The drama behind the arrest of Sepala Eknayake

Edither G. Perera's interesting article on Sepala Ekanayake appearing in the Saturday Magazine Supplement of the Island of 17th May was perhaps to mainly give an insight into the behaviour of the man when he was in the custody of the prisons.

However, Edither Perera's introduction to his article briefly describing the hijack and particularly his assertion that the Sri Lanka Ambassador in Thailand met Sepala in the Aircraft and made two promises to him viz. 1. To get down his family to Sri Lanka and, 2. That no punitive action would be taken against him for this incident, has given rise to a highly controversial picture regarding the action taken by the government of the day.

Mrs. Manel Abeysekera Clarifies

Ms. Manel Abeysekera the highly accomplished most senior career woman diplomat, our Ambassador in Thailand at the time, writing to The Island under the caption - 'Sepala Ekanayake Episode : A clarification' has categorically denied having made any promises to Sepala Ekanayake. She had also stated that he had made three demands:

01. To have his son brought to him

02. To be given US $ 300,000/= for him to distribute among his collaborators &

03. That all the passengers be allowed to disembark without security checks.

All the above demands had apparently been met. But Ms. Abeysekera does not say who gave the money and how the money was obtained. Nor has anything been said about the "collaborators".

Ms. Abeysekera has also said that the Sri Lanka Foreign Secretary had authorized her to put him on board the Air Lanka flight to Colombo. She had told the Foreign Secretary about the large amount of money that Sepala was carrying with him. No mention has been made about the wife and child.

Sepala Ekanayake arrived in Sri Lanka with his wife and child to a virtual hero's welcome in the early hours of 2nd July, 1982 They were driven straight into the Hotel Ceylon Inter- Continental where they had been checked in by the receptionist on duty Anil Udawatte to Room No; 730. Sepala Ekanayake and family had been cleared by the Immigration desk and the Customs had cleared their baggage and money including the US $ 300,000/= "ransom money".

The fact of the matter is that Sepala Ekanayake was allowed to come into the country by the authorities as a free man after having hijacked a passenger plane, held the crew and passengers hostage and extorted a ransom of US $ 300000/=. The plane belonged to Alitalia of the Italian government and the offence took place in Thailand. The prime responsibility to deal with the hijack situation rested with the Thai authorities. The Sri Lanka Ambassador and the Sri Lanka foreign office should have played only a supporting role in the negotiation process and the freeing of the hostages. Had the Thai Aviation Security officials been allowed to negotiate and had our Ambassador not taken upon herself a responsibility which was not hers, merely because Sepala Ekanayake was a Sri Lankan, the latter would not have risked death but meekly surrendered. The Thai government would have dealt with the case thereafter. Obviously there had been a serious breakdown in communications between the Sri Lanka Ambassador and the Foreign Office in Colombo.

A Problem for the Foreign Ministry

By the afternoon of 2nd July the story of the hijacking of Alitalia Flight No: AZ 1790 of 29th June in Bangkok, taking hostage of the crew & passengers and also obtaining a ransom of US $ 300,000/= for the release of the hostages and the aircraft had become world news. The Sri Lanka government was being condemned for harbouring an international criminal and the violation of the International Air Traffic Agreement (IATA).

By about 8.00 p.m. on the 2nd July the Foreign Ministry had virtually got into a panic. The genial Foreign Minister Mr. A. C. Shaul Hamid was in conference with all his senior officials and legal advisors including the Secretary Foreign Affairs & the Director of Civil Aviation. The Minister's brother Mr. Nuhuman was also present. Animated discussions were taking place at Lightservice House the official residence of the Foreign Minister. The Minister was more engaged in telephone conversations with his counterparts abroad, foreign embassies in Sri Lanka and the President himself. As Daya Gamage in his letter to The Island of 22nd May states it is very likely that the US authorities would have adopted a hard line and threatened that it would declare Sri Lanka a country in the category of Libya as regards hijacking.

But Daya Gamage's claim that it was the US threat that galvanized the Sri Lanka Government into action is somewhat exaggerated as will be seen clearly as this story unfolds. In his letter he states; "When the US Embassy took this decision, (to declare Sri Lanka an 'international pariah in a manner that the US had dealt with Libya) a week or two had already passed - It was the American government that forced the government of Sri Lanka to rise from its slumber and face reality. This is the unknown part of the Sepala Ekanayake episode"

On the contrary, the arrest of Sepala Ekanayake took place on the 3rd July at 5.00 p.m. in Galle barely 36 hours after he stepped on Sri Lanka soil. The wheels of the law were set in motion and international tension was defused.

The Role of the Sri Lanka Police.

