A Murderer Turned Politician Let loose to kill again
By Nirmala Kannangara in Tangalle - Pictures by Thusitha Kumara
Sri Lanka’s booming holiday season has been marred by the brutal murder and assault of two tourists in Tangalle on Christmas Eve.
British tourist Kuram Shaikah Zaman was murdered while his friend, Russian national Victoria Alexandrovna, was viciously assaulted during a visit to a tourist resort in Tangalle.
According to the International Committee of Red Cross, Zaman worked in the Gaza Strip fitting prosthetic limbs.
Police say the Chairman of the Tangalle Pradeshiya Sabha, Sampath Vidanapathirana is the main suspect in this case.
The politician allegedly stabbed and then gunned down Zaman, a British national of Israeli origin, on the dance floor of The Nature Tangalle.
An eye witness recalled witnessing the sexual assault of Alexandrovna, although charges are yet to be confirmed by authorities.
The tragedy spells disaster for the government’s ‘Visit Sri Lankan’ campaign which has predicted a tourism boom in the next five years.
32 year old Zaman and 23 year old Victoria were in Sri Lanka to celebrate Christmas and see the New Year in together in the picturesque town of Tangalle.
Zaman reportedly organized a Christmas party for his friends to celebrate the holiday season at The Nature Tangalle. However what began as an innocent night with loved ones has ended in bloodshed and an international media frenzy.
The suspect Vidanapathirana, who is known to be a close confidante of MP Namal Rajapaksa, allegedly stabbed Zaman to death at The Nature Tangalle while the victim attempted to settle a brawl between the politician and a local restaurant owner known as Ryan.
Ryan told The Sunday Leader, “It was around 10 p.m. when Vidanapathirana and eleven others walked into the resort to have some dinner and drinks. I was dancing with two foreign girls”.
“The altercation began because none of the foreign girls wanted to dance with Vidanapathirana. He and his companions then assaulted me and a brawl broke out. It was at this time that Zaman and his friend rushed to the scene from the pool side. When the British tourist tried to settle the fight, Vidanapathirana attacked Zaman with broken bottles”.
Ryan described the growing intensity of the attack saying, “Zaman and Victoria were cut several times before they ran for their lives. I watched as Vidanapathirana and his men followed the couple with a T56 weapon and empty bottles in hand. Since I was hiding behind a wall I could not see exactly how the tourist was killed but I witnessed Victoria being dragged away by four men”.
The scene Ryan goes on to describe is a disturbing one, “they stripped and raped her mercilessly although she was bleeding from her head. Later I saw Zaman lying on the lawn next to the restaurant but did not know whether he was dead or alive,” he added.
While running to the beach for safety, Ryan cannot recall who took the injured to hospital or how Vidanapathirana and his men fled the scene.
“I only came back when I heard the vehicles leaving the hotel. When I returned I saw many tourists fleeing the hotel in fear,” he said.
According to Ryan, the police arrived one hour after the incident and all hotel staff were prohibited from leaving or giving statements.
“All those who were in the hotel when the police arrived were held there for three days for questioning,” he said.
Following the attack, the two tourists were rushed to Tangalle hospital where Zaman was later pronounced dead.
Suffering stab wounds to the head, Alexandrovna was immediately transferred to the Matara General Hospital and later to the Karapitiya Teaching Hospital for an urgent operation. She is now confined to a hospital bed at the Lanka Hospitals in Colombo.
According to the Director of the Karapitiya Teaching Hospital, Dr. Priyani Senadheera, Alexandrovna was brought to Karapitiya for a brain CT scan.
In an exclusive interview, Dr. Senadheera told The Sunday Leader, “The patient suffered a blunt trauma and has sustained a skull fracture. She was immediately admitted to the emergency trauma unit and was taken for an urgent operation. She was kept in the High Dependence Unit of the Neurosurgical Unit until she was transferred to Lanka Hospitals on Tuesday December 27. This was requested by the Chairman of the Sri Lanka Tourist Board Dr. Nalaka Godahewa”.
According to Dr. Senadheera, the Chairman of the Tourist Board made a special visit to the Karapitiya Hospital on Monday December 26, to see Alexandrovna and make arrangements to have her transferred to Lanka Hospitals.
Along with increased care and comfortable quarters, a reliable source from the Karapitiya Hospital told The Sunday Leader that the patient was given a police escort to the ambulance which then transferred her to Colombo.
The care did not stop there. The source explained that, “in addition to the police escort, two uniformed policemen guarded the High Dependence Unit preventing the media from approaching her. Since she is the only person to recall the disturbing incident clearly, the government is trying to prevent her from talking to the media”. The informant wished to remain anonymous.
Sources expressed their concern to The Sunday Leader, that the Buddhist leaders of this country who observe sil and listen to bana every Poya day are the same individuals who give refuge to the criminals who terrorize civilians and tourists on a daily basis.
All sources including the eyewitness told The Sunday Leader they wished to remain anonymous as they fear for their lives. Each informant willingly spoke to the newspaper with a desire to educate the people about the true state of affairs in Tangalle over the past few years. For them, Tangalle and Hambantota are becoming the most dangerous cities in the country.
“Tangalle was one a peaceful town. But if things continue this way it will become one of the most dreadful places to live in” they said.
These people live in constant fear that their families will be attacked by ruling political groups who keep a tight reign on information disseminated to the media.
The Tangalle police have also come under fire from residents, accusing them of not arresting the main suspect immediately after the incident even though they were aware of his location.
“The Tangalle police knew where Vidanapathirana was taking refuge, but did not take any action because of his connection to high level political families in the district,” an angry holiday resort worker explained.
