"I am unaware of even a suspicion that Thajudeen was tortured"- JMO


Professor Ananda Samarasekera, former Chief Judicial Medical Officer, Colombo

by Darshanie Ratnawalli

Sri Lankan star ruggerite Wasim Thajudeen breathed his last inside a burning vehicle. Or did he? If he had died inside such an enclosed space, which was burning and into which Carbon Monoxide was being released as a result of the ongoing partial combustion, his body should bear evidence of CO toxicity. The Judicial Medical Officer did indeed find evidence of CO toxicity during the post mortem examination. He routinely sent a blood sample to the Government Analyst to test for CO. The GA failed to find CO. This single contradiction between the two reports was treated as a major breakthrough.

On February 26, 2015, the Police media spokesman went to the extent of naming CO inhalation as the suspicious circumstance in this death and announced they were handing over the investigations to the CID. The CID in turn appeared unable to give up the preoccupation with the ‘CO contradiction’. In June 2015 they were still displaying this red herring before the Magisterial Inquiry.

"As the analyst’s report and the postmortem report on the death of ruggeritie Wasim Thajudeen who died mysteriously inside a car appeared to be contradictory, there was suspicion regarding these reports, the CID informed Colombo additional Magistrate Nishantha Peiris.", announced one news report neutrally. "The CID said the government analyst’s report and the postmortem report on the death of the ruggerite appeared to be contradictory and that the death was not an accident but murder," announced another more sensationally.

In reality the Carbon Monoxide contradiction is the least suspicious and the most easily explained feature of the case. It has been clearly explained by the Chief JMO in his report, which renders evidence for CO inhalation superfluous by confirming other features attending death occurring in an enclosed burning space. Wasim Thajudeen inhaled smoke prior to his death. This has been confirmed by laboratory tests showing changes in his air passage. The JMO report also confirms, based on the evidence of vital signs at the sites of his injuries, that Wasim Thajudeen suffered burns which were definitely ante mortem (sustained before death). It gets worse. According to news reports the CID seems to have interpreted the injuries on Wasim Thajudeen as resulting from torture.

This is ultra vires the JMO report. Despite the magisterial inquiry being a fact finding mission, the JMO has not been consulted or questioned on the sustainability of the torture interpretation. "Nobody has told me about even a suspicion of torture…the word torture has not been mentioned to date" declares Professor Ananda Samarasekera, former Chief Judicial Medical Officer, Colombo, who conducted the post mortem investigations on the body of the deceased. In this curious fact finding mission into the death of Wasim Thajudeen no case conferences or any sort of interactions have taken place between the relevant parties to the investigation, no probing questions of the type ‘could this injury been caused by this sort of action or weapon?’ have been put to the Chief JMO, no explanations about any point in his reports have been sought from him.

Instead there has been a curious veil of misinformation thrown over the media. "After initially ruling Thajudeen’s death an accident, police have now cited post-mortem reports saying his body had torture marks, as well as broken teeth and bones" declared BBC News on August 10. "How can they cite what I haven’t said?" asks Professor Samarasekera. The existing JMO report on the death of the ruggerite does not express an opinion about the final causative agent of the death. "I am not ruling out accident. I am not confirming it either. The same with homicide. It’s a fifty-fifty situation," Professor Samarasekera told The Sunday Island in a candid interview where he affirmed his commitment towards not creating any prejudice towards the ongoing investigation. Here are excerpts.

Q- So are these reports correct?

A- Which reports?

Q- Wikipedia- "According to the police the Judicial Medical Officer (JMO) had found the death to be suspicious"!

A- No I have never used the word suspicious in my report.

Q- Daily News February 27, 2015 directly quoting A.S. P Ajith Rohana; - "The Judicial Medical Officer has confirmed that the death is suspicious and it was not due to an accident, he said."

A- I have never said that it was not due to an accident. Neither have I said it was due to an accident. I have given the cause of death. Nowhere in my report submitted to courts have I mentioned the words, natural, accidental, mysterious or murder. If I do that I will be infringing into the area of the magistrate. It will be prejudicial.

Q- In early 2015 when the negative CO finding of the Government Analyst (GA) became known to the media, there was a paradigm shift in the perception of this case. I remember thinking, how can absence of CO make such a huge difference?

A- I don’t know. You have to ask from those people who came to such conclusions. There’s no real conflict between the GA’s report and my finding. We can explain why it is a negative report.