The role that the Sri Lanka Police played is the really unknown part of the Sepala Ekanayake episode. I was the Deputy Inspector General of Police (Metropolitan) at the time. The Metropolitan Range consisted of the Police Divisions of Colombo City, the Nugegoda Div, the Mt. Lavinia Div, the Peliyagoda Div, the Negombo Div. the Crime Detective Div, and the Fraud Bureau. This was a time when DIG's acted independently with full authority and responsibility. There was no necessity for the IGP or the Secretary Defence to supervise them or give them orders; and seldom did they seek the assistance of the Attorney General's Dept. Above all; the DIG's were held in high esteem and respect by the President and Cabinet of ministers.

The senior officers under me in the Metropolitan Range were all accomplished, capable men with outstanding records of service. Some of the names that come to my mind are Douglas Ranmuthugala, Henry Silva, A. C. A. Gafoor, H. Y. de Silva, Herbie Jayasuriya, Amarakoon and Serpanchy. They were all senior Supdt's of Police. The Officers-in-charge were no different. All of them which included officers like Daya Jayasundara, Kehelgamuwa, George Nicholas, Nimal Gunatilleke, Nimal Mahagamage, Norman Abeysinghe, Hema Dias, Dharmaratne, Ananda Hettiarachchi and Mahanayake rose rapidly in the service to shoulder higher responsibilities.

Police discussions with the Foreign Minister

On 2nd July, at about 9.00 p.m., when the conference was going on in the Foreign Minister's house, I received a telephone call from Mr. Hamid requesting me to come to Lightservice House. I was there in about 15 minutes. The minister was apologetic for pulling me out of the house at that time He made me sit with the other officials & typical of the man offered me a drink of Cognac. He then related to me the entire episode about the hijack & was frank about the predicament the government was in. This was the first time that the Sri Lanka Police was officially briefed about the crisis that had developed.

However, having had an inkling that the police will have to sooner or later bear the brunt of the consequences of whatever blunders that had been made resulting in his ability to move as a free man, I had instructed Chief Inspector George Nicholas the OIC Fort a very capable and intelligent officer to keep 'an eye on all the activities of Sepala Ekanayake, his movements, the persons coming to the hotel to see him, his manner of spending etc.

As a result of the observations made by C.I. Nicholas I was able to brief the Minister in detail eg. That he was occupying Room No. 730 with his wife & child, the large numbers including media men who were coming to see him [according to records at the reception the newsmen who made contact with him were Murray Dickson of Radio Australia, Rohan Pujapola of the Lankadeepa/Times, Jeffry Wijesinghe of the Observer/Silumina, Anton Edwards of Express Newspapers, Peramunatilleke of the Daily Mirror, London] and how he had made arrangements with the Bank of Ceylon, York Street to deposit his money.

I also gave the assurance to the Minister that Sepala Ekanayake was so well covered by C.I. Nicholas that he would not be able to leave the hotel to any destination without the knowledge of the police; and that the Police will be able to trace him wherever he goes. Mr. Hamid seemed visibly happy with the manner in which the police was acting. Amidst repeated telephone interruptions Mr. Hamid was deeply contemplating on what the next move should be. He was quite used to working late into the night. But time was running out.

The Italian Ambassador enters the scene

Finally at about 10.30 p.m. when all options seemed to have been exhausted, he turned to me and softly asked me, "Edward, why can't we arrest him ?" I then explained to the Minister that apart from the newspaper reports from which the Police had learnt the hijack story no complaint had been made by any aggrieved party. I also told him that Sepala Ekanayake had not committed a cognizable offence in Sri Lanka & that no anti hijacking laws have been formulated in Sri Lanka.

At this stage one of the legal officers present suggested that legislation be presented to Parliament immediately. Mr. Hamid reacted angrily "it will take a month of Sundays to get the laws into the Statute book What is worse is that the opposition will blast us for not presenting the legislation after being a signatory to IATA". .

I then told the Minister that if the police can have "some" complaint from an aggrieved party that will prima facie show that an offence has been committed, I am prepared to bear the responsibility and order his arrest. In the same breath I suggested that we get down the Italian Ambassador and request that he makes a statement as he represents the Italian government the owner of the Alitalia Airlines. A relieved Mr. Hamid walked up to the telephone muttering 'why has the fellow been silent all this while'. Replacing the receiver he announced that the Ambassador had agreed to come & requested me to do all the talking to him. Apparently Mr. Hamid wanted to give him a cold reception.

The Italian Ambassador arrived at 11.00 p.m. and having explained the situation I requested him to make a complaint to the Sri Lanka Police on behalf of the Italian government. He agreed and requested me to come to the Italian Embassy at 10.00 a.m. on the following day ; and that he would have a suitable statement ready after consulting his Minister in Rome. We broke up for the night in a definitely better frame of mind.

