Sanjiva Senanayake, whose chosen title reads “Beyond Reasonable Doubt? The Killing of a Prime Minister”
Many people ‘know’ the conventional tale about the assassination of the Prime Minister of Ceylon, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, 62 years ago. However, they each have a slightly different take and theory about the facts, the reasons, the conspiracy theories and who ‘actually’ did it. Those then unborn or too young to have been aware of it at the time, have heard about it from older people. We have to assume that the intrinsic Lankan sense of rumour would have spiced up the details as time went by.
There is a common belief that the standards of general governance, integrity and legal processes were much higher back then, in Ceylon, than now. Bolstering this justifiable belief, adjudication was done by the Supreme Court (SC), the verdict was confirmed in the Court of Criminal Appeal and accepted by the Privy Council in London. Therefore, the predominant view continues to be that justice was served objectively and impartially.
However, there were many controversial interpretations and theories that circulated before, during and after the Bandaranaike trials. There were several aspects of the conduct of the trial and the actual evidence presented that raised questions about the guilt of the alleged assassin and, as a consequence, the guilt of the others.
Articles about those traumatic events of long ago have been published periodically, but they have progressively reverted to recounting and sometimes sensationalizing the standard version, and have not adequately addressed the many controversial questions.
This article focuses specifically on the alleged murderer and the most critical of the controversies, based on the ‘eye-witness’ evidence led at the SC trial – was Somarama proved to be the assassin beyond reasonable doubt? If there is any doubt, it opens up the possibility of a different, politically motivated conspiracy, especially since Bandaranaike was the Prime Minister during turbulent times.
The PM was shot several times with a revolver at his residence ‘Tintagel’ – 65, Rosmead Place – at around 10 am on September 25, 1959. Despite appearing to recover somewhat by evening following surgery, and even dictating a message to the nation from hospital, he died the next morning. The only thing Bandaranaike said about the identity of the gunman was that he was “a foolish man dressed in the robes of a monk”. This was the first major targeted political assassination in post-independence Ceylon, one that changed the future course of the country.
A Buddhist monk, Talduwe Somarama, was immediately arrested in the house, with a gun in hand, on suspicion of being the assailant. He was a hitherto low-profile Buddhist monk who was an eye specialist at the College of Indigenous Medicine in Rajagiriya.
After several days another monk, the politically powerful Mapitigama Buddharakkitha, was arrested in addition to several other individuals alleged to have assisted Buddharakkitha as part of a year-long conspiracy to kill Bandaranaike using Somarama as the assassin. Buddharakkitha, although only thirty-eight years old, was the chief monk of the important Kelaniya Temple and, as the head of the Eksath Bhikkhu Peramuna (EBP), the most politically powerful monk in the country at the time. He was also headstrong, impulsive and confrontational – certainly not a pious monk. Although the EBP was instrumental in bringing Bandaranaike to power in 1956, by 1959 Buddharakkitha was antagonistic toward the PM for being too ‘soft’ in pushing a more aggressive Sinhala Buddhist agenda. Buddharakkitha was aligned with the right-wing of the government and his antagonism toward the leftists (and vice versa) in the government was public knowledge.
After exhaustive investigations and a long trial in the SC, a special jury found both monks and H.P. Jayawardena, a close associate of Buddharakkitha, guilty of the conspiracy, and Somarama guilty of committing the murder, and all three were sentenced to death. The convictions were upheld in the Court of Criminal Appeal, but due to an inadvertent omission in intervening legislative change, Buddharakkitha and Jayawardena were sentenced to life in prison for conspiring to commit murder. An appeal to the Privy Council in London failed, and Somarama was subsequently executed.
There the matter rested and most people forgot about the details of the case with the passage of time. Other dramatic political events followed thereafter leading to an attempted coup d’etat on January 27, 1962 to overthrow the government of Bandaranaike’s widow. Resort to violence for political purposes became more prevalent from the 1970s, and targeted assassinations of political leaders more frequent.
Only two books have been written in English about the assassination; one by the late Justice A.C. Alles and the other by the late Lucian Weeramantry, who was Somarama’s counsel in the trial. It is surprising that more books and academic studies do not seem to have been published specifically about the assassination, an important event in our post-Independence history.
Justice Alles’ book provides a lot of relevant background material but, judging by assertions made and conclusions drawn, it appears to have been written on the assumption that the conspiracy allegedly planned by Buddharakkitha was true and the verdicts just, although he does refer to some questionable issues.
Weeramantry restricts himself to the procedures followed, the evidence led and the submissions made in the SC, to demonstrate that there was more than ‘reasonable doubt’ about the convictions. He argues that the prosecution of the case was politically influenced and not neutral.
It is a fascinating case with many twists and turns as well as contradictions. A critical reading of the above books is recommended to anyone who is interested in digging further into the unusual events specifically pertinent to the murder and trial. A deeper understanding of contemporary political and social developments also helps.
