaint at the National Police Commission.
After giving an official statement that November, the Fernandos discovered that the officer had changed the number plate of their lorry illegally, suggesting that it was stolen—and that he’d been accused of a similar crime before. “Because he was a police officer we’d made the deal on trust, we didn’t think to suspect him,” remembers Sandamali. They decided to fight the case through to the end.
On 28 January 2005 Mahinda was arrested. After he was taken into custody, a procession of Mahinda’s friends and police colleagues came to the Fernandos’ home, individually and in groups, asking them to drop the charges. One officer came several times insisting, fairly affably, they say, that they file an affidavit in return for cash. However the couple refused and the harassment was stepped up a level:
My husband and I had gone to the Negombo courts to ask about another case. We were just outside getting ready to go home when a police officer from Kochikari police station came up behind Sugath and dragged him to the side. He threatened him and tried to punch him, before letting us go. We were told to drop the charges, or we would be hurt.
They lodged another complaint with the superintendent of police at Negombo police station, but no proper inquiry was done. Mahinda’s camp then tried another tactic, as Sandamali remembers:
In April the Inspector Mahinda came to our home, saying that his would give us two million rupees if we would withdraw the case. He came with three friends, who stood at the gate. He said, “I’m in a very difficult situation so I’ve lately fallen into a big depression”, and showed us his bank savings book. My husband said, “I don’t want money, I want to go to courts and get a judgment.” So the inspector humbly said, “Please think about this, and if there is a disciplinary inquiry, don’t show up.” But Sugath and I had agreed: we didn’t want to accept a single cent. We had support from the family too; they all thought we were doing the right thing.
On December 15 there was a disciplinary inquiry at the office of the Deputy Inspector General (DIG), Mahinda was interdicted, and a case filed. Word on the grapevine was that he turned very heavily to alcohol, and in 2006 before the case was heard Mahinda had suffered an alcohol-related heart attack and died.
We were at a petrol station when we found out—the petrol boys had heard about it, and knew that we were fighting against him because it was an unusual case there. Sugath was very sorrowful at that time because he knew that it was because of this case that he had started drinking. He was hanging round town boozing from morning until evening, and it was because of that that he died. But at one of our visits to the criminal division, SSP Priyantha showed us four files of complaint letters and petitions against this one policeman. Since I was the only one to send a petition with my name on it, only then, he said, could they take action against him. He also told me that the police officer has connections with the underworld gangs.
The case was closed—the family emerging from it relatively unscathed. But they had been simultaneously fighting another case. One Sunday evening back in 2003, Sugath had been on his way to the house of a friend carrying 20,700 Rupees that he owed him when a gang of men pulled him off his motorbike, robbed and badly beat him. The men called the police and claimed that Sugath had first tried to impersonate a police officer, and had then tried to steal one of their mobile phones. Unlike the lorry incident, this case would run on for years, exposing the family to countless levels of police corruption and abuse, and ultimately end up with Sugath’s murder.
The men who beat Sugath were from a political party, the United National Party, and among them was a municipal councilor, Mark Sudith. A friend of the Fernandos who was on the way to the beach had seen Sugath being arrested, and she went straight to tell Sandamali, who recalled that, “There were many people who saw the incident, but none would come forward as a witness because they were very afraid… the municipal councilor was not a good person.”
When Sandamali arrived at the scene that evening she was confronted with the vision of her husband covered in blood, his nose broken and a tooth missing. The police told her they would take him to the hospital, and loaded him into a van; she went along. But on the way one of the policeman got a call and the van turned around, taking them to the police station. On the way she overheard Sugath’s charges, and was astonished. At the station they were told he would be kept in remand overnight. “At this time I knew nothing about human rights,” she says. “I was crying and telling the police that this isn’t true, my husband didn’t do it—I was trying to explain that it was misinformation.”
The next morning Sandamali went with Sugath’s uncle to the superintendent of police’s office and explained her problem, to no avail. Still bruised and bloody, Sugath was charged in court (the headquarters inspector, HQI, had filed the case) and bailed out on 5000 Rupees. He went straight to the Superintendent of Police (SP) to file a complaint and record their statement, but nothing happened after that. Sandamali had met someone in the community called Osmund, who told her to complain to the Human Rights Commission, which they did:
We weren’t sure why Sugath had been targeted, but Mark Sudith and his people… I think it was due to a kind of political grudge. Sugath was active in a different political party to the councilor, Sudith, and they knew each other. It was a supporter of Sudith’s, Dan, a kind of underworld guy, who did most of the beating.
