Initially published in The Sunday Leader on November 4, 2007
By Arthur Wamanan
I never expected that I would be taken to the infamous Fourth Floor of the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) just for dialing Enterprise Development Minister Mano Wijeratne’s mobile telephone on October 19 from my personal mobile telephone to obtain a simple comment with regard to his wife’s mobile phone bill.
Strangely I have been joking around that one of these days, there will be a white van in front of my house to whisk me away. My colleagues however did not find such comments funny, given my ethnicity and the kind of stories The Sunday Leader works on.
The last time I made that comment was on October 23, the day Minister Wijeratne made a statement in parliament against me. I was only half joking. A day later, a vehicle did come for me, not the dreaded white van but a blue CID jeep. I had no clue that within 48 hours, I would be transferred from a blue jeep to a Black Maria as well.
On Wednesday, October 24 around 4 pm, there was a police jeep at my gate. Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine that this would actually happen to me. I quickly informed my editor that there were some people at my gate. He told me to keep him informed of what happens exactly.
Such is the situation in our troubled land that I knew, here was something unavoidable.
I had to face it and so I walked up to the gate to be met by two persons who emerged from the blue jeep. They identified themselves as CID officials and wanted to check my mobile telephone bills. I invited them in.
“A call has been taken from your phone on October 19. Did you give the device to anyone else to use at anytime?” was the question. They did not say to whom I had made this call that galvanised the CID to come in search of me. My response was that no one else had used my mobile.
My mother was confused and continuously kept on asking whether there was any problem. “No. Everything is ok. We will be back in a few minutes,” the officers assured her. Then they went out of our compound for a while. The 15 minutes they were out seemed like eternity for I realised they were deciding my destiny. I waited outside my door for them to come back not knowing what was in store for me.
Bound for the Fourth Floor
I first thought that they would record my statement then and there at my residence and would not take me with them to the dreaded CID Headquarters in Fort.
Finally, after what seemed like ages, they came back and asked me to come to the CID Headquarters to record a statement. I called my editor again and told him of the CID’s demand. He advised me to inform them that since it was late in the day, I would come the following morning. He also said a lawyer would be sent to my place immediately.
Strangely enough, they did not tell me on what basis that they were taking me to record a statement. I refused to accompany them and as advised said I would come there the following morning.
The officers were insisting I come. They told me that it would take only two to three hours and that they would drop me home that night after completing the formalities. “Bring your mother along. It will be better as the SIM card of your mobile telephone is registered under her name,” CID OIC Chandana de Silva told me.
When my mother asked whether there actually was a serious problem they said there was a little problem. (Podi gataluwak).
It was a sheer nightmare for me from that moment on. Should I trust them and go with them? Would I be safe? On no account did I want my mother accompanying me for she was already in a state of fright.
As I walked up to the gate, I saw that a Sirasa TV cameraman had arrived. It seemed his presence irked the CID officials. OIC de Silva asked me to tell the cameraman to stop filming.
“This is a very small issue and your future would be affected if there is undue publicity,” they warned me.
When I conveyed the message to the cameraman, he told the CID that he was instructed to cover the incident by his superiors and it was his duty to carry out the assignment.
An argument built up as the cameraman refused to leave the place without filming the unfolding scenario. I stood dazed, unable to comprehend that this was happening to me. However, the CID had the final say and waited patiently till the cameraman packed his camera and left the compound before putting me and my mother into the jeep.
My father also came at that time from office and was asked to follow the CID jeep in his car.
On the way, OIC Chandana De Silva said that my future would be ruined if the media created a big issue out of this trivial incident of recording my statement and told me that there was no necessity to inform my Editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge.
I said that I had to inform the Editor, as it was my duty and that I had done so. “He should know what is happening to me,” was my reply. The two CID officers were not pleased with what I had done and kept on saying that there really was no need to inform my Editor.
Nothing but the truth
In the meantime, my Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge instructed me to tell the absolute truth without fear, when recording my statement. He said a lawyer was already on the way to the CID and not to fear since the truth was on our side.
With me informing the CID my Editor was already in the know of what was happening, the CID officials planned to shift me to my father’s car as they thought there could be more TV crews near the CID entrance. However my father had deviated from the route to pick one of his friends to accompany him and since his mobile was switched off they could not reach him to make the switch.
As we went into the CID building, my mother and I were immediately taken to the Fourth Floor while my father who arrived a few minutes later remained downstairs.
We waited for more than a couple of hours and finally my mother was asked to leave the room. “We will send your son once we record his statement,” the OIC said.
He asked me what kind of stories I had worked on that particular day and wanted to know whom I had called. In turn, I asked them whether they needed to know anything in particular. I did not know how to answer these questions, as they were not direct and were vague and seemingly innocent.
Call to Wijeratne
I told them whom I had called regarding stories on October 19 and also mentioned the call made to Minister Wijeratne seeking a clarification and a comment.