BACKGROUND IN BRIEF
Bandaranaike left the United National Party (UNP) in 1951 and formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). His party lost badly at the next general election in March 1952 and it appeared that his political career was doomed. In the meantime, political pressures by Sinhalese and Buddhist groups for affirmative action had been intensifying since Independence to redress what was perceived as historical discrimination against them from colonial times. The UNP was rather indifferent to these forces but Bandaranaike decided to channel them and was supported strongly by the pancha maha balavegaya consisting of Buddhist monks, Ayurveda practitioners, vernacular teachers, peasants and workers. The SLFP then formed a coalition called the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) with a leftist party headed by Philip Gunawardena and a small party led by W. Dahanayake, to contest the general election of April 1956. A key election slogan was ‘Sinhala-Only in 24 hours’, a potent rallying cry that meant different things to different people. The UNP too adopted the slogan prior to the election when it realised its electoral potential, but its late volte-face lacked credibility and the MEP won by a landslide.
However, the very next year, Bandaranaike initiated discussions with Tamil political leaders to provide devolution of some powers through the establishment of Regional Councils and the so-called Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact was signed in July 1957. It was a compromise on both sides, which the PM likened to the Buddha’s Middle Way, but most of the politicians of the time were focused on short-term gains and not inclined to compromise for stability and longer-term progress. There were opposition and agitation from both sides and some avoidable incidents occurred in the process. Eventually, the pact was abrogated under severe pressure in April 1958, with the EBP too playing a major role.
The antagonistic posturing did not cease and this led to one week of intense conflict at the end of May, the so-called Sinhala-Tamil riots that left long-lasting social scars. The PM’s rule was seen as weak and indecisive in bringing the riots under control and the Governor General, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, played a major role in quelling it.
Despite all this, Bandaranaike introduced the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act No. 28 of 1958 less than 3 months later in August 1958 as a compromise measure to accommodate Tamil demands regarding matters such as education, public service entrance examinations and the administration of the north and east. This too was criticized by extremists on both sides.
Ceylon in 1959, a decade after Independence but still looking for direction, was a hotbed of political turmoil. Agitations and strikes were rampant, with the constant interplay of all the emotion-rousing political forces of the time – urban vs. rural; westernized vs. nationalist; capitalist vs. socialist; Buddhist vs. Catholic; Sinhala vs. Tamil; rich vs. poor – trying to quickly carve pieces out of the emerging national pie. The old order was dying and a new one was being born.
In April 1959, Bandaranaike had a difference of opinion with the Inspector General of Police, Osmund de Silva and decided to replace him. The PM had been previously warned by various Buddhist leaders and MEP coalition partners in Parliament about a right-wing conspiracy to topple his administration with the involvement of the police and armed forces. Although Osmund de Silva was a Buddhist, all the senior Police officers next in line were not and, despite protests from within the Police, Bandaranaike decided to appoint M.W.F Abeykoon, an administrative officer from outside the Police service, angering several senior officers.
That was not all. The urban elites, more inclined to western lifestyles, accustomed to calling the shots politically and economically, and linguistically quite alienated from the masses, were becoming increasingly alarmed at the turn of events since the debacle in 1956 of their preferred political party, the UNP. The growing influence of more aggressive Sinhalese and Buddhist groups was causing concern among the established organizations and social groups.
There was an international dimension too. Despite the intense Cold War then raging, the Bandaranaike government had established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in December 1956 and signed an economic and technical cooperation agreement in 1958. The previous UNP government had recognized the People’s Republic of China in January 1950, supported China’s entry to the United Nations and entered into the historic Rubber-Rice barter agreement in 1952. The Bandaranaike government established full diplomatic relations with China in 1957.
The government’s plans to nationalize State-assisted private schools and foreign businesses such as the oil companies, and its decision in October 1957 to abrogate the Defence Pact with Britain and take back control of Trincomalee harbour and the RAF airbase at Katunayake, were all loud alarm bells.
By the latter half of 1959 the PM was into the fourth year of his five-year term, and already the coalition was fraying. The leftist faction, led by Philip Gunawardena, resigned from the government in April 1959 due to pressure from the coalition’s right wing regarding socialist measures such as the Paddy Lands Act, which included land reform. Strikes became more frequent and intense.
In this milieu, there were many disparate groups that could have had reasons to eliminate Bandaranaike, and perhaps get a bonus by pinning the blame on Buddharakkitha to neutralize a powerful, antagonistic group such as the EBP and the growing direct involvement of Buddhist monks in politics.
Unlike today, firearms were not easily available and targeted political killings were extremely rare. The level of security considered necessary was quite basic and Bandaranaike himself was not keen on too many guards. Access to his residence was freely available during the morning to all and sundry. The shooting at close quarters happened on the verandah of the PM’s private residence with at least 30 people in the immediate vicinity.
Somarama was seated at one end of the outside verandah. There was another monk (Niwanthidiye Ananda) seated about 10 feet away from Somarama and more to the centre of the verandah, near the entrance to the corridor that led from the front porch into the interior of the house. Several others were standing around including a teacher named Gunaratne who was opposite Ananda.
