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The Keith Noyahr Saga: A Synopsis

by Ranjith Jayasundera 

  • Wijesuriya dispatched a team of Dialog investigators and Engineers led by Premasiri Fernando, who were able to use tower triangulation and other techniques to pinpoint Noyahr’s phone in Dompe
  • Detectives have also recovered the white van used by the death squad. It was owned by a Dompe native named D.U. Indrajith, and leased to Bulathwatte

Keith Noyahr

Keith Noyahr, the former deputy editor of The Nation newspaper, is a member of a fortunate fraternity of outspoken Sri Lankan journalists. While Noyahr, along with Lakehouse journalist Poddala Jayantha and freelance journalist Namal Perera paid for their dissenting articles with white van abductions and vicious beatings at the hands of the former regime’s defence ministry death squads, their lives were spared. Others like the founding editor of The Sunday Leader Lasantha Wickrematunge, and freelance cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda were not as fortunate, having been murdered in January 2009 and January 2010 respectively.

The story of Keith Noyahr has become a symbol of all of the violence unleashed by the defence ministry death squads ever since his courageous cooperation with CID investigators led to the breakthrough arrests of alleged members of the death squad, with far more corroborating evidence available than the CID has been able to present in any of the other cases of assaults on journalists.

Noyahr’s ordeal began on Friday May 16, 2008, when he was writing his weekly ‘Military Matters’ column for The Nation under the byline Senpathi. As he was finishing his article about the military engagements between the army and the LTTE in the north, an earth-shattering explosion rocked Colombo as an LTTE suicide bomber detonated his deadly payload next to the Colombo Hilton Hotel on Sir Chittampalan Gardiner Mawatha. The blast took place in the middle of a high security zone a stone’s throw from the ministry of finance, cabinet office, presidential secretariat and air force headquarters, deep inside a ring of checkpoints.

Noyahr immediately shifted gears and in collaboration with his editor, Lalith Alakakoon, recast his Military Matters column to focus predominantly on the suicide attack. Using a variety of covert communication methods that he refuses to reveal to this day, he contacted his sources, well-placed across the higher echelons of military and defence circles, to provide his readers with the inside scoop on the attack.

His column, published on May 18, 2008, was a scathing indictment of those officials in charge of the security and intelligence apparatus in charge of guarding Colombo. He drew particular attention to the LLTE habit of launching attacks on Fridays to take advantage of the laziness that would naturally afflict sentries as the weekend approached, and cited army sources as chastising their ministry for micromanaging Colombo security and not letting the army do its job.

“Most bomb blasts, assassinations and even assaults on the military, have taken place on Friday and Saturday, when energy levels of the security forces drop and society gets into a relaxation mode with everyone dropping their guard,” Noyahr wrote. He wrote an exhaustive list of VIPs attacked on weekends including Lalith Athulathmudali, Lakshman Kadirgamar, Chandrika Kumaratunge, Gotabaya Rajapakse, Ranjan Wijeratne, Ranasinghe Premadasa, Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Vijaya Wimalaratne.

The article was relatively mild, suggesting only that the authorities remedy their ‘failure to anticipate’, with Noyahr seeking to use his column as a neutral conduit from his voiceless sources in the military hierarchy to the powers that be. Within days, the sword would test the might of his pen.

By early morning on Monday, May 19, the offices of The Nation had come under surveillance with a suspicious looking white van parked outside, with black-clad men with full-face helmets on motorcycles watching every by-lane leading to the Maradana Office. That day Noyahr was also followed home by riders on at least two black motorcycles, who kept their distance.

This heavy surveillance continued throughout the week. On May 22, Keith Noyahr went to his office late in the morning, and worked until early afternoon. From there he went to the Faculty of Science at the Colombo University campus, where he was studying for a degree in political science. According to a report tendered by the CID to Mount Lavinia Additional Magistrate Lochana Weerasinghe, evidence indicates that Noyahr was followed by several members of a secret military intelligence unit based out of an army camp in Maradana commanded by Major Prabath Bulathwatte.