Then began the real questioning. By this time it was pretty evident why they had taken me in though at no point did they tell me on what basis my statement was to be recorded. The time now was 7.25 pm.
I asked them whether I could give my statement in Tamil or English, the two languages I am more conversant in. “You know Sinhala no? Record it in Sinhala,” de Silva instructed.
The OIC took his own time, going to the toilet, drinking water and then going for a walk among other things. In between he also recorded my statement, part by part. I of course was almost dehydrated.
At around midnight, one SP Amarasinghe walked into the room and I was asked to go out. They had a chat for about 15 minutes and informed me that I could not be released as the media had ‘sensationalised’ my issue.
“I told you not to inform anyone. See, they have shown our vehicle and shown me on TV. It has tarnished our image,” accused the OIC.
My parents were also asked to leave the place and come back with the documents used by me for Minister Wijeratne’s story.
The PC who was typing my statement was there for company and seemed a friendly type. However, I could not trust anyone. Therefore, I decided to mind my own business and to be doubly careful in what I said, in the absence of the OIC.
Finally, the statement was recorded and the time was around 3.30 in the morning. I was suffering from fatigue, still unable to understand there was so much of drama in my life and in one single day.
Then they brought me chicken koththu and Coca Cola. OIC de Silva kept on saying, “We are not torturing you or harming you. Do not tarnish our image.” They also recorded that I was given koththu and Coke at the bottom of my statement.
While they were talking about my alleged attempts to tarnish their image, here I was, on the infamous Fourth Floor, not knowing why I was arrested and for how long they were going to keep me there. The stories I heard about this particular floor kept flooding my memory. Forget the torture the OIC mentioned. The fact that I was there not knowing what was going to happen to me was enough torture.
Besides worrying about my safety, I was worried about my parents. I was particularly worried because my mother was to be admitted to hospital and undergo surgery the following day. I have only one brother who is studying overseas and there was no one else to run around attending to family matters other than me.
I shared my koththu and Coke with the PC, for food was the last thing on my mind. The other reason was the fact that I did not trust them.
The PC read out my statement as I couldn’t read Sinhala that quickly. I had to stop him at regular intervals and ask him the meaning of certain words. Some words I was hearing for the first time.
They gave me a bed with the other inmates on the Fourth Floor at around 4.00 am. I just couldn’t sleep. I could hear my heart beat as I was lying on the bed. I did not know what was going on in the outside world and felt cut off and my future uncertain but it certainly looked bleak. I also did not know what the day would bring and feared the worst. I was not allowed to even pass a message to my parents on my circumstances other than tell my father to get the documents relating to Minister Wijeratne’s wife’s phone bill from my immediate desk head, Dilrukshi Handunnetti and bring it to the CID.
After trying to sleep for two hours, I was disturbed by somewhat of a young person who inquired as to who I was. I thought he was one of the CID officials and thought he was there to ask further irrelevant questions.
It turned out that he was an old Thomian as well.
“I’m Arthur Wamanan from The Sunday Leader newspaper. I was brought here for questioning regarding a newspaper article I had written,” I said.
“Oh, I’m former Squadron Leader Nishantha Gajanayake,” said he. I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears. I remembered the many articles published in The Sunday Leader identifying him as being a king pin in the abduction for extortion drama that gripped Colombo. And here he was, standing right in front of me!
‘No more sleep for me,’ I thought as I sat bolt upright. My brain was working so rapidly, as I tried to take in what he was saying. Thankfully, he was quite friendly and showed a streak of sympathy for me. He said many things to me at that time relating to his issue which unfortunately I cannot divulge because it was off the record.
At daybreak, the same CID officers came into my room and took down my name in Sinhala. They also took me for fingerprinting and palm impressions.
‘What am I? A criminal?’ I thought to myself. I realised that from that day onwards, my life would never be the same.
At this point, the other inmates and some of the CID officials told me that I was arrested and not taken in for a statement as told to me. I kept on asking them, “You’re sure that nothing will happen to me right?”
The OIC next called me into his room and wanted me to contact my supervising editor Dilrukshi Handunnetti who provided me with the information to write the news story that brought me to the CID headquarters. “Ask her to bring the relevant documents and come here fast. Also tell her to bring your mother with her and make it fast,” the OIC instructed.
SP Abeysinghe who was also there wanted to know who had sent my mother back the night before without recording her statement. “The OIC,” was my reply. The SP also recorded my statement in Sinhala.
The OIC kept my mobile in his possession. I was not allowed to answer any calls except speak to Dilrukshi to come with the documents.
I was next taken to the JMO and later in the day to the Acting Magistrate Thaheer Lafir since Thursday was a Poya holiday. All along, I felt miserable that something so unfortunate has happened to me, altering my life in a way I never imagined simply over a telephone call made to a minister to give him an opportunity to tell his side of the story we were working on.
