Admiral of the Fleet (Retd.) Wasantha Karannagoda

Inspector Nishantha Silva, who investigated disappearances blamed on the Navy, fled the country in late Nov. 2019. The CID officer secured political asylum in Switzerland with the blessings of the Switzerland embassy in Colombo. The failed bid by Swiss embassy employee, Garnier Francis (ex- Siriyalatha Perera) to leave for Switzerland after implicating security authorities with a trumped up crass attempt to intimidate her, grabbed both local and international media attention. Sri Lanka never made a genuine effort to ascertain high level international machinations in the wake of the last presidential election in Nov. 2019.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Admiral of the Fleet (Retd.) Wasantha Karannagoda is the highest ranking retired, or serving military officer, designated by the US in terms of the Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programmes Appropriations Act. This is supposedly to end impunity for human rights violators, acknowledging the suffering of victims, and survivors, and promoting accountability for perpetrators in Sri Lanka.

Previously, the US designated three others, namely Gen. Shavendra Silva (Feb. 2020), Lt. Commander Chandana Hettiarachchi (Dec. 2021) and Staff Sgt. Sunil Ratnayake (Dec. 2021) under the same law. At the time Silva was designated, the much decorated soldier held the rank of Lt. General as Commander of Army and also Acting Chief of Defence Staff (CDS).

Of them, Lt. Commander Hettiarachchi and Admiral of the Fleet Karannagoda were designated over the alleged abduction, and disappearance ,of 11 persons, mostly Tamils, in Colombo, and its suburbs, in the 2008-2009 period, during the final phase of the brutal war to defeat the LTTE that was carrying out all types of terrorist acts in the South, while fighting a conventional war in the North, whereas the US found fault with the then General Officer Commanding of the celebrated 58 Division for his alleged misconduct during the Vanni offensive (2009) and Staff Sgt. Ratnayake for the killing of eight Tamils, including three children, at Mirusuvil, in the Jaffna peninsula, in 2000.

However, only in the case of Karannagoda, who served as the Commander of the Navy (Sept. 01, 2005 to July 15, 2009), the US designation was based on the findings made by NGOs and ‘independent’ investigations, both without any doubt funded by them and obviously did their bidding, without hearing the side of the accused.

Of the 11 persons, five were taken in on Sept. 17, 2008, by Navy personnel, along with a black Tata Indica. Police identified them as Rajiv Naganathan (21 years/Colombo 13), Pradeep Vishvanathan (18 years/Wasala Rd, Colombo 13), Mohammed Sajith (21 years/Dematagoda), Thilakeswaram Ramalingam (17 years/Bloemendhal housing complex, Colombo 13) and Jamaldeen Dilan (Maradana). Those involved in the operation were believed to have been accompanied by a Navy informant, Mohammed Ali Anwar alias Hadjjiar of Karagampitiya, Dehiwela. Subsequently, the 28-year-old informant, too, disappeared; he has been listed among those 11 missing.

The remaining five persons were identified as Kasthuriarachchilage John Reid (21 years/Kotahena/8-9-2008)), Amalan Leon (50 years/Arippu north/25-8-2008)) and his son Roshan Leon (21 years/Arippu north/25-8-2008), Anthony Kasthuriarachchi (48 years/Kotahena/10-10-2008) and Kanagaraja Jegan (32 years/Trincomalee)

There hadn’t been a previous instance of the NGO community and ‘independent’ investigators ‘credited’ with playing a direct role in sanctions imposed on the Sri Lankan military, though their participation in the high profile project was widely known.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, in a statement issued on April 26, 2023, declared that Karannagoda and his wife, Srimathi Ashoka Karannagoda, wouldn’t be eligible for entry into the United States.

Karannagoda, the incumbent Governor of the North Western Province, an appointment received from former Commander-in-Chief President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (Nov. 2019-July 2022), told the writer that they hadn’t sought a US visa since his visit to the US, in 2007.

Blinken declared: “The allegation that Wasantha Karannagoda committed a gross human rights violation, documented by NGOs and independent investigations, is serious and credible. The statement didn’t refer to wartime abduction cases at all. But, stressed that the designation pertained to a gross human rights violation.

The US being one the worst human rights offenders, at global level, responsible for millions of extra-judicial killings in the course of illegal regime changes, and other interventions, including helping to run death squads in its backyard, Latin America, since the end of World War 2, in Sept, 1945, only goes to expose its own sheer nakedness and much amusement to the world.

Did the US commitment to punish perpetrators of human rights violations here cover thousands killed in the hands of the Indian Army intervention (July 1987-March 1990), or the killings ordered by New Delhi, prior to the deployment of its military? Successive impotent governments lacked courage or wherewithal at least to set the record straight at the United Nations and Geneva Human Rights Council.

