New CID Director Shani Abeysekara ‘Honest and gutsy’ | Sunday Observer

New CID Director Shani Abeysekara ‘Honest and gutsy’

From left to right: Chief Inspector Levangama, Inspector Jauffer, Assistant Superintendent Shani Abeysekara, Brigadier RuwanKulatunga, Maj Gen Bringley Mark, Senior Deputy Inspector General Mahinda Balasooriya, Deputy Inspector General (currently IG) PujithJayasundera, Senior Superintendent LalindaRanaweera, Assistant Superintendent J.M.P. Jayalath and Maj Bernard Perera
From left to right: Chief Inspector Levangama, Inspector Jauffer, Assistant Superintendent Shani Abeysekara, Brigadier RuwanKulatunga, Maj Gen Bringley Mark, Senior Deputy Inspector General Mahinda Balasooriya, Deputy Inspector General (currently IG) PujithJayasundera, Senior Superintendent LalindaRanaweera, Assistant Superintendent J.M.P. Jayalath and Maj Bernard Perera

By most accounts, Gnendra Shani Abeysekara – fondly known in law enforcement circles as just “Shani” – began his journey to Sri Lanka’s premier law enforcement agency, the CID, with a violent tragedy. Shani, then a Police Inspector, was serving as the Officer-in-Charge of the Crimes Branch of the Grandpass Police when around 2 pm on June 8, 1998, a fierce blast ejected shrapnel and smoke from a car near a police checkpoint in Kochchikade.

 

Eye witnesses described a man riding a motor cycle who single-handedly pulled the pin from a grenade and threw it into an open window of the vehicle with pinpoint accuracy before speeding away, using the chaos of the explosion to mask his escape. The occupant of the vehicle was Assistant Superintendent Shanthi Kumar, an indirect supervisor of Shani’s. The severely wounded Shanthi Kumar was rushed to hospital where he succumbed to his injuries.

The targeted assassination of a senior police officer took the national security establishment by storm, leading Police Inspector General Lucky Kodithuwakku to summon an emergency meeting led by himself and then Deputy Inspector General Punya De Silva, who supervised the Criminal Investigation Department (CID).

According to an individual present at this meeting, Shani revealed his suspicion that the assassination of Shanthi Kumar was the work of a discharged air force airman and underworld figure named Bernard Christopher Barry. Shani revealed to his senior officers the circumstances of Barry’s discharge from the Air force due to the murder of an Air force sergeant, as well as Barry’s motive to murder Assistant Superintendent Shanthi Kumar.

Barry and his underworld gang had a history of flouting political influence and patronage of senior police officers to evade the long arm of the law, and Barry had been made furious by Shanthi Kumar’s arresting of a drug dealer named Chandrika Perera who was under Barry’s protection, and had killed Shanthi Kumar as a warning to other officers not to meddle with his organisation. Having heard enough, the IGP ordered CID DIG Punya De Silva to find and arrest Barry by any means.

Armed to the teeth

DIG Punya De Silva then assembled a special CID task force headed by Chief Inspector Senaka Kumarasinghe, head of CID’s anti-terrorism unit. On DIG Punya De Silva’s request, Shani Abeysekara was temporarily transferred to this CID team to assist with the investigation and apprehension of Barry, who had by then gone into hiding. A months-long manhunt ensued, reaching a climax on September 8, 1998, when Kumarasinghe’s team, armed to the teeth, secretly surrounded a safe house in Ragama where Barry slept with his mistress.

When the detectives raided the premises, a fierce gun battle ensued in which Barry and his mistress were both killed. According to court records, Barry’s death was ruled a justifiable homicide, and the bullets that ended his life were fired by none other than Shani Abeysekara. This incident sparked Abeysekara’s reputation as a scourge of the underworld. When the dust settled, by January 1999, Shani was transferred permanently to the CID at the behest of DIG Punya De Silva himself.

Now, after nine years of working with the CID under the Presidencies of Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena, Senior Superintendent Shani Abeysekara will lead the 700-strong cadre of the CID and oversee some of the most contentious criminal investigations in the history of Sri Lanka, including the probes into the murderous deaths of journalists such as Prageeth Eknaligoda and Lasantha Wickrematunge, and rugby player Wasim Thajudeen.

Shani’s role as Director of the CID also charges him with investigating the role played by senior police officers and powerful defence officials in ordering and covering up these and other crimes investigated by the CID.

Among the 30 plus indictments and nearly two dozen convictions secured by Shani’s murder investigations are several police officers including former Deputy Inspector General Vaas Gunawardena, who was sentenced to death by the Colombo High Court on November 27, 2016 along with his son and several of his junior police officers for operating a contract-killer squad that undertook murder for money. We repeat, murder for money.