After some time I went to speak to the DIG and filed a case against those who beat my husband—I hadn’t seen any of them since the incident— then I wrote the whole story to the Human Rights Commission. At the end of 2003, Negombo police station received a letter from the HRC and PP Mahagamage Dharmadasa, the OIC of Crimes, wrote asking Sugath to come and meet him. He was new in the station. He told Sugath that, “The earlier people filed a bogus case against you so I’m going to start a new one.” We were really happy to hear it.
The new inspector PP Mahagamage Dharmadasa had expressed sympathy for the pair, and promised to do something for them. On the second visit, Sandamali went along, but found that the policeman was not all that he had seemed.
“I’ll arrest all these people who assaulted you,” he said… Then he mentioned that he’d be getting married soon and needed 150,000 Rupees, so maybe we could put 20,000 Rupees to the wedding… I felt surprised. But then he got down a file and took out the statement made against Sugath, and gave it to us. He said that if we removed this, no one could file the case against us. We had 5000 Rupees with us and so we gave it to him. He said, “Tomorrow come with the rest, and I’ll destroy the other report against you too.”
The next day Sugath visited him and paid another 5000 Rupees, not 15,000 Rupees. Sugath felt that this would be our best way forward, we felt that the policeman was on our side and we just wanted to get rid of the case. That second day, the police officer came to my husband’s vehicle in the car park and in front of him, burned the second report against us. Then very frequently he would call us, asking for the 10,000 Rupees balance, which we told him we couldn’t pay. At this point he had helped us file against the group for assault. But when we got to court we found out that in fact, both cases against us had gone to court—the policeman had just burned unnecessary pieces of paper.
On 11 June 2004 the Fernandos complained to National Police Commission but found that there wasn’t much interest in the case. So a few months later Sugath went to the Bribery Commission, and recorded a statement there. But when the Negombo police came to know that the Fernandos had complained about them, they retaliated. The next time they went to the station, Dharmadasa and colleagues refused to serve them.
They insulted us, calling us troublemakers and talking about the other case with the van. They were using bad language. We complained with their DIG there; then we went to the Police HQ and made statements against the SP in Negombo, and against the entire crime branch.
The Fernandos received a phone call days later from an SP Mahanama, asking them to come in to the police headquarters to give their evidence. Twice they went, and twice were instructed to give a promise in writing that they would not take it to court, but would come to a compromise. Sandamali remembers that, “SP Mahanama told us to withdraw and threatened that otherwise hereafter, if you make any complaints against my officers, one fine day the whole family will get destroyed by the police.” The couple promptly filed another complaint against Mahanama. When asked, “When the police said ‘destroy’, do you think they were suggesting financial ruin, or something else?” Sandamali replied, “That they will kill the family.” “Did you believe him?” “Yes, we did. That’s why we complained further.”
On another occasion Sandamali visited the police station with Sugath about the issue of the lorry licensing. Chief Inspector Nishanta, a crime branch police officer was there. When their appointment came up with the inspector of police, the chief inspector drew him to one side. The two men started to shout at the couple.
They were shouting utter filth at me. They basically told us not to come to the police station again for anything. They brought us in front of HQ Inspector Silva, telling him I’m a bad kind of woman. My husband spoke up and scolded him. HQI said to us, if there’s any civil evidence that we’ve said this, go ahead and make another complaint to the DIG office.
So I went to the people in the waiting room and I asked, “Is anyone here willing to give evidence to support us?” One girl stood and said yes, they were like this with her too, and she agreed to give evidence if we complained. You see, when you go to the police station they just don’t know how to address people! They often use rude language. So on the same day we went to the DIG officer and made a complaint regarding this. The DIG directed the matter to be dealt with by SP Mahanama—but we had already complained against Mahanama!
At this point personnel at the Negombo police station were becoming increasingly irritated with the Fernandos. It was rare for anyone to be tenacious enough to make complaints, let alone insist on following through. Their case was bringing pressure from above. Tactics to dissuade and punish Sugath and Sandamali intensified.