Q- Your explanation for GA’s negative CO report is because it’s burnt blood and CO evaporates easily …

A- And also the time duration. Just because you get a negative report after analysis by GA after one year does not rule out my post mortem evidence of CO toxicity. Also a negative CO report is inexplicable in a person living in an urban environment. Anyone, you or me included, will have up to 5% of CO in the blood due to air pollution.

Q- The evidence of CO toxicity you observed in your post mortem is not invalidated or rendered valueless by the GA not finding CO in the blood sample?

A- Exactly. CO analysis is routinely done when a death occurs in circumstances like this. If the report is positive, depending on the content of CO, it may be a supporting factor to my conclusions. But if it’s negative, if there are sufficient other evidence to conclude on the cause of death and about whether the person was alive during the fire, and if the reason for negative finding can be explained, then I can disregard the negative report.

Q- Even though you say that this issue is a minor matter, doesn’t the whole issue of accident or homicide hinge on whether the deceased inhaled CO or not?

A- Carbon Monoxide inhalation is just one parameter which we could use (if properly done, within the proper time) to conclude whether the burns on the body was ante-mortem (sustained before death) or post-mortem (sustained after death). It is the burning, the fire which releases CO. Whether this man was living during the fire can be determined by other factors.

Q- You have determined that?

A- Yes. I have said in my report that he was living during the fire. But the point is in a fire of this magnitude, the person maybe alive but disabled by injury or unconscious. He would be alive but not in a condition to walk around. But a living and breathing person would be exposed to fire. Breathing in such an environment will have certain effects on the body which would be detected at the post-mortem.

Q- You are saying there was a person living and breathing who was exposed to CO emissions?

A- CO was just one thing he was exposed to.

Q- Sunday Leader on July 19, 2015 quotes an anonymous CID source on why they have to favour the GA’s negative CO report over your positive finding- "We have to consider the Government Analyst’s report as the Narahenpita police investigation team had failed to follow the proper investigation procedure," sources said on conditions of anonymity". Why are they harping on Carbon Monoxide?

A- Sending a blood sample to the GA to test for CO was done for two reasons. One was to see whether he had died of CO toxicity. But he hadn’t. Because he had other injuries and the burns which were sufficient to cause death. Before he died of CO poisoning he could die of burning. The second reason for testing for CO is to determine whether the exposure to the fire or burning was ante-mortem or post mortem. That point also I was able to establish from other evidence.

Q- Can you outline such other evidence used to establish whether the burns were ante-mortem or post-mortem?

A- In the burning sites (on the body), there’s a thing called vital signs that are seen if it is ante-mortem. So in some of the main injuries the vital signs were present. Vital signs occur when the injury is sustained when the person is alive. That’s number one. Number two; when a person inhales the smoke there are certain changes and things you observe in the air passage. Those were seen and confirmed by further laboratory investigations. The situation would have been different if I had got a negative CO report and there had been no other signs of ante-mortem exposure to fire. Then I would not have been able to come to a conclusion.

Q- Getting down to the other ante mortem injuries apart from the burns, the head injury, neck injury, pelvic injury, leg injuries, broken teeth, etc., you have said they definitely incapacitated him but did not kill him?

A- First thing about an injury is whether it’s necessary for the person to die sustaining that injury. For example if the neck is severed that person can’t live. So it’s an instantaneous death. But if the neck is partially cut the person may live for some time but will be incapacitated.

Q- Were the other ante-mortem injuries excluding the burns fatal? Could they on their own have killed him?

A- Each injury in isolation, by itself wouldn’t have killed him

Q- But together?

A- Together there’s a cumulative effect.

Q- But not instant death?

A- No. But we cannot forget that on top of that there’s the burn. The person gets exposed to the fire while he is living. At some point he dies. The fire doesn’t stop. The burns that has started during life will continue as a post mortem injury. So in certain areas these ante-mortem burns are masked with post-mortem burns.

Q- According to media reports, due to this so called discrepancy between yours and the GA’s reports, the relevant officials were questioned by the CID. Were you?

A- No. It was not a questioning. I was directed by the magistrate to give a statement to the CID.

Q- Is your statement fresh evidence? Did you say anything new?

A- There was nothing fresh. Everything had been submitted.

Q- The neck of the deceased had been pierced?