The PM first spoke with Ananda and gave him some instructions. He then moved along the verandah toward Somarama and, as he bent and worshipped him in greeting, a gunshot was heard. Bandaranaike cried out in pain, turned and tried to run back into the house. Further shots were heard, and the PM was hit in the chest and abdomen. Altogether he was hit by four bullets, the first one glancing his left wrist and three entering his torso as he staggered into the house. Gunaratne, who should have had a clear view of the shooting, was also shot in the neck area by a fifth bullet as Bandaranaike stumbled past him to escape into the house along the central corridor.
In the utter confusion that followed, Somarama followed the PM into the house carrying a revolver and was then assaulted by several people who came from other parts of the house before he could say anything. In the melee the revolver went off once, the last bullet, but no one was hurt. The World War I vintage revolver, in rather poor condition, that had been used was recovered by the police.
Somarama’s version was that someone dressed in robes shot repeatedly at the PM from the garden just below the verandah, threw the revolver on to the verandah and then ran off toward the road. He then involuntarily picked up the gun and followed the PM into the house to hand it over to someone responsible.
In the meantime, PC Samarakoon, who was the sentry at the main gate, rushed to the house and shot at Somarama, injuring him in the thigh and groin area. The PM was sent to hospital by car and, soon after that, DIG Sidney de Zoysa, who had a prior appointment to meet the PM, arrived and took control of the chaotic situation. In fact, de Zoysa passed the PM’s car going toward the hospital on his way to the house, but didn’t realise the injured PM was in it. Some time after de Zoysa’s arrival, a bleeding Somarama in obvious pain was, for some inexplicable reason, despatched to the Harbour Police station on the other side of the city and detained there for around two hours before being taken to hospital where he underwent an operation to remove one of his testicles.
The firing of the first five bullets was rapid and probably took less than 10 seconds, since the PM was also moving away. The despatch of the PM by car and the arrival of Sidney de Zoysa would probably have happened within 10-15 minutes thereafter.
It seems, at first glance, to be a straightforward case. The alleged assailant, the weapon, the victim and witnesses were all readily available, and it happened in the heart of Colombo, in a narrow space, in broad daylight. On the face of it, only the motive and the possible involvement of others had to be discerned. But in political murders things are not always what they seem.
THE LEGAL PROCESS
Buddharakkitha and Jayawardena were arrested on October 14, 1959 and held in remand custody, along with Somarama. Following intensive investigations by the police, the magisterial inquiry started on December 14, 1959, less than three months after the murder, and went on until July 27, 1960. At the end of the almost seven month-long hearings, five people were named to stand trial in the SC.
- Mapitigama Buddharakkitha thero
- P. Jayawardena
- Anura de Silva
- Talduwe Somarama thero
- Newton Perera
All the accused were to be charged with conspiracy to murder the PM, and the 4th with murder as well. The indictment read as follows:
That between the 25th of August, 1958, and the 26th of September, 1959, at Kelaniya, Wellampitiya, Rajagiriya, Colombo and other places within the jurisdiction of this Court, you did agree to commit or abet or act together with the common purpose of committing or abetting an offence, to wit, the murder of Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, and that you are thereby guilty of the offence of conspiracy to commit or abet the said offence of murder, in consequence of which conspiracy the said offence of murder was committed, and that you have thereby committed an offence punishable under section 296 read with sections 113B and 102 of the Penal Code.
It specifically mentioned a date 13 months earlier (August 25, 1958) as the origin of the conspiracy. This was the date on which the PM, on the advice of senior technocrats of the Ministry of Finance, decided not to award a shipping contract to a company in which Buddharakkitha’s brother had a significant interest. The direct implication is that Buddharakkitha’s resentment due to this act was the trigger for a year-long conspiracy that led to the assassination.
The defence counsel made a request for a Special Jury at the start of the SC trial due to the highly politically-charged nature of the case. They requested that government employees should be excluded but, in the end, the Foreman of the English-speaking jury was a public servant. As a matter of interest, six members were Christians and the seventh was a Buddhist, and all were from Colombo. However, the integrity of the members of the jury was never questioned.
During the SC trial it became apparent that the third accused was an insignificant character and he was finally acquitted unanimously. It was not clear why he was charged at all, or placed ahead of the alleged murderer Somarama, if there was indisputable evidence against Somarama.
Newton Perera, a police officer, allegedly procured the revolver and ammunition used in the killing. He was also accused of training Somarama to shoot, but this was not established. He was subsequently found not guilty in the SC with the jury divided five to two.
The SC trial commenced seven months later, on February 22, 1961 before Justice T.S. Fernando, and went on till May 12, 1961. The government retained George Chitty QC, a prominent criminal defence lawyer from the private Bar, to lead the prosecution in the SC, by-passing the Attorney General’s Department. The Deputy Solicitor General, A.C.M. Ameer, who was the prosecutor in the Magistrate’s Court, resigned in protest.