A police sergeant came and took statements from the girl and us and later we had to go in and give another statement for the other complaint against Mahanama. We went to the SSP’s office to make a statement and were sent to a sub-inspector, a woman. During that time I was getting chest paint and some arthritic pains. But they were angry with us, so I had to give a statement over a period of six hours, standing up.
Finally my husband requested the sub-inspector, “Offer my wife a chair because she’s not well.” So they laughed at him, saying, “He’s going to faint, give him a chair!” My husband said, “No, not for me, for my wife” and called for the SSP. The SSP came and dragged me to his office and then scolded us, swearing at us, and said, “If you don’t cooperate I’ll remand you.” I was experiencing chest pains so we went to Negombo hospital, and they took an ECG. During that time my husband spoke to
one of the HQ DIGs. He instructed my husband to come in and make another complaint against the slurs and ill treatment… So myself and my husband we went again and we made another complaint! Then finally we went home.
But the harassment was not to end there; the traffic police were to get involved. One day the couple was seated in their parked lorry in front of their house when the SSP’s motorcade went by. When this happens cars on the road are generally told to move out of the way. But of the parked vehicles it was only the Fernandos who were told to move. Sugath called someone in the defense ministry and was told that there was no such regulation. He was told to make a complaint, which he did to emergency services 119, over the phone. Then:
It was 10 September 2006 and the SSP was going by with escorts. We had gone nearby on our motorbike to buy some bread and the SSP must have seen us. Then a police officer on a motorcycle broke off from the motorcade—we were standing next to it, our helmets on the motorbike, and he told us, “Wear your helmets!” My husband said, “But we’re not on the bike.” Then another policeman came and told us, “You must immediately withdraw the case against our SSP.” My husband said, “No, I can’t.” Then the officer started shouting and insulting us, he snatched our bike keys and then three other police officers appeared. We were threatened with arrest. I came forward and asked, “Why, what reason do
you have?” Then he dragged Sugath into the police jeep. I was hanging onto his shirt and shouting, but then I got into the jeep too—I didn’t want him to be alone.
The police took the couple to the station and told them that they could leave after they had signed blank pieces of paper. They refused to and Sandamali made discreet calls from her cell phone to the HRC in Colombo, to police headquarters where she spoke to the DIG, and to 118 (the Sri Lankan security number). She sent messages to one of her sisters and her father, who turned up at the station and started to ask questions about them.
Their lawyer also arrived and started to kick up a fuss, so they were finally taken to court. But it appears that the visit had been carefully timed so that the magistrate was just getting down from the bench. They were taken to the magistrate’s private chambers instead, where they were told that they’d both have to be remanded for obstructing police duties. Although the pair weren’t allowed to speak, their lawyer appealed to the magistrate on behalf of their children. She softened and put Sandamali on 2000 Rupees bail. But Sugath would have to spend the night in jail. The pair was unaware of the dangers awaiting him there.
Before this my husband had never been in prison, and I didn’t know much about prison either, so myself and my sister and my husband’s friend sat in front of it, trying to get to see him. My father went home to bring clothes for him. But then the bodyguard of the mayor of Negombo visited us with a few other guys. He came up to me sitting there, and told me that his boss, the mayor, has got information that the police had requested an underworld person in remand prison, Feroz, to kill Sugath. I just couldn’t believe it was happening.
Then he [the bodyguard] called Feroz inside the prison right there, and said that my husband was a man from their political party so don’t hurt or harass him. Then he told Feroz, “I have his wife here and she is waiting to hear that he’s okay.” I heard about two seconds of Sugath’s voice before the phone cut off.
Later I discovered that before the phone call this Feroz had already been beating up my husband, but then stopped. Sugath is strong, but he couldn’t fight back because he knew Feroz was a powerful underworld thug. This all happened in the first few hours of Sugath being taken to prison.
The mayor’s bodyguard told prison officers to put Sugath into a safer communal ward, rather than a cell, and to keep an eye on him. The next day Sugath phoned Sandamali from jail and asked her to bring small amounts of cash to the prison to pay off certain prison guards, and for 15 lunch boxes. He survived unscathed until the following Monday, when he was produced before the courts again. Sandamali never found out who had asked the mayor to get involved.