Blinken used the latest statement to remind the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government of what the Superpower expected of Colombo, amidst the continuing build-up of US-China tensions.

He stressed that the bilateral relationship between the US and Sri Lanka is based on 75 years of shared history, values, and a commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Sanctions imposed on Karannagoda were the second such instance, after Ranil Wickremesinghe succeeded President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in July, 2022. In the second week of January, this year, Canada directed targeted sanctions against four persons, including former Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in terms of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. The other two are Staff Sergeant Ratnayake and Lieutenant Commander Chandana Prasad Hettiarachchi.

If these are actions by President Wickremesinghe’s much looked up to Western friends, then we can safely say Sri Lanka does not need enemies.

The last two had been earlier sanctioned by the US for committing serious crimes. Sri Lanka earned the wrath of a section of the international community (meaning the all-powerful Western bloc, led by the US, who audaciously claims world authority with rules they have created for their convenience) for the presidential pardon granted to Staff Sgt. Ratnayake, in 2020. Ratnayake was sentenced to death in 2015 for the killing of eight civilians, including three children.

The designation of the then Lt. Gen. Silva, as claimed by Blinken’s predecessor, Michael R. Pompeo, was based on human rights violations, documented by the UN and other organizations. Pompeo held Gen. Silva responsible for involvement in extrajudicial killings, through command responsibility, at the time he served as the GOC, of the 58th Division, during the final phase of the war, in 2009. Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful conclusion, in May 2009, to the chagrin of the West that wanted permanent chaos here till they achieved their regional goal of not only the breakup of Sri Lanka, but more importantly the disintegration of India, a future convenient nemesis like China.

Chaos after triumph over terrorism

The 15th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s victory over LTTE terrorism falls on May 18 – 16 days from today (May 03). The designation of Karannagoda couldn’t have taken place at a worse time as the country reels under the worst post-independence economic-political-social crisis. The latest development again underscored the pathetic failure on the part of Sri Lanka to address accountability issues. Sri Lanka cannot absolve itself of the responsibility for failing to bring investigations to a successful conclusion. The investigation into a spate of wartime adductions is a case in point.

While we do not condone any extra judicial killings, at the same time the world, but not the hegemonic West or the UNHRC, understands that under the haze of a brutal war, especially when we were fighting the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfit, the LTTE, as even conceded by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, no one could expect us to have played by Geneva rules. How is it that only weak countries, like Sri Lanka, is called to account for everything, while the West gets away with murder of innocents, virtually every day? Just look at what the Israelis are doing to the hapless Palestinian civilians, day in and day out. Are they children of a lesser God to suffer like this for no fault of theirs?

Having personally brought the abductions involving Navy personnel to the notice of police headquarters, in late May 2009, about 10 days after the successful conclusion of the war on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon, Karannagoda, finally ended up as the 14th suspect in the high profile case. The CID named one-time Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Tokyo as a suspect in Feb., 2019.

It would be pertinent to discuss Karannagoda’s complaint. Then the serving Navy chief dealt with his chief security officer, Lt. Commander Sampath Munasinghe (no longer in the service). Karannagoda sought police intervention following the recovery of four national identity cards, one passport, bearing the name of one of those whose national identity cards were found, one mobile phone, promissory notes worth over one million rupees and approximately 450 rounds of ammunition from Munasinghe’s cabin, in the headquarters. Karannagoda wanted to have Munasinghe investigated as regards the officer’s possible involvement with terrorists, primarily due to him being in possession of ammunition, not issued to him by the Navy.

There were so many twists and turns in this case, over the years, with police headquarters once wrongly, but deliberately, identifying Lt. Commander Chandana Hettiarachchi (still in service, now holding the rank of Commander) as Navy Sampath, an alias often used to identify Lt. Commander Sampath Munasinghe. At one point, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) questioned the rationale in wrongly identifying Lt. Commander Chandana Hettiarachchi.

Some of those who had been allegedly involved in the abduction cases were investigated over the assassination of Jaffna District TNA lawmaker Nadarajah Raviraj, a lawyer by profession, in Nov., 2006, a year after the killing of Joseph Pararajasingham, in Batticaloa. Ex-LTTE cadre Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, a key suspect in the case, now serves as State Minister for rural road development in the incumbent Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government. The Batticaloa High Court acquitted Chandrakanthan of all charges and released him in January 2021.

The US decision to designate Karannagoda seems quite sudden and done in haste. What really provoked the State Department to put out that statement? National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa’s shocking disclosure of US Ambassador Julie Chung’s bid to influence Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena to succeed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in July last year, may have rattled the lady, but that development certainly didn’t cause the designation of Karannagoda. Perhaps, the latest development in the wartime abduction cases sort of reflected a developing crisis within the government. Speaker Abeywardena hasn’t denied lawmaker Weerawansa’s claim that Ambassador Chung visited him, without prior notice, to prevail on him to succeed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, after the latter’s forced ouster, though the envoy called the NFF’s leader book, titled ‘Nine: The Hidden Story’ a ‘fiction.’