This conviction stands as the only one in the world wherein a senior police officer has been convicted for running a commercial death squad staffed by junior officers under his command, a fantasy too far-fetched for even screen writers in Bollywood or Hollywood. CID officers involved with the investigation credit the success of the unprecedented prosecution on the thoroughness of Shani’s investigation direction, and the god-like legal genius of Senior Deputy Solicitor General Ayesha Jinasena, who artfully combined technical evidence, expert testimony, and credible prosecution witnesses including the man who gave the murder contract to DIG Gunawardena, to assemble a cast iron case.

A senior CID officer joked darkly that Shani must have been relieved by the verdict and grateful for Jinasena’s prosecutorial ferocity, as Vaas Gunawardena had, at the time of his initial arrest by Shani, openly vowed to murder Shani and his family no sooner he was released from custody, now a most unlikely possibility.

In telephone interviews conducted for this article, several senior public officials, retired police officers and military veterans saluted the National Police Commission and its Chairman, M.P.H. Manatunga, for selecting Shani to run the CID, referring to Shani as a fiercely independent and detail-oriented detective and a champion of equal application of the criminal justice system.

“The quality of investigations he has carried out to-date has always been exceptional,” said Attorney General, Jayantha Jayasuriya. The current Attorney General, who prosecuted two murder cases investigated by Shani, further encouraged junior CID officers to “follow in Shani’s footsteps”, adding that in his personal experience, the burden on prosecutors was substantially eased by Shani’s “marvellous and comprehensive investigations” and detail-oriented approach to interviewing suspects and witnesses alike.

Defence Secretary and former Additional Solicitor General Kapila Waidyaratne, praised Shani as a uniquely “hard working officer” who rose through the ranks with “remarkable achievements.” He emphasized Shani’s unique professional bonds with senior officers of the Attorney General’s Department and expressed confidence that Shani will “do justice to all alike”.

Senior Lawyer, advisor to President Maithripala Sirisena and Sri Lanka’s Insurance Ombudsman, Dr. Wickrema Weerasooria, hailed Shani’s appointment as “one of the most critical appointments of the Yahapalanaya government.”Dr.Weerasooria added that he had been delighted with the rebirth of the Constitutional Council chaired by the Speaker Karu Jayasuriya under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution and the subsequent establishment of several Independent Commissions.

Rubber stamp

Dr.Weerasooria added a special word of praise to the members of the Police Commission. “They reminded the country that their constitutional duty is to act independently in the best interests of all Sri Lankans, and in doing so they set an example to the other commissions who may be tempted to act as a rubber stamp to the whims of the executive branch officials they oversee.”

Of all those interviewed for this article, none has known Shani for as long as retired Senior Deputy Inspector General and former Special Task Force Commandant Nimal Lewke, who described the new CID Director as having earned a reputation as an “honest and gutsy person” throughout his three plus decades of service in the STF, regular police service and the CID.

“Shani was a source of strength to us from his earliest days in the STF,” Lewke recalled. “He is what he is today because of the exemplary training and mentorship he received from Deputy Inspectors General Zerny Wijesuriya and Lionel Karunasena. They were respected top disciplinarians who guided Shani to become an honest equally discipline-focused officer committed to carrying out his duties patriotically and impartially.”

Lewke, who was himself a CID officer before volunteering to join the fledgling STF, further described Shani’s transition from the STF’s world of paramilitary operations and VIP protection to the more detail-oriented and painstaking work of criminal investigations.

Some of Lewke’s finest praise was reserved for the members of the National Police Commission. He praised their decision to appoint Shani to head the CID, but lamented that their intervention was necessary, calling it “unfortunate” that the appointment had to be made over the objections of the leadership at police headquarters.

Now 56 years old, Gnendra Shani Abeysekara was born and raised in Galle, and is one of just a handful of Sri Lankans to graduate from United States Federal Bureau of Investigation’s elite FBI National Academy in Virginia, joining the police as a trainee Sub-Inspector in 1986. After serving a couple of months at the Cinnamon Gardens Police Station in Colombo, Shani joined the Special Task Force and underwent rigorous paramilitary training before being deployed at various camps throughout the Eastern Province, which was under STF protection to allow the army to focus their efforts on the Northern Province.

It was during these years of paramilitary service that Shani forged bonds with some of his most decorated advocates among the top echelons of the police force including Lewke, former Inspector General N.K. Illangakoon and Shani’s current supervisor at the CID, Senior Deputy Inspector General D.W.R.B. Seneviratne.