There were criticisms that the prosecutor for the State focused more on getting judgements against the accused who were charged, rather than seeking the truth via a broader inquiry to get to the bottom of who actually killed the PM of the country, and why. Some of the defence counsel, including Phineas Quass QC, who came over from the UK to defend Buddharakkitha and Jayawardena, also alluded to this during the trial.
The prosecution did not call Gunaratne who was in a perfect position to see the shooting at close quarters. Neither did the prosecution call key witnesses DIG Sidney de Zoysa or any of the senior (Gazetted) police officers who investigated the case. De Zoysa was called instead by Weeramantry, Somarama’s counsel. There was a lot of evidence led by the prosecution that did not appear to have relevance. The government even paid to bring down a ‘witness’ from the UK (Bruno Perera), who only served to distract attention. He was reprimanded and fined by the Judge at the end of the trial.
The seven members of the Special Jury were the final arbiters of the judgement rather than the Judge. They would have had a tedious task in assessing the oral evidence, unravelling the many counsel’s interventions and addresses, absorbing the Judge’s directions on points of law, and then arriving at a decision in a short while. In those non-computerized days, the jury had to rely only on what they heard in the courts almost every day for 55 days and make a decision on a matter of life and death, without the advantage of printed transcripts of evidence. 97 witnesses testified and the typed record of the proceedings ran into 3,536 pages.
(Note: typed transcripts of the day’s proceedings were, however, made available to the Judge and counsel the following day)
WHO SHOT THE PM ?
The first point that had to be proved by the prosecution beyond any doubt was that Somarama actually pulled the trigger. Without that the entire case, conspiracy and all, would fail.
Despite the large number of people present that morning, only three ‘eye-witnesses’ were called by the prosecution to establish that Somarama was the actual shooter. They were :
(a) the Buddhist monk Niwanthidiye Ananda
(b) one of his acolytes from Polonnaruwa named Wedage Piyadasa and
(c) a teacher named Wijekoon Wickramasinghe
The evidence of Niwanthidiye Ananda :
Ananda said that the PM, after finishing speaking with him, took a few steps toward Somarama and then turned back to inquire if Ananda was satisfied. He then went over and worshipped Somarama, who remained seated, and asked why he had come. Then the PM took a step backward. Ananda had turned round and bent down to collect his belongings when he heard two rapid gunshots. Somarama then pointed the revolver at Ananda and he closed his eyes in terror. He then heard some more shots but didn’t see Gunaratne being injured. When he opened his eyes, he saw Somarama holding a revolver, biting his lip and with bulging eyes, follow the PM as he stumbled into the house. Ananda did not say he actually saw Somarama firing the gun. In the Magistrate’s Court he had said “I did not see the actual act of firing. As I turned, I saw the accused holding a pistol in his hands levelled at the PM”.
Ananda then jumped over some flower pots into the garden, ran up to the main gate and shouted at the sentry there, grabbing him by the arm. He told the sentry that the PM was being shot and to protect him. Then as Ananda returned to the house, he saw the injured Gunaratne stagger out bleeding and he took him to the gate and requested bystanders to send him to hospital. Ananda said he then went into the bedroom where the injured PM was lying and spent a few moments in contemplation until he heard a commotion in the central corridor outside the room. When he came out, he found a bleeding Somarama on the floor being assaulted and joined in by kicking and hitting him with his slippers. Somarama wanted some water and Ananda asked one of the servants to bring some. Before he could give the water, Somarama vomited blood and fainted. Then, when Ananda and one of his acolytes (Yatawara) were tying Somarama’s hands together, DIG Sidney De Zoysa turned up and ordered them to stop. He then left and went to his temple in Kollupitiya.
However, the police sentry, in his evidence, said that no monk ever came and spoke to him at the gate. Instead, he said that, when he came running toward the house on hearing the shots, an old gentleman pointed out Somarama as the assailant. Furthermore, DIG Sidney de Zoysa said under oath that there was no monk other than Somarama in the premises when he arrived. He also said that there were no signs of Somarama’s hands being tied, and that it was he who sent the injured Gunaratne to hospital. To make things more murky, the acolyte Yatawara in his statement to the police stated that he was not at the scene of the crime because he returned too late to join Ananda’s entourage having spent the previous night with a friend outside Colombo.
The evidence of Wedage Piyadasa :
Piyadasa corroborated Ananda’s evidence on some of the main points including the version about alerting the sentry. Piyadasa had run out with NA soon after the shooting but then went out of the gate and did not return to the house thereafter. It is reasonable to expect Piyadasa to back up Ananda, a monk he was faithful to and on whose patronage he was dependent.
However, Piyadasa also said that Somarama deliberately aimed and fired at Gunaratne. It does seem strange though, that an assassin would take time off to shoot an innocent man while his prime quarry was getting away from him and escaping into the house. If the prosecution believed this story, they should probably have charged Somarama with the attempted murder of Gunaratne too.