On the way to the Magistrate’s residence, OIC Chandana de Silva assured me that they would make every effort to release me. However, they turned the tables on me upon arriving at the Additional Magistrate’s home and requested they be permitted to remand me for a period of 14 days. Attorneys Jeevantha Jayatileke and Namal Perera were also there by that time to look after my interests.
Luckily for me, the Additional Magistrate only allowed me to be remanded for one more night until the permanent magistrate returned to hear my case.
My father was present along with our lawyers. But I was not even allowed to talk to him.
I was then taken to the Mount Lavinia Court premises to be handed over to the Magazine Prison officials.
On the way, the OIC said that the CID would tell the courts the following day that the media was trying to sensationalise my issue and create tension among the public. “You can go if the media does not sensationalise. But, we will be forced to remand you if the media publicises it,” he said.
I remained silent, as I could not say anything but considered this a threat of sorts.
In the court premises, I was asked to remain seated until the prison bus, the infamous Black Maria arrived. The officials who first wanted me to be manacled with other suspects, decided against it.
I was handcuffed, but not with other people.
I’ve seen jail scenes and prison shots only in Tamil and Hollywood movies. I never dreamt that I would be in one, especially having done no wrong.
However, I was kept in D-Ward also known as the Palliya Wattuwa with more than 40 suspects. Their alleged crimes ranged from drug trafficking to possessing cannabis.
The richest person and the poorest person were sharing the same room for once. They all seemed to be a happy bunch despite the situation. I felt completely cut off from that brotherhood, feeling dazed, my life so unreal all at once.
The cell, I soon learned was named Palliya Wattuwa as it had a prayer hall for the Muslims adjoining the cell.
Though they were much older than me, being with them reminded me of my school days at S. Thomas’ Prep. and S. Thomas’ College and the many hours spent with my friends.
The inmates were friendly towards me, as they had already seen me on TV the previous day.
Yes, the cell had a TV set. The inmates were either watching soaps on Shakthi or Sirasa TV or following the Sirasa Super Star like most others did.
Some told me their life stories and some went further and asked me to publish their life stories in the newspaper as well. That I thought would become possible only if I make it out. At that moment, I wasn’t too sure, given the turn of events.
There was one person who told me “Son, we hope and pray that you be granted bail tomorrow (Friday). However, if it does not happen, come back here so that you can stay for at least seven days and assess the situation within the prison.”
For the first time, I forgot my family momentarily. We played carrom and drank tea. The inmates gave me a T-shirt and a pair of shorts.
They told me that I had to wake up at least by 5.30 next morning to get ready to go to courts.
After a dinner of rice, fried fish and vegetables, I was offered a mattress and a pillow.
I could not sleep as the inmates were continuously playing and shouting like small children, well past midnight.
All were asleep at around 3.30 am. Those who had been there for a long time had mattresses. The new inmates slept in a different pattern where one person’s head was next to the other person’s feet. Those who did not get any space had to sleep standing.
On Friday morning, I got ready to go to courts with the other inmates. I was not hoping for anything as I left the prison premises. There was a dull ache inside me, and I was mentally ready to come back to the Magazine prison for 14 days. It all seemed hopeless at that moment.
After a quick breakfast of poorly baked bread and pol sambol, I was handcuffed with another person and was pushed into the Black Maria. The journey from the prison to the courts was the worst bus journey I’ve ever had. More than 80 handcuffed persons were huddled together inside a bus meant for only 40. I felt dehydrated and almost fainted inside the bus.
Some of the suspects, who were used to this started joking that they would also be famous by standing together with me. “My face will also be in News 1st tonight,” joked one of them.
The presence of my many colleagues and friends in court touched me. My Editor who was there gave me courage by saying they will definitely get me out and not to be discouraged. I waited until my case was called and walked like a zombie towards the dock. I did not hear anything. I was in a daze and nothing registered.
I only saw my mother, my relations and my friends. Their faces registered but something felt dead inside. I saw, just as I was, those who loved me were waiting nervously for the verdict.
I was hungry and sleepy for the first time since I was arrested. In fact I felt like simply sitting on the dock itself as legal arguments flew around me. I should have been interested. But I was too dazed to follow what was happening around me. I saw my Senior Attorney Nalin Ladduwahetty making strong submissions on my behalf but it all flew over me given my frame of mind.
I got to know that I was granted bail, not when the judge said it, but when my friends gave me the thumbs up from their different corners. My Editor too walked up to the dock and gave me the good news. I wanted to rush outside and hug all my friends, to say I am finally free, but I had to wait for the formalities to be completed.
At the end of the three-day ordeal, I learnt that I had earned true friends; those who stuck to me and stood by me and more importantly by my family during the troubled times. Among them was the office father figure Sandanam. He treated me like a son and little did I know that it was to be our final meeting, for two days later he left this world.
The media in particular came to my defence in large numbers and extended their solidarity in more ways than one. Veteran media activists like Sunanda Deshapriya, Poddala Jayantha and many more were in court to show their solidarity that remains my reward. And they give me the strength to carry on.