“It is jungle law that prevails in this part of the country. Law and order do not exist in Tangalle, Hambantota and other areas in the district. Anyone with connections to high level political families will not be prosecuted after committing criminal offences”.
This explains why Vidanapathirana was released after murdering an elderly woman in Thalunna in the run-up to the 2010 Presidential elections.
Neighbouring resort workers now fear for their jobs in the wake of this incident. It is clear that the attack will prove to be a major set back for the tourism industry in Tangalle and indeed Sri Lanka.
Outraged workers told The Sunday Leader they have lost faith in the Sri Lankan police and judicial systems as politicians consistently skip prosecution after committing some of the most heinous crimes.
“When Vidanapathirana was arrested for murdering an elderly woman, the police submitted a medical report to the courts stating he was mentally ill. He was later released on those grounds. If Vidanapathirana is mentally ill, why then is he allowed to continue working in politics?”
The question remains as to whether the police will follow the same course of action in this case. Sources told The Sunday Leader that, following Vidanapathirana’s surrender to the Tangalle police on December 26, authorities from the highest levels of government requested that the officers arrange a comfortable room for Vidanapathirana in the police station.
It is also believed that Vidanapathirana has been directly involved in several other crimes in Tangalle and Hambantota over the past several years.
“Even before he was elected to the Pradeshiya Sabha, Vidanapathirana had committed many crimes with a pistol that he owned. During the last local government election he damaged UNP MP Sajith Premadasa’s vehicle, vandalized the house of a southern provincial council member and has even threatened his own party members,” sources said.
Meanwhile almost all tourists holidaying in nearby resorts had checked out immediately after the incident.
“Although there were several bookings up to mid-January we are concerned about the growing number of cancellations since then. We had great hopes for the winter season but there seems to be a bleak forecast in the wake of this killing”.
When The Sunday Leader visited the Nature Resort Tangalle, the media were prohibited from entering the premises. However our staff photographer was able to capture photos over the parapet wall. The photographs reveal police on constant guard at the hotel and staff running to hide themselves from being photographed.
When The Sunday Leader visited Lanka Hospitals to speak with Alexandrovna in the Intensive Care Unit, permission was not granted. The Chief Executive Officer Lakith Peiris spoke to the newspaper over the phone and explained that only Russian Embassy officials are permitted to see her.
“Her condition has improved a lot and she is recuperating. No visitors other than embassy officials are allowed,” he said.
When asked as to why police protection was given to her, he first said that he does not know but later revealed that it was on request of the Russian Embassy.
“There are three police constables and hospital OICs in the ward. Sources say although the patient is recuperating, she is suffering from a conjunctival hemorrhage in her eye due to injuries sustained to her forehead,” the sources said.
Meanwhile Police Spokesperson SP Ajith Rohana said that Zaman died on admission to Tangalle hospital due to fatal injuries to the neck from a sharp object. Rohana says the gunshot injury he sustained to his head was not as serious as the stab wounds which were the cause of death.
“He died due to stab injuries to the neck and according to the JMO’s report the bullets did not penetrate his skull. The death was due to stab injuries to his neck with a sharp object,” said SP Rohana.
SP Rohana also revealed that although onlookers recalled seeing a T56 used in the attack, it was not the weapon which was used to shoot Zaman.
According to SP Rohana, six suspects including five main suspects and the driver of the vehicle were remanded on Tuesday December 27 and will remain in custody until January 6, 2012 as ordered by the Tangalle Chief Magistrate.
“They will be produced on January 6 for an identification parade,” he said.
SP Rohana revealed that Alexandrovna has been given full security as she is a key witness in this tragedy. “She was in a terrible condition upon admission so we had to provide security until she recovered sufficiently to give a statement. In addition to this, the patient is a foreigner and there is no one for her in this country. So we provided extensive security for her until she leaves the country. We are not sure what plans the perpetrators have for her if she is left unprotected,” he added.
When asked why the police did not allow media presence at the scene of crime after three full days, SP Rohana said it is general practice to seal off a crime scene until all investigations are completed.
He denied any allegations against the Tangalle police for providing special quarters to Vidanapathirana. “This is a baseless allegation. When I checked with the Tangalle police I was informed that the main suspect spent the night in a cell with all the other suspects,” he explained.
Meanwhile UPFA General Secretary and Petroleum Minister Susil Premjayantha has said that stern disciplinary action will be taken to reprimand the Tangalle PS Chairman.
“It is not only this instance. There have been several cases he has been involved in since the local government elections. Once the case is filed in court we will appoint a committee to take disciplinary action against Vidanapathirana and all UPFA members who commit crimes,” he said.
When asked why Vidanapathirana was nominated to the party since his arrest and subsequent release from a previous crime, Minister Premjayantha said he only signs the nomination paper approved by the district leaders and does not know the individuals personally.
Minister Premjayantha told The Sunday Leader, “It is the district leader who must take responsibility in such a case. I do not however, have any suspicions in this instance, I believe the police will do their job without any prejudice”.
ICRC Sri Lanka Spokesperson Sarasi Wijeratne told The Sunday Leader that Zaman was a dedicated ICRC worker in the Gaza Strip and his absence will be felt terribly.
“We are sure that justice will prevail and the culprits will be punished,” said Wijeratne.
President of the Tourist Hotels Association of Sri Lanka Anura Lokuhetti insisted to The Sunday Leader that this random act of violence must be left behind.
“There is no reason to talk too much about this as it is not good for the tourism industry. These things happen regularly in other countries but are left behind in favour of working towards the betterment of the industry and the country as a whole. This was a horrible incident. We have a duty of care to our guests. Those who were involved in this murder should be punished immediately,” Lokuhetti said.