The police requested that Sugath’s jail time be extended for another four days because they hadn’t completed their inquiries, and wanted to take another statement. On the Friday Sugath was bailed out on 25,000 Rupees personal bail and 2000 Rupees in cash and went straight to the HRC in Colombo, and to the police commission, to record what had happened to him. He was shaken, says his wife; both frightened by the attempt on his life and depressed at the thought of having a prison record. Up until this moment too, the children had been sheltered from their parent’s tussles with the police. Kalpani was 15 at the time, Anjana, 12.
Later, looking at the report with the HRC, the Fernandos saw that there were two witnesses of his arrest, one of them staying close to their home.
We went searching for him and asked whether he’d be giving evidence against us. Some of the officers had apparently come to see him where he worked in a small boutique, and they told him he had to sign a prepared statement. But to us he agreed to give an affidavit to the HRC, recording what had actually happened. Another woman in the boutique agreed to testify that she’d seen the officers threaten him and take his signature by force. I think they were brave to support us. We went to look for the second police witness, but found that the name and address were false; they had written a bogus statement.
On 12 January 2007 the Fernandos were summoned to the courts about this case. They appeared but their evidence wasn’t taken. Sugath’s evidence was taken in March; Sandamali’s was postponed again to November. A traffic officer again threatened the pair not to follow through with the bribery case against the SSP, which prompted another call to the Bribery Commission, another complaint. The Fernandos were becoming deeply unpopular among law enforcers in their neighbourhood, and their situation was about to worsen dramatically.
A traffic policeman who lived on the same road was holding a funeral for his son one Sunday afternoon, and on their way back two traffic officers decided to pay the family a visit.
My husband and I were sitting and talking on our verandah. The children were watching TV. Then a police officer came up to us and said, on the 14th there’s a case against this police officer, are you going to give evidence? Sugath said that we’d received a summons from the HC to be present, and that we would go; the man slapped my husband’s face hard. I started shouting and went to my husband, who instructed my daughter to take down the number of the policeman’s vehicle—but the other one was waiting on his motorcycle and as she came towards him he drove straight at her, and into her. So I ran in front of the vehicle to stop it. I called the Bribery Commission then and there, and [the staff] told me to get the number of the officers who’d come.
The two policemen were Sub-inspector Liyanage, and PC Dissanayake. They called in three more traffic policemen, and then for more back up, claiming that the family was not cooperating. Sandamali called the Bribery Commission again for help, where she was told that they had arranged for the HQI to visit them and help to straighten out the problem.
After half an hour the HQI came to our place with about 50 police officers. About 20 of them forced their way into the house and about 30 were outside, 15 on either side of the house, keeping out civilians. Our parents were there, and they were trying to get inside. The children were very scared—this thing was new to them. Then we were trying to explain to the HQI what had happened, but he came out with obscenities and scolded my husband. Then he just started to hit him. I had been in the kitchen with my daughter—my phone was on charge there—and I came running out to help him, screaming. The HQI then dragged me by the hair and hit me in the face with his gun. Then four or five police officers beat me onto the ground and kicked me. I could see my husband unconscious, being dragged into a van and then I was thrown onto his body into the van. My daughter was fighting them. They punched her, choked her, and were trying to pull off her blouse. Then they punched my son, breaking one of his teeth. Luckily he ran out to two women policemen and hid behind them. They started to take us away in the police van and my daughter ran after it, asking where they were taking us. One said, “We’re going to take them to the beach and we’re going to kill them there.”
Kalpani got in the van anyway. The son, Anjana, was taken away by his grandmother and the policemen took Sugath, unconscious, Sandamali and their daughter to the police station where they dragged Sugath in, lay him on the floor and doused him with cold water. The HQI then proceeded to take down their details, which Kalpani gave—her first time in a police station. Sandamali remembers that her own nose and head were still bleeding and she could barely talk. She also recalls a phone call from the SSP to assess the situation, and the HQI responding flippantly, “Don’t worry; they’ve been beaten and they’re already half dead.”
After about four hours in the police station the three were put into a van, and driven far out of town, into isolated countryside. Then a phone call came. The drivers turned the van around and took them to a hospital. Asked where they had been going until the phone call arrived, Sandamali replies, “I thought that they were taking us somewhere to kill us.”