The tottering economy is certainly not the only major concern for the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa administration. The UNP leader, with just one member from his party in Parliament, is totally dependent on the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). The SLPP ensured Friday’s vote on the IMF loan, approved by a majority of 95 votes. 120 MPs backed the deal, whereas 25 opposed.

Foreign interventions

At the expense of protocol, foreign envoys do intervene in domestic issues. As we discuss the Karannagoda affair, the writer would like to remind how former US Ambassador Patricia Butenis intervened on behalf of top Navy officer Travis Sinniah with the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Butenis secured government approval to have him released from the Navy in July 2011 at a time the Rajapaksas were firmly in control. But, early retirement didn’t prevent Sinniah’s return as the Commander, in August 2016, though his resignation lasted just three months. Similarly, Maj. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake was brought back from retirement to serve as the Army Commander and received the command in 2017.

Did Sinniah earn the wrath of the powers that be for opposing the acquisition of a frigate from Russia, nine years after the end of the war? The then government, both in and outside Parliament, engaged in a desperate bid to justify the acquisition of an expensive vessel. So much so that the then State Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena likened the acquisition of the expensive vessel to the purchase of a BMW, at the price of a Toyota.

Let us get back to the Navy abductions case. It attracted the attention of the UN. At the end of his visit to Colombo, in July 2017, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism, Ben Emmerson, referred to the case in hand at a media briefing at the UN compound in Colombo. The writer was among those invited to cover Emmerson’s briefing at the UN compound in Colombo.

Let me reproduce the relevant paragraph verbatim: “During the Special Rapporteur’s visit, the Chief of the Army, Mahesh Senanayake, made a public commitment to ensure that members of the armed forces, who had committed crimes, would be brought to justice; a senior Naval Commander was arrested for his alleged involvement in the disappearance of 11 people during the closing stages of the conflict, and the Special Rapporteur was assured by the Attorney General that if and when criminal allegations against the military finally reach his office, they will be prosecuted with the full force of the law. The Attorney General recognized that if Sri Lanka was to achieve lasting peace, then its law enforcement institutions must gain the confidence of all sectors of society, including the Tamil and Muslim minorities.

“But these indications fall far short of Sri Lanka’s international commitment to achieve a lasting and just solution to its underlying problems, for the benefit of all its communities, to establish a meaningful system of transitional justice that is governed by the principles of equality and accountability, and to put in place essential and urgently needed reform of the security sector.”

The Naval Commander, Emmerson referred to, was the then Commodore D.K. P. Dassanayake, who was taken in just before Emmerson’s arrival here. Since then Dassanayake has retired, having received the rank of Rear Admiral.

In the run-up to the then Army Chief Sarath Fonseka’s acrimonious public breakup with the Rajapaksas, the Navy abductions case caused quite a stir with some of those who had been under investigation making wild claims, including an alleged and unsubstantiated assassination attempt on the life of Fonseka.

Had they committed atrocities they should certainly be subject to the normal law of the land. They should face the consequences for their actions. Uniforms do not give license for those who wear them to carry out torture, abductions or extra-judicial killings.

Had the Mahinda Rajapaksa government ensured proper and speedy investigations, at least after the UNSG Panel of Experts (PoE), released its damning report on Sri Lanka, in March 2011, the Navy abduction case could have been addressed speedily.

One of the most puzzling questions is why even former internationally distinguished law Professor, like G.L. Peiris, did not bother to properly answer issues raised against Sri Lanka when he served as the External Affairs Minister of the country, especially during much of the relevant post-war periods.

Unfortunately, those who had been in power lacked political courage to do so. Navy leadership, too, never paid sufficient attention. Having plunged post-war Sri Lanka into the worst political-economic-social crisis, those who exercised political power never wanted to go the whole hog. Political interference, over the years, appeared to have impaired the investigation to such an extent, progress seemed to have been unlikely. But the sudden US designation of Karanngoda appeared to have somewhat shaken the establishment, at least a section of it.

Sri Lanka marks the 15th anniversary of her greatest triumph – eradication in the battlefield of an enemy Western powers and India believed impossible to achieve, later this month, in a state of anxiety.

In the absence of a cohesive strategy, Sri Lanka failed to recognize and counter the threat on Sri Lanka’s unitary status that emerged after the eradication of the LTTE’s conventional fighting power. Those who couldn’t stomach the LTTE’s eradication are now working overtime to push their agenda. They seem quite successful in cornering bankrupt Sri Lanka, ripped apart by utterly corrupt, reckless and irresponsible petty party politics.