I went on the following day ie. 3rd July to the Italian Embassy then located at 586, Galle Road, Colombo 03 at the appointed time with Chief Inspector George Nicholas. Franco Micieli de Biase the Ambassador handed over to me a typewritten complaint on his official letter head.

This letter, a copy of which I still possess read as follows:

Colombo, 2nd July 1982

"Ambasciata d'Italia


N. 1508

The Inspector General of Police,

Police Headquarters,

Colombo 1

Dear Sir,

Acting on behalf of the Italian Government, I wish to lodge a complaint with the Sri Lanka Police Authorities that the Sri Lankan national Sepala Ekanayake, born on 30.6.1947 at Matara, has hijacked an airplane (Flight No. AZ 1790) of Itali's national airline ALITALIA on 29.6.82 in Bangkok, Thailand, taking hostage of the crew and passengers and subsequently extorted and obtained a ransom of 300,000 US $ from the Italian Government for the release of such hostages and the aircraft.

On behalf of the Government of Italy, I kindly request the Sri Lanka Police Authorities to take necessary action under law against said Sepala Ekanayake for the crime committed and for the return of 300,000 US $ to the Italian Government.

Thanking you,

Yours sincerely,


(Franco Micieli de Biase)

Italian Ambassador"

The Arrest completed

After I accepted this letter from the Ambassador, Chief Inspector Nicholas recorded his statement as follows:

Mr. Franco Micieli de Biase age 48 years, the Ambassador for Italy in Sri Lanka present and states: The written complaint handed over to Mr. Gunawardena DIG Metro on behalf of the government of Italy is shown to me and I admit that it is a true complaint made by me on behalf of the Italian government and it is under my signature.

I request the Sri Lanka government authorities to take action under the law in respect of this complaint. This is all. Sgd/- de Biase. Read over and acknowledged correct. I certify that I have recorded the statement of the above named faithfully and accurately sgd. G. Nicholas CI Police.

I ordered C. I. Nicholas to arrest Sepala Ekanayake without further delay & hand him over to the CID. However, when C.I. Nicholas went to the hotel Sepala Ekanayake had left the hotel with his wife and child and several others. He had paid the bill and checked out. They had left in two Hotel Corporation vehicles. The police who had been on surveillance duty had noted the numbers of the vehicles and also found out from the drivers that they were required to drive the passengers to Galle C.I. Nicholas had left to Galle forthwith.

The final information book entry made at the Fort Police Station by C.I. Nicholas reads as follows:

Date 3.7.82 Time 2245 Hrs.

I returned from Galle at 20.45 Hrs. in 29 Sri 7752 with PCC 15412, 3406 and 9103 and produced one suspect Sepala Ekanayake, his wife and child to ASP Mr. Jinasena together with the complaint of the Italian Ambassador and the statement recorded by me. The CID searched them and their car.

I took charge of the suspect at Galle at 1710 Hrs. - Sgd. G. Nicholas Cl.

Sepala Ekanayake had to be arrested in a lawful manner. The police had to do this after taking all possible precautions. The cool headed unruffled manner of Mr. Hamid helped me immensely to make the correct move at every turn. Had the police been pressurized to rush to arrest without the complaint of the Italian Ambassador the defence could have argued that the arrest was illegal.

The intelligent anticipation, high sense of devotion to duty, mature understanding, and the splendid co-operation extended to me by Chief Inspector Nicholas, whilst making my task lighter helped the Sri Lanka government in no small measure to get out of an embarrassing situation. Personally the culmination of events gave me much satisfaction as the Colombo Police had been able to make a positive contribution to the government’s damage control effort.

With the handing over of Sepala Ekanayake to the CID at 8.45 p.m. on 3 rd July the task of the Colombo Police and my responsibility ended. To my knowledge the CID carried out a successful investigation and Sepala Ekanayake was indicted and convicted under the anti- hijacking laws enacted with retroactive effect.

Sepala Ekanayake no terrorist

Sepala Ekanayake was by no means a terrorist. Daya Gamage's bosses, probably with superficial advice, rushed to class Sepala Ekanayake's act with those of the Libyan terrorist skyjackers. The demands he made were no where near the demands made by international terrorists of the time. To my knowledge he is leading an honourable life today after serving a prison term. I recall that after the Welikada prison massacre of July 1983 a canard was spread by some interested parties that it was Sepala Ekanayake that led the Sinhala mob of prisoners to attack Kuttimany and others. There was no truth in this. If it was so Edither Perera would not have failed to mention it in his article of 17th May. From all reliable reports I had he was not arrogant, racial minded or prone to violence.

(I am grateful to retired Senior Supdt. of Police George Nicholas for assisting me with the records and factual information for the documentation of this little bit of history)

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