A- There is a piercing injury at the front of the neck.

Q- Can you tell me if such an injury is compatible with a car crash?

A- I can’t definitely say. That’s why it’s important to have a multi-disciplinary approach. I have found a piercing injury in a certain location. What kind of an instrument has pierced, I can say.

Q- You haven’t ruled out a car crash?

A- Neither confirmed. It’s 50-50. I alone can’t decide. The car design, what sort of a crash and what was in the car, all have to be taken into consideration. But I have definitely ruled out a firearm as the cause.

Q- Did you determine the speed of the car and the damage to the wall?

A- That’s the GA’s job.

Q- So he has determined those factors?

A- I don’t know. I have not seen any report on the GA’s scene visit. I see this as a serious lacuna in the investigation. I have got involved in many deaths that were more suspicious than this to the Police and seen a team approach that was very effective. I don’t know if to date such an exercise has been carried out.

Q- It has been compartmentalized?

A- Not only that. My findings are not even given to the other parties to the investigation.

Q- So you had no access to the GA or his report?

A- No. Neither was I made available to him. You have been put into a compartment with a ceiling

Q- Despite the Police media spokesman saying immediately after exhumation that it has not yet been ascertained whether it was accident or murder, that there is only a suspicion, anonymous Police sources contradict this. According to a Daily News feature on 10 August 2015, a top source in the Police told them "Exhumation of Thajudeen’s body is vital to proceed with the current investigations. We need to examine the fractures in his bones. It would give a clear picture of the way he had been tortured prior to his death. We need to check whether it is in line with the evidence we have at present,"

A- The inquest is not a court proceeding even though it is conducted by a magistrate. If there is any clarification needed, if further opinion needs to be sought, they must ask specific questions. I have said these injuries are there, they are blunt force injuries, these instruments could have made them. It’s a limited opinion. Could this particular injury in this particular body have been caused by torture or by impact on a part of a vehicle, these are specific questions.

Q- These haven’t been put to you?

A- No. I haven’t been summoned to courts. I haven’t been asked for any further opinion on these matters. These are opinions that are expressed only when they are sought. I can’t be giving opinions unsolicited. Then I have to anticipate a hundred and one possibilities and express opinions. Nobody has told me about even a suspicion of torture.

Q- But the media was full of it

A- I am not supposed to go by media!

Q- They didn’t ask you if the injuries could have been due to torture?

A- The word torture has not been mentioned to date.

Q- Is this exhumation a negative reflection on your competence?

A- No. These are routine matters.

Q- Are they saying that you did not do your job properly?

A- What do you mean properly? Technique wise properly?

Q- Can a layperson get the impression that the earlier doctor did not do it right. So they have to re-do?

A- A layperson can get several impressions. With these so called media reports, one layperson might say; they want a different version to be established, that’s why they have asked another postmortem to be done, that the first postmortem has given the correct version, but the objectives haven’t been achieved, so they want another opinion. Some laypeople might be interpreting in that way even.

Q- In your opinion is this new postmortem necessary?

A- It is the discretion of the magistrate. Not for me to say. But I can say this. I have reported all. I have given a limited opinion. But if there were any question or clarification needed, if they had asked me, if I was in a position to answer I would have given these answers. That opportunity was not given.

Q- Are you involved with the new postmortem?

A- I am not. I have done my job. But in an inquiry of this nature the objective is to find out how it happened. To give justice. In achieving that they get services of different scientific people. They should be given the opportunity of working together. In some countries there are even case conferences. Sometimes investigations are done together, findings shared. You argue and come to a consensus about how it happened. Sometimes we go for artificial reconstruction. It’s not to set one against the other and hide one report from the other person. There may be certain points they wanted to get from my report but couldn’t. They might be able to get them from somebody else. But totally disregarding the first postmortem report, the facts that have been discovered, I don’t know how it’s going to achieve its objective. The second postmortem will be done three years after the death.

Q- There will be deterioration of the body. So no case conferences have happened? Don’t they happen in Sri Lanka?

A- It happens. I have participated in several case conferences in Sri Lanka. Sometimes investigations are planned out. There are pre-investigation conferences. While the investigation goes on, you review every day. Finally you get the answers. That’s the scientific way. But if someone decides beforehand what answers they want, it will lead to conflict.

– @ http://ratnawalli.com / and rathnawalli@gmail.com


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