The evidence of Wijekoon Wickramasinghe :
Wickramasinghe was standing in the other wing of the verandah from Somarama and his view was blocked by intervening bodies, including that of the PM. In the Magistrate’s Court, just a few months after the shooting, he had said, “I heard the shots from the direction where the Prime Minister and the monk in the corner were. I was unable to see anything at that time because my view was obstructed by the Prime Minister.”
However, his later evidence in the SC was very different. He said that, as the PM approached Somarama, the latter sprang up, took a few steps to his left (i.e. away from the garden) and started firing. By a happy coincidence, this alleged move by Somarama would have better placed him in WW’s line of sight. However, the likelihood of Somarama shooting after such a movement is cast in further doubt by forensic evidence, as explained below.
Furthermore, Wickramasinghe’s evidence in the SC contradicted the evidence of Ananda and Piyadasa by saying that the PM did not reach, worship or speak with Somarama before the latter started shooting.
The evidence given by eye-witnesses, especially in circumstances where they themselves are in danger, and probably taking evasive action, can be somewhat unreliable. However, if the accounts of several eye-witnesses are also inconsistent with one another on major points, then the evidence becomes dubious. The reader can decide on the credibility of the evidence of these three eye-witnesses. There is plenty of authoritative material on the internet about the pros and cons of eye witnesses.
In summary, no clear, consistent, unambiguous eye-witness evidence was produced in the Supreme Court to definitively establish that anyone actually saw Somarama firing the weapon. The prosecution did not call more eye-witnesses from the long list of people interviewed by the police in order to establish guilt beyond any doubt and close the case out. It’s fair to assume that there were no such ‘reliable’ witnesses.
THE FIRST BULLET
The forensic evidence that was presented at the trial, which is not dependent on any witness’s testimony, also raised a vital question. Inspector Tyrrell Goonetilleke of the CID, who was at the scene within one hour of the shooting, made precise notes of the physical damage caused by the bullets in addition to other relevant facts. He noted that one bullet travelled almost at right angles to the line of the verandah, and went into the house. It pierced a glass pane of a French window separating the verandah from the hall inside, at a height of only 4 feet 3 inches above the verandah floor and hit the back wall of a second living room, well inside the house, at a height of 13 feet. Blood and fragments of flesh were found where it hit the wall confirming that it had struck the PM. Several people who were present had mentioned that the PM jerked his hand and cried out in pain soon after the first gunshot was heard.
The Judicial Medical Officer, Dr. W.D.L. Fernando, who examined the PM’s injuries on the day of the shooting described the related wound as follows –
- A punctured lacerated wound on the back of the left wrist – an entrance wound
- A punctured lacerated wound on the back of the left hand – an exit wound
Injuries (1) and (2) corresponded and were caused by the same bullet which passed only skin deep through the hand.
This was a relatively minor wound and, naturally, most of the attention was focused on the three bullets that entered the torso of the PM leading to his death. However, it is the first bullet fired that created most doubt about Somarama’s guilt. The injury caused by that first bullet, and its trajectory, is only compatible with the shot being fired from the garden outside, which was at a lower level than the verandah. There was never any suggestion of a scuffle, a second gunman or a second gun and the Government Analyst established that all six bullets were fired from the same revolver that was recovered at the scene.
The crucial question is, how could Somarama have fired that bullet from where he was seated and caused that injury to the PM, who was facing him in worship?
As for Wickramasinghe’s evidence, if Somarama stood up and moved to his left as the PM approached before shooting, the height and trajectory of the first bullet would be absolutely impossible for Somarama to achieve.
SOME LEGAL ASPECTS
It is important to bear in mind that the onus is on the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the accused are guilty. Defence counsel do not have to prove that their clients are ‘not guilty’. The benefit of doubt goes to the accused. The accused are not even required to give evidence and, in this case, only Newton Perera testified, for reasons decided as advantageous by his counsel. However, Somarama made a statement from the Dock on which he was not open to cross-examination.
The process that prevailed was for the prosecution to submit a list of names of witnesses at the beginning of the trial. If the prosecution chose not to call a witness in their list, the defence could do so, if it saw a specific advantage. However, the defence would then have to lead the evidence and lose the opportunity to re-examine the witness following examination by the other counsel. It was a risky move because there was no opportunity for the defence to counteract impressions created in the minds of the jury through the testimony of that witness during examination by the other counsel.
As the counsel representing Buddharakkitha said in his summing up –
“Although Mr. Chitty has told you that the defence could have called any prosecution witness it liked, there is a big difference between the prosecution calling such a witness and the defence doing so. The defence has no access to the information book or to statements made by witnesses to the police. Is it not a terrible risk for the defence to take, to call a prosecution witness when it has no access to these statements and no opportunity of examining the witness in advance?
Further, when the defence calls a prosecution witness, it cannot cross-examine him, as it could do if he were called by the prosecution.” (Weeramantry – page 296)
It’s important to note that only the Judge and prosecution counsel had access to the police investigation notes (Information Book), which also included statements made by various individuals to the police.
