Detention of Rohana Wijeweera at Magazine Prison


Edither G. Perera

Retired Superintendent of Prison

A couple of months prior to the JVP insurrection in April 1971, Rohana Wijeweera, was arrested by the police in the jungles of Ampara while he was having a meeting with some other JVP leaders. He was brought to the Batticaloa Prison and thereafter transferred to Jaffna Prison.

JVP had planned to rescue Rohana from the Jaffna Prison during the insurrection. This onerous task was entrusted to some of the supporters who were students of the Moratuwa University. About 30-40 undergrads left for Jaffna on the night of April 4, 1971. They succeeded in gaining entry into the Jaffna Fort.

At night the gate keeper of the prison observed a few people on top of the roof of the prison. He promptly informed the Superintendent of the situation. The superintendent alerted the police and army. They quickly entered the prison premises opened fire, killed majority of the students and arrested the survivors. The students had no way of escaping because they were trapped inside the Fort. They were sitting ducks. The army and the police thus thwarted their attempt to rescue Rohana from Jaffna Prison.

Subsequently, Rohana was brought to the Colombo Fort the dual purpose of ensuring his security and being produced before the Criminal Justice Commission. He was located in one of the ‘P’ Cells, the most secure cells in the Sri Lankan prisons.

The army provided external security. Their barracks were within the premises and they manned the turrets at vantage points by the prison wall. The security on the eastern side had to be strengthened. This is the rear of the prison. The JVP leader of Wanathamulla was also held in the prison.

During this period the Magazine Prison was exclusively for insurgents, especially the hard cores ones. There were about 100 Buddhist priests brought from various temples from all parts of the country. A few were brought without robes and we got down robes from their respective temples. Their meals had to be given before twelve noon, There were abut 2,000 insurgents in the prison.

Younger brother of Rohana and Prins Gunasekara visited him occasionally. Bala Tampoe visited him, a couple of months before he was released. Mrs. Mallika de Mel wife of Mr. Ronnie de Mel visited him with his mothers; she told Rohana that after his release, he should work with them. Rohana smiled, but there was no response from him.

The medical officers of the prison hospital diagnosed Rohana with ischaemic heart condition and recommended that he be examined by a cardiologist. I wrote to the Medical Superintendent with a copy to the Commissioner and invited attention once a week. However, there was no response from the Medical Superintendent and a question was raised by an MP in Parliament in regard to the medical treatment for Rohana. Minister of Justice Felix Dias Bandaranaike checked from the Commissioner and he in turn questioned me. When I explained the situation the Commissioner realised that the ball was in the court of the Medical Superintendent. The following day itself a medical specialist examined Rohana and, thereafter, he was taken to the General Hospital under a heavy armed escort.

Rohana was preoccupied with reading and writing and also preparing the defence in his case. At the end of the CJC trial he was commended by Justice H. N. G. Fernando in regard to the manner in which he conducted his defence. He told me that he had been to the Lumumbo University to study medicine, but he did political science as well. He said that of his colleagues from various countries, due to political involvement, one third had been killed, one third incarcerated and only one third of them were alive. I wonder whether he had a premonition as regards the fate awaiting him.

Rohana was a good organiser, skillful planner of strategy and great motivator. His five lectures lured youth into joining his party. He was no frontline fighter unlike Sanath of Kegalle, Jayasinghe of Elpitiya or Munasinghe of Deniyaya. He was well disciplined and never created any problems to affect the good order and discipline of the prison.

After conviction by the CJC, those inmates had to work like other normal prisoners. A tailor party was organised for them to work. They stitched officers’ uniforms and prisoners clothes. A production register was maintained to ensure that every individual carried out the stipulated quota of production. Two inmates were exempted from work, because they were given simple imprisonment sentenced by the CJC, Victor Ivan due to some physical disability and Osman Silva of Wanathamulla who had sustained serious injuries after arrest. They were employed in jail service work.

On November 2, 1977 Mr. Delgoda, the Commissioner of Prison telephoned around 11.00 a.m. requesting me to call over at his office. When I went, Secretary Minister of Justice, Mr. Parinda Ranasinghe was present and he had brought the release order of all the JVP insurgents convicted by the CJC. I was briefed to release Rohana without any publicity to avoid crowds gathering at the prison premises and before an announcement was made in Parliament by the Prime Minister Mr. J. R. Jayewardene about 2.00 pm. I returned to the prison and took precautions to avoid publicity and asked Rohana to get ready to be released. He inquired from me whether the others would be released as well and requested me to inform them, too. He went in a Taxi to the Mercantile Union Head Office.

Thereafter 124 JVP insurgents convicted by CJC were released.

I had to take precautions not to release those convicted by the High Court.

I vividly recollect that day, because it was All Saints Day. My beloved father passed away on October 26, 1957 and every year my family, visited his grave at burial grounds of the Church of Holy Emmanel at Moratuwa for a prayer, light candles and spread some flowers on the grave. Despite the delay due to official responsibilities and inclement weather on this day we visited the grave around 8.00 p.m.

Following the communal riots in 1983, the JVP was proscribed and Rohana went underground. It baffles me how he evaded arrest for such a long period even though he resided at Ulapone. Nevertheless, after arrest he should not have been killed. Instead, he could have been incarcerated.

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