Top military officer Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne arrives at the Magistrate's Court in Colombo on Wednesday. Wijegunaratne was remanded in custody after weeks evading arrest for allegedly protecting the chief suspect in the murder of 11 people during the civil war. Photo: AFP/ Ishara S Kodikara
Top military officer Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne arrives at the Magistrate's Court in Colombo on Wednesday. Wijegunaratne was remanded in custody after weeks evading arrest for allegedly protecting the chief suspect in the murder of 11 people during the civil war. Photo: AFP/ Ishara S Kodikara

Sri Lanka’s top-ranking military officer Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne has been detained for allegedly aiding the abduction and murder of 11 people during the island’s civil war.

Wijegunaratne has been transferred to a different prison due to potential security threats from militant Tamil inmates while a court investigates the charges against him.

The Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Wijegunaratne has been accused of helping a naval intelligence officer, who is the primary suspect in the ongoing case, to flee the island. The case concerns the abduction and disappearance of 11 youths during the final stages of Sri Lanka’s civil strife in 2009. All 11 are believed to have been murdered by the kidnappers.

Refused to surrender

Wijegunaratne, who has denied the accusations, was brought to the Fort Magistrate Court on Wednesday November 28. After, he was arrested by the Criminal Investigation Department. He had been presented with three warrants in early November but had refused to surrender. Officials said there had been attempts to obtain a statement from him since August but he allegedly sought to avoid this.

The Magistrate Court, recognizing Wijegunaratne’s unique position of power as the country’s highest-ranking military officer, denied him bail and consequently ordered his arrest.

Wijegunaratne has become the second suspect in the case along with primary suspect Chandana Prasad Hettiarachchi alias Navy Sampath, a naval intelligence officer. This allegedly follows a series of attempts, both political and otherwise, by the senior military officer to avoid being dragged into the controversial case.

President Maithripala Sirisena has maintained silence on the matter despite a previous bid to stop the case going further. Wijegunaratne was summoned to the CID by courts in September to provide a statement. Sirisena called a special Cabinet meeting in a bid to defend the admiral and stop him being arrested.

‘Risk of disrupting case’

Wijegunaratne has also been accused of attempting to threaten key witnesses in the case and trying to stymie the investigation by orchestrating the transfer of the chief investigator. He linked the investigator to the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and allegedly sought to strip him of his responsibilities at the Criminal Investigation Department (CID).

After considering all the allegations that Wijegunaratne faces, the court decided to arrest and remand him. “I am denying bail because in your position you are able to influence witnesses and disrupt the investigations,” Magistrate Ranga Dassanayake told the packed court, according to AFP.

Wijegunaratne appeared in his military uniform, a move that drew a rebuke from the Magistrate, who suggested he was trying to intimidate the court. He was taken to the Magazine Prison in Colombo, where he must remain till December 5.

However, on Wednesday night, he was transferred to the Welikada Jail due to potential threats on his life from LTTE cadres in initial prison, Prisoners’ Department spokesperson Thushara Upuldeniya told Asia Times. The Magazine Prison holds around 50 LTTE detainees and other Tamil political prisoners under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) yet to have charges filed against them.

Youths kidnapped, presumed killed

The prime suspect Hettiarachchi is accused of abducting 11 wealthy youths, who were Tamils and Muslims in their late teens and early 20s, from the country’s north and east as part of an alleged ransom racket. Their bodies have never been found.

This happened in the final stages of the civil war between the government and Tamil rebels led by the LTTE. The rebels wanted to create a state in the north and the east of the island called Tamil Eelam but were defeated by the military in May 2009, which brought the 26-year conflict to an end.

Senior military figures have been accused of serious crimes and abuses particularly during the bloody end of the war, but have largely enjoyed impunity from prosecution.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s party, which heavily criticized the arrest of military figures and so-called “war heroes” during the tenure of the coalition government, has yet to comment on Wijegunaratne’s arrest. But Rajapaksa’s supporters have denounced the move as a disgrace to the military and to all the country’s “war heroes”.

Rajapaksa, meanwhile, was seen visiting Wijegunaratne on Thursday at the prison.

In early 2010, during Rajapaksa’s tenure as president, the then Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka (now a Field Marshall) was arrested. This makes Wijegunaratne’s arrest the second instance in which a senior military officer has been arrested.

Fonseka’s arrest, however, was said to be politically motivated. He was the defeated candidate in the presidential election at the time and accused of trying to organize a coup to overthrow the government.

As of now, the post of the Chief of Defence Staff remains empty.

Power struggle continues

Several intelligence officers are facing prosecution for the murder of journalists critical of Rajapakse.

His controversial appointment as prime minister recently by President Srisena has left the country in a political crisis.

Parliament has voted twice against the war-era leader from taking control of the government again, but Rajapakse has refused to step aside. Several members of his family are being investigated for fraud and murder during his 10-year presidency. But those inquiries are currently under a cloud, AFP has said.

Rajapakse led Sri Lanka when government troops crushed the Tamil insurgency in May 2009. A UN panel has said as many as 40,000 civilians may have been killed in the final stages of the war.