According to the report, those who followed Keith Noyahr to the campus include Major Bulathwatte, Warrant Officer Lasantha Wimalaweera, Sergeant Duminda Weeraratne, Corporal Nishantha Kumara and now retired Corporal Chandrabhaya Jayasuriya, who pursued Noyahr with a combination of motorcycles and a white van.

After finishing his classes, Noyahr drove to the Jayaratne Funeral Parlour near the Borella roundabout to pay his respects to the recently passed mother of a close friend. At the parlour also, members of the same military intelligence team were in close pursuit. According to the CID report, two additional members of the team, Sergeant Hemachandra Perera and Corporal Nishantha Jayatillake, were also present at the funeral parlour.

After paying his respects, Noyahr returned to The Nation office, with his shadow ‘escort’ remaining in pursuit. He then drove to Queen’s Café in Bambalapitiya to have dinner with his editor Lalith Alahakoon and CEO Krishantha Cooray. According to the CID court report, all of the above-named military intelligence personnel took up positions around the restaurant with several vehicles.

As Noyahr and his friends were preparing to depart, he called his wife, at 9:44 PM, to find out what groceries he should bring on his way home. From Queens Café, Noyahr drove alone down Galle Road to the Laugfs Sun Up supermarket in Wellawatte, from where he again spoke to his wife, according to his recollection, about groceries. By this point, some of the military personnel had remained on his trail, while a group suspected to include Warrant Officer Wimalaweera and Sergeant Perera raced ahead to Noyahr’s home. The white van kept its distance, out of Noyahr’s sight.

With his shopping done and bags loaded, Nohahr set out for his house again, calling his wife at 10:04 PM asking her to unlock the front door as he would be home soon. As Noyahr tells the story, he drove his car up to the gate of his home on 26  Waidya Road, a narrow lane, and got down from his vehicle to open the gate.

As he began opening the gate, he was interrupted by the driver of a vehicle signaling to Noyahr that his car was blocking the road preventing the van from passing. This was the first time Noyahr, still unaware, saw the white van that had been on his heels all day. As he approached to help direct the van through the road, two men jumped him from behind, one covering his eyes with a black cloth while the other whipped his head with the butt of a pistol and restrained him in a bear hug.

Noyahr fought furiously and signaled to the van driver for assistance. The side door to the van slid open, Noyahr was bundled inside, slammed to the floor of the van and handcuffed. The van then sped away, with Noyahr’s family none the wiser.

Inside the van, Noyahr, bound and gagged, was held against the floor, and could overhear several people speaking in the military parlance with which he had become familiar as a defence writer. Pirith music played on the radio. At this point, his wallet and phone had not yet been taken from him. However, when he felt one assailant slyly remove his valuable gold wedding ring from his left, cuffed hand, that was when Noyahr realised that he was being spirited away to be interrogated and murdered.

Meanwhile, around 45 minutes after her husband had been abducted, Marianne Cooray ventured outside onto Waidya Road, curious as to what was taking him so long to return. She opened the gate and was terrified to see her husband’s car, engine running and driver’s side door open, with no sign of Keith Noyahr. She began calling friends and relatives, and soon, Alahakoon, Cooray and others converged on the crisis-stricken Dehiwela residence.

By around 11 PM, the white van carrying Noyahr and his abductors arrived at a remote villa. Noyahr recalls his hands and legs being tied to the opposite end of a pole, and being carried by two people some distance down a walkway into a house. He was stripped naked and hung from the ceiling. His captors beat and tortured him with a variety of handheld weapons.

The CID has since provided several forms of evidence to Magistrate Weerasinghe indicating that the house at which Noyahr was held was a ‘wallauwe’ or abandoned villa on a byroad in rural Dompe. Detectives found the house, which matched Noyahr’s description exactly. They found a lease agreement proving that the house was rented by Major Bulathwatte’s team. They presented evidence that the rental payments for the house were made using military intelligence funds.

While Noyahr was being beaten, his friends and family 30 kilometers away in Dehiwela were calling everyone they could to try and locate Noyahr. Acting on information from the navy that Noyahr may have been abducted by a secret army intelligence unit, The Nation Editor Lalith Alahakoon called Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse to appeal for Noyahr’s release. According to Alahakoon’s statement to the Dehiwela police, Rajapakse berated Alahakoon and laughed off the abduction as most likely a domestic dispute between Noyahr and his wife.