IP Bandara took mother and daughter to Negombo Hospital, one of the officers who had beaten them, and were placed in ward 5, where doctors gave them an injection and gave Sandamali two stitches in her temple. Sandamali had come off worst during the beatings—records later showed that both her jaw and nose were fractured. Two policewomen were left with them, initially, they thought, for their own security. They soon realized that this was not the case.
There was a bed for me, but the policewomen told me I had to sleep on the floor. When I asked to go to the toilet, they refused. We asked to make a call on our phones, but they wouldn’t let us. I was crying because of the pain, and finally a nurse came over and gave me a bed. Then the two policewomen switched on the bright light over the bed, and stood around it watching me. My daughter was sitting on a chair, but when we tried to talk, we were told to shut up. The next morning the HQI and another two policemen visited us, with the Judicial Medical Officer [JMO], asking him to discharge us.
When the JMO checked me I couldn’t really open my mouth to say much, my jaw was injured, and I couldn’t walk much at this time either. But the JMO did only a quick check of my external injuries—not any internal injuries. I told him that I couldn’t really walk and that my back hurt, and would he check me properly, but he hardly listened. I hadn’t really
expected him to be helpful—he supports the police—but the HQI also asked the head of the ward to discharge us. The doctor asked the police about my daughter, saying, why did you bring this child to the hospital? They told the doctor that we, my daughter and I, had assaulted the police. They said that they wouldn’t arrest the girl, so please just discharge me. But when the doctor saw me he realized that I wasn’t in a good condition, and he refused. We felt that he was kind.
That evening the police—IP Bandara, OIC Jayawardena and Somasiri Liyanage— brought the magistrate, Prabath Ranasinha, to the hospital. Sandamali was shown a warrant that would remand her for fourteen days for interfering in police duties. Despite Sandamali’s obvious injuries, the magistrate complied. She told him of their other case, the bribery case, for which there was a court appearance the next day (the 14th), and he told that she would need to appear while under police custody—and that since she had reportedly assaulted police officers he would not grant bail. She asked about making an appeal and he instructed her to file one in court according to the official procedure.
The policemen did not keep their word about not arresting Kalpani. That night the 15-year-old was taken from her parents in hospital to a ward in a women’s prison. She recalls:
Inside I was very frightened and the facilities were very basic. They were speaking with bad language, and their behavior was very unpleasant. I was so frightened I didn’t speak to anybody. I was in a ward with about 200 prisoners in it. I didn’t sleep at all; there was nothing to sleep on.
Her grandfather came to bail her out of prison the next morning, and after five days in hospital the ward doctor discharged her mother, under the impression that she would be taken to the prison hospital. Instead the police took her to the same ward of the prison her daughter had been in. She remembers sitting back tightly in a corner until morning and then being taken to the courts, where she and Sugath were granted bail. She hadn’t had a chance to wash since her assault, a week earlier.
A few days after their assault and imprisonment, the couple went again to the HRC in Colombo, where they were told they could give evidence against the JMO. The HRC gave a letter to Colombo Hospital so that Sandamali would be reexamined. She was sent to a surgeon and given the surgery she needed for her broken nose and fractured crown.
At home, a message had been left by human rights lawyer Basil Fernando suggesting that the family report to Right to Life (RTL), a legal aid group that helps with complainants in human rights abuse cases. RTL staff had already visited Kalpani when her mother and father were still in hospital, and a few days later the whole family went to the group’s office in Negombo, and started to put their complaints in order. Human rights lawyer J.C. Weliamuna joined the case, along with Amitha Ariyaratne. This was a source of great comfort to the family, despite the dangers to the lawyers in doing such work. Anjana has kept a picture of Weliamuna from a newspaper article referring to an anonymous grenade attack on the lawyer’s home just months later, from which he narrowly escaped. Ariyatne has received death threats three times, and on 27 January 2009 this year his office was burnt down.
In June 2008 it was decided that Sugath should go into hiding.
It was around March when a person called Namal came to our house and advised my husband to withdraw all the cases that he had filed against the police. Then on June 23 he came up to us in the street with another man and said if we didn’t withdraw the cases they would kill us both; luckily the children were at school. We reported this to the DIG, who of course instructed us to go to the crime branch and make another complaint to the officer in charge. So we did. But at that time they in the station took no interest and we didn’t think they’d do anything. We believed we were in danger. We told Right to Life and Mr. Basil Fernando, and Basil Fernando informed the President and the Chief Justice, and the Minister of Human Rights in Sri Lanka, and the President of the HRC.