Shani’s relationship with these officers in the east bore little resemblance to the bureaucratic trappings of police headquarters or the offices of the CID, with spacious offices and desks filled with files awaiting signature. The STF officers in the east put their lives on the line every day rooting out LTTE terrorists in the jungles of Batticaloa.

A former officer familiar with the events of this period who declined to be named discussing sensitive counter-terrorist operations, described how N.K. Illangakoon, then a Superintendent with the STF, crafted and led a special operation in June 1990 to re-capture the Pottuvil police station from LTTE control, striking the Tigers by surprise out of the wild lands of Kanjikudichiaru.

Absorbed

Shani was soon promoted to Inspector, and thereafter spent just under five years with the VVIP Close Protection Team of the STF before being absorbed into the regular police force in January 1995, when he was posted to the crimes branch of the Narahenpita Police Station as deputy officer-in-charge, where he remained for a year until he was selected to lead the Crimes Branch of the Grandpass Police Station in January 1996.

In the two years and nine months that Shani held this post, he did anything but idle.

The budding detective quickly racked up no less than fifteen indictments for murder and attempted murder. Five of these went to trial and resulted in conviction, and another two cases avoided trial with the suspects pleading guilty.

The remaining eight indictments are – in an ironic ‘indictment’ of the justice system – still pending and awaiting trial in the High Court, according to public records. This streak of prosecutions culminated in the September 1998 gunfight in which Barry was killed, setting off a chain of events that led to Shani joining the ranks of the CID in January 1999.

As he joined the CID, Shani was assigned the task of investigating the murder of Colombo Municipal Council member M.N.M. Imtiaz, who was killed in a drive-by shooting in Maradana.

The trail of blood from Shani’s investigation led straight to the door of Koswattage Nihal Donald Wickremasinghe. Better known by his alias “Nawala Nihal”, Wickremasinghe was at the time one of the most feared underworld figures in the country, having recently gotten off scot free with having mercilessly assaulted a retired Deputy Inspector General of Police on whose land he was squatting.

Nawala Nihal was widely feared by the police, and even officers within the CID believed they would be either “transferred to Jaffna” by Nihal’s political patrons or simply executed at gunpoint if they dared to try and arrest him, with the cold-blooded killing of Assistant Superintendent Shanthi Kumar still fresh on all of their minds.

Shani and his supervising officer Chief Inspector Senaka Kumarasinghe also subscribed to these suspicions, which failed to stop them from locating Nawala Nihal’s safe house on Queens Road in Colombo and storming it, arresting Nihal and his driver with an illegal firearm in their possession. The arrest shattered Nawala Nihal’s aura of invincibility and slowly decimated his standing in the criminal underworld. Hours after Nihal was released on bail, he disappeared and is widely believed to have been murdered.

Later in 1999, Shani’s team also led the investigation into the abduction for ransom of former Aitken Spence Chairman G.C. Wickremasinghe from his vehicle by individuals impersonating police officers at a checkpoint. Wickremasinghe was held at a warehouse and released upon payment of a Rs. 20 million cash ransom. After Wickremasinghe’s release was secured, investigators began hunting for the kidnappers.

They were contacted by former CID DIG Punchi Banda Seneviratne, who suggested that the detectives release to the media the serial numbers of the currency notes used to pay the ransom, in hopes that public spirited citizens who detect the currency notes could alert the police and allow the money trail to be traced back to the suspects. The idea paid off.

Surveillance

After multiple deposits of the suspect notes were traced, Shani’s team conducted covert physical surveillance on the launderers, leading to the arrest of over a dozen people involved in the kidnapping, including underworld figures, deserters of the army, navy and air force, and a serving police sub-inspector. The case resulted in thirteen convictions, with the three primary perpetrators serving 36 years in prison, and their ten co-conspirators each serving 31 years after the convictions were held by the Court of Appeal in March 2004.

This was the first of many occasions on which Shani’s investigations have led to the conviction of senior police officers for high crimes. Following an incident in February 2000, Shani also helped secure the conviction of the then Director of the Presidential Security Division (PSD), Senior Superintendent Nihal Karunaratne for obstructing the duties of a police inspector. Working with current Attorney General and then senior prosecutor Jayantha Jayasuriya, Shani also obtained death penalty convictions of four police officers for the murder of two youth in police custody at the Angulana Police Station in August 2009.

In the past three years alone, an unprecedented three serving and retired Deputy Inspectors General and Senior Inspectors General have been arrested by the CID on serious crimes. DIG Vaas Gunawardena was convicted of murder.