Having the last word is of great value in court, as it is in life. This principle is also of great importance when it comes to deciding the order of the final addresses to the jury by counsel, which is then followed by the charge to the jury by the Judge. The process applicable in 1961 is succinctly explained by Weeramantry in his book as follows –
“The Ceylon Criminal Procedure Code lays down that counsel for the accused ordinarily enjoys the right of reply to the Crown. If, however, counsel for an accused calls evidence for the defence other than that of the accused himself, he loses that right and must address the jury before the Crown does so. Counsel for the 3rd, 4th and 5th accused, having called evidence on behalf of their respective clients, had therefore lost their right of reply and had, in consequence, to address before the Crown. Counsel for the 1st and 2nd accused, however, having called no evidence on behalf of his clients, preserved his right of reply.” (Weeramantry – page 232)
Thus, the counsel who represented Buddharakkitha and Jayawardena had the opportunity to listen to the final summing up of all the other counsel and then tailor his address accordingly to have maximum impact on the minds of the members of the jury. It was a strategic decision that he took.
The final line up to address the jury, in order, was –
- Counsel for Anura de Silva, the 3rd accused (K. Shinya).
- Counsel for Talduwe Somarama, the 4th accused (Lucian Weeramantry)
- Counsel for Newton Perera, the 5th accused (Nadesan Satyendra)
- The Crown (George Chitty)
- Counsel for Mapitigama Buddharakkitha and H.P. Jayawardena, the 1st and 2nd accused respectively (Phineas Quass)
THE RETURN OF THE HANGMAN
The debate on the pros and cons of capital punishment during that period casts some light on the attitude and approach of the decision-makers on justice within the government toward the accused in this particular case.
PM Bandaranaike was firmly opposed to the death penalty. In May 1956, within weeks of his inauguration, a Bill titled Suspension of Capital Punishment was presented in Parliament and passed overwhelmingly with just one vote against it. However, it was defeated by a slight majority in the Senate. Bandaranaike persisted and finally the Suspension of Capital Punishment Act No. 20 of 1958 took effect on May 9, 1958. It was still ‘suspension’ and not ‘abolition’.
A Commission was then established in October 1958 by the Governor General to study and report on the advisability of the death penalty. It was headed by Dr. Norval Morris, an academic from Australia who was internationally known in the field of criminal law. The Morris Commission held intensive interviews and consultations, analysed relevant data regarding the efficacy of capital punishment in reducing crime and considered broader social and economic issues and implications. The subject even came up during the SC trial, and Justice T.S. Fernando himself mentioned that he appeared before the commissioners in strong support of the death penalty. The Commission’s report, recommending continuation of the suspension was issued in that fateful month – September 1959.
On October 2, 1959, within seven days of Mr. Bandaranaike’s passing, the suspension instituted by him was removed by an extraordinary gazette. Subsequently, the Suspension of Capital Punishment (Repeal) Act No. 25 of 1959 was passed in Parliament and took effect on December 2, 1959, even before the magisterial inquiry on the assassination had commenced. This new law reinstated the death penalty, retrospectively, for those found guilty of murder and repealed the previous legislation.
It is ironic that the death penalty was brought back specifically to hang the assailant for whom the PM had called for clemency from his death bed.
That was not all. By an oversight, the death penalty was only reintroduced for murder, and not conspiracy to murder, which meant that the 1st and 2nd accused could not be executed. Thus, although death sentences were pronounced in the SC, the Court of Criminal Appeal altered their sentences to life imprisonment.
The government then came up with the Capital Punishment (Special Provisions) Bill which was scheduled for discussion in Parliament on January 18, 1962. It sought to retrospectively include the death penalty for conspiracy to murder, and annul the sentences of the Court of Criminal Appeal on Buddharakkitha and Jayawardena. Since it was clearly targeting the accused in the assassination of the PM, and not based on any general legal policy or principle, there were massive protests and opposition. Colvin R. De Silva called it ‘murder by statute’. Under pressure, the government withdrew the Bill one week later, on January 25.
The abortive coup d’état of January 27, 1962 followed a couple of days later and the government’s legal campaign shifted to another arena, where retrospective legislation was once again used.
However, Somarama’s fate had been sealed one week after the PM died, and he was hanged on July 6, 1962.
CROWN WITNESSES AND CONDITIONAL PARDONS
Three additional suspects were originally produced before the Chief Magistrate of Colombo, when hearings started on December 14, 1959. They were F.R. (Dickie) de Zoysa, Mrs. Wimala Wijewardene and Carolis Amarasinghe who provided different perspectives on Somarama’s involvement.
Dickie de Zoysa was a close associate of Buddharakkitha and a long-standing personal friend of the deceased PM. He was the elder brother of both the Minister of Finance, Stanley de Zoysa, and DIG Sidney de Zoysa. He was apparently involved in Buddharakkitha’s brother’s unsuccessful shipping venture, and was annoyed with the PM when it was rejected in August 1958.
