|The crime reporter who defied the tough cop
It was in the fate sixties. I was kicking my heels at the observer news desk for a story, when I had a call from M. Sanmugam, assistant superintendent of police, Mount Lavinia. Some remand prisoners had escaped from the dock at the Colombo South Magistrates Court. An immediate police chase led to the capture of the escapees, as they scrambled down the Galkissa beach.
Sanmugams call was to tell me that Police Sgt. Banda who had overpowered the armed gang-leader was available for an interview. He also said the re-arrested men would be held at the police station until my arrival there.
Driver Jayatissa, the younger brother of the better-known driver, Ariyaratne, was quick with the old Volkswagen at the Lake House entrance to drive photographer Vinitha Nanayakkara and me to Mt. Lavinia. I first had a chat with the apprehended men chained in the police cell, after which, Sanmugam arranged a private room for my interview with Sgt. Banda.
While the interview was in progress, police had arrested some Maradana thugs who had assisted the remand prisoners escape from the court dock. The Maradana madaviyo were hustled out of the black police van to a room where they were given what in police jargon was "native treatment".
In my career as a crime reporter, Ive known of the many methods of police brutality towards offenders in their custody. I know of men being forced to inhale red hot chilli powder; of men hanged by their legs and flogged on the soles of their feet with rubber hose; of finger nails plucked cut of the flesh; and of mens testicles slammed shut in police station desk-drawers. I did not actually see the police assault. But the agonizing yells I heard from men being tortured by their captors at the Mount Lavinia police station that day, is something that sends shivers down my spine to this day.
Vinitha Nanayakkara fainted and I had to ask Jayatissa to drive her back while I finished my job. Back at the Observer news desk, I hastily hammered at the old typewriter the story of Sgt. Banda with no reference to the police assault. Having handed in my story at the subs-desk, I told Denzil about what had transpired at the police station. I told him I had been privy to the scene only because I was at the police station on the invitation of Sanmugam and that my conscience did not allow me to write that story.
Denzil was furious. He said a news reporters first duty was to bring to the public attention incidents of such nature. I was, at the time, in addition to my daily crime reporting, writing a weekly column on The Beat. I told Denzil I would include the story in my column. He was fuming. No, he said. I couldnt bury a story of such importance in a column. It was a special news item a scoop.
I called Sanmugam and explained my predicament to him. A graduate of the Peradeniya University who joined the gazetted ranks of the police as an ASP, Sanmugam was a charming man, a good friend, and a dependable contact of mine. He was an understanding man. "Just as much as I have a job to do," he told me on the phone, "you have a job too". I responded by saying that the best I could do was that Id write the assault-story, but would not identify the police station.
As expected, my story was the Page One Lead of the evening Observer. The next day, I was at the Katunayake airport to cover Prime Minister Dudley Senanayakes departure for Malaysia where he was due for talks with Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman. The Inspector-General of Police, Eleric Abeygoonewardene, was in personal attendance at the airport. After the Prime Minister had taken off, the IGP told me hed seen the Observer story and that he would be sending a police officer to get a statement from me.
Back at the observer editorial office, I told Denzil of the Katunayake incident, saying I would, under no circumstances, reveal the identity of the police station where the assault had taken place. That was up to me, Denzil graciously said.
A senior superintendent of police called at Lake House and I gave him a statement relating to the facts of the police assault. I refused to name the station, though the police officer sternly cautioned me of what the consequences to me could be. To my mind, exposing the police assault would serve the cause of justice. Let the police find out who the culprits were and make their own conclusions, which indeed, they did.
It so happened that among the police officers identified as responsible for the brutal assault was a close kinsman of the IGP himself. That relationship however, did not deter the IGP from taking stern disciplinary action against all those involved, including his relative.
I have known and worked with Abeygoonewardenes predecessor, John Attygalle and his successor, Stanley Senanayake both, honourable men. Eleric Abeygoonewardene was one of the finest officers it was my good fortune to know. He would have his home phone line open for me every morning at seven. Invariably, I was first with the crime news. He and I enjoyed a healthy personal and professional relationship based on mutual trust and understanding. And, both of us subscribed to the theory of confidentiality.
Abeygoonewardene introduced weekly police-press conferences where we had frank and open discussions about mutual working problems. Emphasis was placed on the need for good police-press relations. We debated on the need for give-and-take between the police and the press.
After the Mount Lavinia police station incident, the subject of sources of information came up at one of those weekly conferences. The IGP did not look me direct in the face. But the reference to me was obvious. "It is hard" he said, "for the police to do their job when independent witnesses are not prepared to come forward".
Long after I had left the country for Canada, Eleric Abeygoonewardene and I remained friends. Officers of his calibre are rare. His sad demise a few years ago has created a vacuum in police ranks that may be hard to fill.
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