 

Retired Senior DIG Anura Senanayake was arrested and remanded for over a year on allegations of assisting to cover up the murder of Wasim Thajudeen. Most recently, Senior DIG Lalith Jayasinghe was arrested for his role in the escape from police custody of the main suspect in the 2015 rape and murder of schoolgirl Vidya Sivaloganathan in Jaffna.

Shani’s time at the CID also saw a return to counter-terrorism, albeit in an urban environment. When the Katunayake Airport was attacked with heavy weapons and explosives by a Black Tiger commando squad in July 2001, Shani worked under the supervision of current Senior Deputy Inspector General in charge of the FCID, A. Ravindra Waidyalankara (styled after one of his idols, founding FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover), to identify and indict conspirators who assisted the terrorists to infiltrate the airport and execute history’s most devastating terrorist attack to date on an international airport.

Shani was also responsible for conducting similar investigations into the failed suicide bomb assassination attempts on President Chandrika Kumaratunga (December 1999), Army Commander Sarath Fonseka (April 2006) and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse (December 2006). In all three cases, his team meticulously identified terrorist co-conspirators and aided state intelligence agencies to dismantle terrorist cells in and around Colombo.

Shortly after these anti-terrorism investigations concluded in 2007, Shani was hand selected to attend the FBI National Academy, where he trained with some of the world’s foremost minds in law enforcement and criminal justice, including a commencement address from then FBI Director Robert Mueller, who was then in the news for the critical role he played in courageously standing up to President Bush’s White House to prevent the illegal reauthorization of a government surveillance program. Today, Mueller’s is a household name as the former FBI director is serving as a Special Prosecutor investigating potential espionage and obstruction of justice by White House officials including President Donald Trump himself.

Transferred

In September 2007, Shani was awarded a field promotion from Chief Inspector to Assistant Superintendent. He was transferred out of the CID and placed in charge of the Jaffna police district in the war-torn northern province. In the 18 months Shani spent in Jaffna, he leveraged his paramilitary experience in the STF to forge close bonds between the regular law enforcement officers of the police and the men and women of the armed forces were tasked primarily with waging the war against the LTTE and preventing the terrorists from overrunning the peninsula.

According to a retired intelligence officer who visited Jaffna frequently in 2008, Shani had gained a reputation for his sermons to police officers about the mission, culture and sacrifices of the armed forces, regaling them with tales of combat operations and heroism that helped bridge the gap between the police and their military brethren.

The officer referred us to Major General Jeewaka Ruwan Kulatunga, who worked closely with Shani while they served together in Jaffna during the final year of the war. Shani was “the pillar of success” in efforts to forge a strong bond between civilians in Jaffna and the armed forces,” Kulatunga recalled. “He was ASP I for Jaffna, under current IGP Pujith Jayasundera who was DIG Jaffna,” he added.

Recalling the establishment of the Jaffna Peace Committee to promote cooperation between civilian organizations and the armed forces, General Kulatunga cited Shani as the main coordinator of this effort, crediting him with having “worked tirelessly to forge bonds between civilians and soldiers”.

“He helped civilians who wanted to visit the South, and recognized the difference between a Tamil civilian and a Tamil tiger.

Shani helped educate civilians including schoolchildren appreciate the value of law and order, teaching them to recognize their own role in bringing peace to Jaffna.”

General Kulatunga highlighted the hosting of the Jaffna Industrial Exhibition at the height of the war in late December 2008 as furious battle raged in the South. “This was the worst time, but out of the 560,000 civilians in Jaffna, over 300,000 attended the exhibition where we showed people pathways to lead their lives without succumbing to armed conflict or crime,” he added.

Several current CID officers were interviewed for this article, and they declined to be named citing police regulations forbidding most officers from speaking on record to journalists.

The officers, ranging from sub-inspectors to superintendents, all spoke of the immediate difference Shani has already made to the “samskritya” or “culture” of the CID in the days since he was appointed Director. “Shani will not tolerate laziness or dishonesty,” one senior officer said confidently.

The officers were unanimously candid in discussing what they described as a key vice of Shani’s that would make it very difficult for them to thrive under his leadership. The officers elaborated that some of their colleagues were in Jaffna, having just secured death penalty convictions for the suspects responsible for the 2015 murder of Vidya Loganathan, and that upon their return celebrations were in order.

“That is the problem with the director,” the most senior officer present muttered as others nodded in unison. “We are only able to accomplish things like this because of his leadership, but it is impossible to celebrate with him because he refuses to take alcohol,” he muttered.

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