Shockingly, there was no valid evidence against him. Justice Alles’ book included this cryptic passage, pregnant with meaning, about his arrest –
“In view of the political implications of the assassination case, it was inevitable that interested parties, particularly politicians, should have interfered with the police investigations. Pressure was brought on the police to arrest Dickie de Zoysa, a factor that would necessarily have embarrassed his brother, the Minister of Finance. The police, however, were of the view that the admissible evidence against him was too slender to warrant his arrest, but as a result of political pressure, particularly by some Ministers, the Inspector-General of Police gave a written order to A.S.P. Iyer to arrest Dickie de Zoysa. Iyer had Dickie de Zoysa arrested in November 1959, just before plaint was filed. He was brought to court and discharged and no charges were framed against him at any stage.” (Alles p. 158)
The only mention of Dickie de Zoysa in connection with this case was in Somarama’s ‘confession’ made on November 14, 1959. De Zoysa was arrested on November 19, five days later. One can speculate about how and why de Zoysa featured in it at all, even as an insignificant, minor character. His alleged ‘involvement’ resulted in political pressure and led to the early resignation of the Minister of Finance. Somarama’s ‘confession’ is dealt with later.
Wimala Wijewardene, had been the Minister of Health in the MEP Cabinet until she was forced to retire after the assassination. It was publicly known that she was in an intimate relationship with Buddharakkitha, and it was clear from the evidence of many during the SC trial that he conducted all of his personal and political discussions in Colombo at her residence. It was effectively his Colombo office. She was arrested on the same date as de Zoysa but there was insufficient evidence against her and she was discharged by the magistrate.
Carolis Amarasinghe, ended up as the prosecution’s star, opening witness in the Supreme Court (SC). He was a practitioner of Ayurveda, a father of seven and Jayawardena’s family physician. He was also the Chairman of the Kolonnawa Urban Council and a die-hard supporter of the PM. His close association with Buddharakkitha was via the College of Indigenous Medicine.
Amarasinghe was remanded on October 15, 1959, and was effectively treated as a co-conspirator throughout. He made three statements to the police prior to his arrest but did not say anything about the alleged conspirators. But on October 21, one week after his arrest, he gave an elaborate account of secret meetings and plans discussed at his house by the accused. He followed up the very next day by making a statement to a Magistrate, which was admissible as evidence in a court under the Law of Evidence. As a quid pro quo, he was promised a conditional pardon by the prosecution, and was officially made a Crown Witness on January 12, 1960 in the middle of the magisterial inquiry. Since the pardon depended on the evidence he would give, he was held in remand custody even during the SC trial in 1961 and was brought to court under prison guard.
In an article written in 2008, Mr. R.J.N. Jordan, Superintendent of the Magazine Prison at that time, provides some interesting insight into Amarasinghe’s mental state before he made the statement –
“Some days after being on remand, suspect Dr. Amerasinghe complained of an uncontrollable diarrhoea to me on my daily visits to his place of location (cell). Dr. B.T. Jayasekera the Senior Prison Medical Officer who treated him mentioned to me, that it was a condition induced by fright and medication alone would not arrest the condition.”
The question arises – did the information in the statement come gushing out all of a sudden, or was it fleshed out and flushed out ?
The ploy of suspects turning Crown Witness and escaping punishment was quite current at the time due to sensational cases such as the Turf Club Robbery (1949) and the Sathasivam murder case (1951). During cross-examination of Amarasinghe by counsel for Newton Perera, it was established that a discussion between Amarasinghe and Newton Perera took place regarding conditions to be negotiated for pardons. This had taken place during a three-week period preceding Amarasinghe being officially given a conditional pardon, when the two were held in the Magazine prison. It is clear that Perera, who was arrested on October 22, also considered turning Crown Witness but that did not happen for reasons unknown.
A key part of Amarasinghe’s wide-ranging statement, as far as Somarama was concerned, recounts a few meetings at his house about six weeks prior to the assassination during which there was talk by Buddharakkitha of “shooting practice”, presumably for Somarama with Perera as the trainer.
It is incredibly strange that almost all of Buddharakkitha’s meetings in Colombo were held at the home of his confidant and partner Wimala Wijewardene but, when it came to the most critical decision of his life, he chose Amarasinghe’s place. It is especially so if, as stated by Amarasinghe, he was never part of the ‘plot’.
On the first visit (fixed as August 14 by Newton Perera) Buddharakkitha, Jayawardena, Somarama and Newton Perera visited him. Perera had allegedly obtained a revolver and some bullets for Buddharakkitha’s personal protection several weeks earlier, but the latter complained that the bullets were not firing. Buddharakkitha gave some money to Perera to procure better bullets and asked Amarasinghe to provide his car. A few minutes after Perera left, the others departed leaving a message for Perera to get in touch with Buddharakkitha. The car returned later without Perera.
Two days later, the same foursome arrived separately in the afternoon, with Perera getting dropped off in a police car, wearing police uniform. Buddharakkitha again asked for Amarasinghe’s car for Perera, who left and came back, wearing the national dress. When the visitors wanted to leave immediately, Amarasinghe asked where they were bound and was told they were off to Muthurajawela for some shooting practice. Muthurajawela in 1959 was a vast, sparsely inhabited marshland a few miles north of Colombo. Amarasinghe declined an invitation to join them.