Shortly thereafter, Alahakoon received a call from President Mahinda Rajapakse, who was far more concerned and empathetic. The president stated that he had already put all forces on alert and dispatched then SSP Anura Senanayake of the Colombo Crimes Division to investigate. At the same time, Krishantha Cooray had contacted then DIG CID Sisira Mendis, who dispatched a CID team also to the Noyahr residence.

After a first complaint was recorded at the Dehiwela police station, Cooray thought to call his old friend Hans Wijesuriya, CEO of Dialog, to see if Dialog might be able to trace the location of Noyahr’s telephone. Wijesuriya dispatched a team of Dialog investigators and Engineers led by Premasiri Fernando, who were able to use tower triangulation and other techniques to pinpoint Noyahr’s phone in Dompe. After this information was revealed, Cooray passed it on to the CCD and CID detectives, before rushing towards Dompe with an armed CID team to search for Noyahr.

Meanwhile, a panicked spurt of telephone calls took place between defence secretary Rajapakse, then Chief of National Intelligence Kapila Hendawitharana and several intelligence officials, ultimately resulting in telephone call to Major Bulathwatte ordering him to stand down and return Keith Noyahr unharmed. Noyahr, hanging from the ceiling caked in his own sweat and blood, overheard the call that saved his life.

After the call was over, Noyahr was told that he would be released. He was allowed to wash himself in a barrel and put his clothes on. His phone and wallet were not returned but he insisted on being given his wedding ring. Upon being asked about a wedding ring, the superior officer, allegedly Major Bulathwatte, was puzzled, apparently unaware that it had been taken from Noyahr. The officer investigated and returned the ring, whose thieves had never anticipated Noyahr’s release.

While Cooray and the CID were furiously searching around Dompe and Malwana looking for any sign of the deadly white van, Nohahr was spirited back to Dehiwela, via Athurugiriya, and dropped outside of the Dehiwela zoo, on the east end of Waidya Road. The editor removed his blindfold and staggered the 500 meters towards his home before collapsing in pain.

The CID also studied the medical report on Noyahr prepared by the Judicial Medical Officer after the victim was admitted to the Colombo National Hospital on the morning of May 23. The report confirms that he was beaten with several blunt weapons including firearms, and forcibly restrained with handcuffs.

Detectives have also recovered the white van used by the death squad. It was owned by a Dompe native named D.U. Indrajith, and leased  to Bulathwatte. It was also Indrajith who led the CID to the BaduwatteWallauwe, confirming to detectives that this team used that house, and that family members had even brought food to them at the home. The CID has also recorded statements from eye witnesses to the abduction both in Dehiwala and Dompe. All the military intelligence personnel named in this article are currently in remand custody having been arrested by the CID in February and March and produced before the additional magistrate.

Investigations are still underway to determine what the day-to-day duties of this secret killer squad are, but the army has not been forthcoming. According to the arrested personnel themselves, their team of 30 were tasked with providing intelligence and security ‘clearance’reports on persons of interest to the ministry of defence. None could explain why this would necessitate their maintaining a safe house in Dompe and renting a private vehicle, seeing as the army had already provided them with a van, motor cycles and a trishaw.

In fact, despite requests by the CID, the army has been unable to produce any evidence that this team was indeed engaged in providing security clearances. Not a single clearance report has been found so far. Detectives have told the army that they would settle for even a written letter or request addressed to this team asking them to produce a clearance report on an individual, from 2008 or 2009, but no records of this nature have been found or produced to date.

Little doubt, if any, remains that the CID investigation has nabbed the correct suspects, with ample evidence of their involvement on the ground in the physical abduction and torture of Noyahr. However, it is inconceivable that this team acted alone. For all the publicity and open court revelations by the CID relating to the physical abduction itself, detectives have been very tight-lipped on the process by which they are proceeding up the ladder.

All that remains to be seen is whether the nation’s foremost law enforcement agency can pursue charges against those who gave the orders for Nohahr to be abducted and whether the government will have the political will to see the case through to indictment and eventual conviction.

 

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