Two days later at about 8 o’clock at night a white-coloured van came to our house and inquired after my husband from our houseboy. Sugath signaled that he shouldn’t tell them he was home. The boy asked, “Why are you here?” and they said, “We came to hand over a business contract.” The boy said that Sugath had gone out for medical treatment and asked, “Would you like to leave a number?” They said, “No, we want to meet him personally and pay him some cash.” Again Sugath signaled to the boy not to tell them that he was in. Then he closed the gate and padlocked it from the inside.
The van continued to sit there with a running engine, and when we looked out we could see two policemen in uniform, and two men in civvies. That day I was so frightened. Even my husband was frightened. We think they were trying to kidnap him.
The family decided to hide at Sandamali’s sister’s house that night, and the next day they split up, leaving the children with her parents. RTL organized a temporary safe house for Sugath and Sandamali and the next day he was sent off to a safer place. The rest of the family slept at Sandamali’s mother’s home and used their house during the day, keeping the gate carefully locked. Still, they found it hard to be without Sugath.
My husband was the one looking after all the expenses at home, and I didn’t have much knowledge about the business, so that was definitely a problem. We were also scared much of the time. When he was at home we lived so joyfully as a family, and we’d go most places together. He didn’t like to go anywhere without us! But we were also lucky; from this point on RTL paid for the main things for us.
Nevertheless, Sugath decided to leave his place in hiding.
When he would call he would tell me, I want to come home, I want to come home, I want to come home! And I would also miss him, I was telling him too, I wish you were home! We were very attached. After he decided to leave he went to RTL, and to the Bribery Commission, and they made some observations regarding the assault case. They said we have now done all our necessary work. We don’t need more from you. But we were still waiting for them to do actually do something.
At this point the police had filed two cases against the Fernandos for obstructing their duties and the Fernandos had filed a bribery case, and through the HRC, one for assault and one against the JMO. On the day that Sugath died he had been home for two months and four days, and it had been a time free of harassment. The family was getting used to the idea that their ordeal could be over.
Part of the Fernandos’ business was renting out their lorry. During the day Sugath, with his wife or his son for company, would find a spot at a junction nearby and wait for customers.
That day he got up at about 6:30, had a bath, had breakfast and left at about 8:30 in the lorry. Because of the threats I’d always gone with him before in the lorry, but the day before he’d asked me not to come anymore, saying it wasn’t needed. That particular day though, I got ready to go with him, but he went with my son. I remember that Anjana was happy because the day before he’d been told that he had been chosen to be in the school band. Sugath told my daughter to follow on her mountain bike to the junction. After parking he took my daughter’s bike and went to the market to buy a few vegetables, which he sent back home with her. He’d asked her to buy some dried fish on the way home but it wasn’t
These would be their last words.
About five minutes later I called my husband to ask about my daughter because she’d gone alone and I was a little nervous. But my daughter answered his phone. She was crying and I couldn’t understand what was wrong. I thought someone must have come and assaulted my husband. I started to shiver. I pulled on a shawl and I started to run down the road to the junction. On the way I met an uncle on a motorcycle coming the other way. He said, “I’ve come to get you.” He took me to the lorry. There was a huge crowd gathered there, and I still didn’t know what had happened. Then my relative told me, “Your husband has been taken to hospital but they couldn’t find your son.” Someone put me into a three- wheeler and took me to the hospital. On the way I called to Right to Life, I don’t know who, and I told them, “Someone has shot my husband.”
At this point in the narrative Anjana seems absorbed with writing on his hand and playing with his family’s mobile phone. Sandamali starts to cry quietly, and her daughter takes over. Kalpani speaks with fierce but surprisingly composed energy for a 16-year-old.
As I was approaching the junction with the water I saw a big gathering. I pushed through to the lorry but there was nothing to see, I couldn’t see my father or my brother. The door was half open on the driver’s side. Then I saw my father lying to the side on the driver’s seat. I thought at first someone must have come and beaten him. Then I got into the vehicle,
climbing over his body, and I saw that there was a hole, a bullet hole here [she points to her temple]. Being on my father’s body I spoke to him, father, father—but there was no answer. Then the phone rang. I answered it and as soon as I did I collapsed out of the lorry onto the ground. I couldn’t get up, but I tried to tell her what had happened. I don’t know where my brother was at that point.
Anjana had been in the passenger seat when his father was shot, and he doesn’t like to talk about it—since the murder he has suffered from fainting spells. He remembers the shooter was a man in a mask on a motorbike, that only the second shot met its mark, and that his father fell across him. He ran out of the lorry and was in the crowd when his sister arrived. He was later taken to his grandmother’s. Kalpani continues, pausing occasionally for a deep breath.
I was shivering with fear, I told my mother, ‘father was shot’, and my mother told me to get away to somewhere safe. Then I shouted to the crowd, come and help me take him to the hospital. We called the emergency services and they said not to move the lorry, but to take my father to the hospital in another vehicle. I went around and opened the other door, and I pulled him into a three-wheeler, onto the floor. Some people helped me, I don’t know who. Then I jumped in and it left for the hospital.
Sugath died at the hospital.
Hiding, grieving and rebuilding
The day after the burial it was back to court for Sandamali, this time to give the statement about Sugath’s murder, supported by the team at Right to Life. The family was told that they should go into hiding, since they were intent on following through with all the old cases, and in those Sandamali is now the main witness.
Being away from home has made it harder for them to recover— they have stayed in three places in three months and are about to move again because people have been asking questions in town. At the house where they are now staying, the Fernandos have had to tell the host family that Sugath was killed in an accident. They’re all finding it hard to express their feelings, and Sandamali has become almost obsessed with the cases. Those around her say it’s the only thing she talks about these days; she dismisses talk of trauma counseling and only legal speak can animate her. She wields her stuffed case file and photos of herself in hospital like a protective charm. Those working with her wonder what could happen to the family should the case drag on for five or six years, or worse, not yield the result they hope for. In the meantime, her children have yet to settle into a school or a routine.
The threats are still there. Their lawyers have both escaped assassination attempts, death threats have been phoned into the RTL office and even a TV journalist who covered the case received a threatening phone call. As Sandamali twists a sodden napkin around her fingers, Kalpani continues, clear-eyed:
First of all we want to see to our education—my brother’s and mine. Then we want to find out who did this to my father. Then I want to show them that I can live in front of them.
We are worried about being killed, but we are also concerned that nothing has been done to find my father’s killers. The CID [Criminal Investigation Division] is making inquiries, but little new information comes to us.
We tend to wake up early. Sometimes I study. We don’t have a TV, so if the landlady invites us to join them to watch TV, we do so. Otherwise we keep to our rooms. Sometimes my brother and I go and explore the jungle, but there’s not much else we’re allowed to do. We don’t have an income so we are relying on help from these organizations. We have locked up our home—there are many things there, but we can’t get them. It’s frustrating, and yes, it feels lonely. We miss my father so much.
Who’s to blame?
In November seven of the officers involved in the beating of Sandamali and her family were told that they would be transferred, following strong national and international protests. Ignoring official procedures the policemen appealed directly to the country’s president, Mahinda Rajapakse, who overrode the transfer order. For a system so slow to protect a man from death threats coming from its own ranks, it acted swiftly on behalf of these men. Yet Sandamali seems unsurprised. “I got to know about the case from the Bribery Commission. We heard that Somasiri had appealed to the president, and he now remains at the same police station.”
Whose fault is that?
Everyone from the president down, through all the authorities.
Why do you think it has been so hard to get justice?
The political leaders need support from the police for their political campaigns, so they never do anything against them. When the police do wrong and need protection, they go to the ministers.
What about the courts?
I don’t trust the courts even. From our experience I don’t have faith in them…
Who has given you the most trouble?
The police have done all these things. According to my knowledge, police support other police. But maybe the Bribery Commission is even worse. They promised to take action against the authorities, to file a case within two weeks of seeing us, but they did nothing until Sugath died. They dragged the case, they collected all the necessary information from us time by time, but they didn’t file a case…
What are your hopes now?
To give a proper education to my two children, and to punish Sugath’s murderers. After that I have no plans.
Be careful not to lose yourselves in this case.
But we will try to win.