Then two more days later Somarama came alone in the morning. He was not a close associate and had not visited alone before. When questioned about the shooting practice, Somarama told him categorically that it was in preparation to murder the PM. Amarasinghe was horrified that such dastardly deeds were being discussed in his house and told Somarama that he didn’t want them to visit any more. Just then Buddharakkitha and Jayawardena arrived and took Somarama away. Despite all this, Amarasinghe could not explain why he did not go promptly to the police and save the life of the PM, whom he ardently admired.
Newton Perera in his evidence mentioned the visit on August 14 but said there were no other visits. Instead. he said that on the next day, August 15, Buddharakkita called him still complaining about his revolver not firing. Jayawardena then came for him, picked up Somarama and went to Buddharakkitha’s temple. After Perera cleaned the gun, Buddharakkitha suggested going to Muthurajawela to test it. Where Buddharakkitha had tested the gun to discover that it was not working was unknown.
When they got to a desolate spot Perera fired a few shots in the air and returned the revolver to Buddharakkitha. As Perera was getting into the car, he saw Somarama run out and fire a few more shots in the air. It seemed such a waste of precious, hard-to-find ammunition, when one shot would have proved that the revolver worked. Anyway, there were no available targets and no training in marksmanship took place. Perera said that he did not meet any of the accused thereafter till after the assassination.
Amarasinghe and Perera were both considered co-conspirators and, therefore, could not legally corroborate each other’s evidence – corroboration had to come from an independent source. In effect, their accounts about the visits to Amarasinghe’s house and Muthurajawela stood alone, unconfirmed by other, independent evidence.
There is an interesting and controversial interpretation of this aspect in the judgement of the Court of Criminal Appeal –
“Amarasinghe’s evidence that he said that he practised firing with a revolver to shoot the Prime Minister is corroborated by the fact that he shot the deceased with a powerful revolver. No more corroboration need be looked for as his act provides corroboration in the most material particular. It is therefore unnecessary to discuss further the charge of conspiracy against the 4th accused.”
Readers who wish to check further can access the text of the judgement at
In addition to the evidence of the three eye-witnesses, a statement made by Somarama to the Chief Magistrate of Colombo on November 14, 1959 was used by the prosecution to convince the jury that he was the assassin. Somarama retracted the statement long before the SC trial started, and its admissibility as evidence was contested in the SC.
Somarama had been moved to the prison hospital within a few days of the shooting and was then questioned in prison many times by police teams. The most senior police officer in the team was Superintendent of Police B.W. Perera.
Finally, on November 7, Somarama gave a statement to the police but it was short, vague and only mentioned Jayawardena. Then, a week later, he made the following statement to the Chief Magistrate of Colombo –
“One day in August 1959, when I was in the dispensary of the Ayurvedic Hospital in Borella, Reverend Buddharakkitha, the high priest of the Kelaniya temple, and H. P. Jayawardena came by car to see me. Inviting me into the car, Buddharakkitha began to complain bitterly about the general situation in the country. He said that vast sums of money were being lost at the port through strikes and mismanagement. He expressed grave fears that, if the current trends were not arrested, there would be no place for us in the land, nor would there be a future for the Sinhalese people, their religion or their language. He suggested that we take steps to do away with the Prime Minister, as we would then be free to fashion things as we wished. I asked him what would befall us if we were to do such a thing. “Nothing will happen to us”, he replied. “I have made all the arrangements with those whose assistance we need”. Jayawardena said, “If you should only do this job, we shall ensure that you are out of remand in two or three weeks’ time”. Buddharakkitha in turn reassured me that everything would be alright – that I had nothing to fear. I acceded to their request, explaining that I was consenting to do such a thing to one who had done me no wrong only for the sake of my country, my religion and my race. I told them that I had two pupils and also my temple to look after, but they promised to see to all that. They then said that in a day or two they would bring me a revolver, after which all details could be discussed.
“Two or three days later, Buddharakkitha brought me a revolver about a foot in length. It was a six-chambered one and was loaded. We then went to Ragama, met Dickie de Zoysa and proceeded along with him to Muthurajawela. There I fired several times at the fruits of a ‘kaduru’ tree. When I struck a fruit and felled it, someone in the party exclaimed, ‘Bravo, well done!’ After the firing we returned to my temple, having dropped Dickie de Zoysa at Ragama.
“Thereafter Rev. Buddharakkitha and Jayawardena visited me often. One day, Amarasinghe, the Chairman of the Kolonnawa Urban Council, also came along with Buddharakkitha.
“Buddharakkitha, Jayawardena and I had agreed that the job be done on the 25th of September. That morning, in order to pluck up courage, I drank a mixture which I had prepared myself and went to the Prime Minister’s residence at Rosmead Place. When the Prime Minister was talking to another monk on the verandah, I started trembling through fear. But the mixture I had taken sustained my courage. On the verandah I shot at the Prime Minister once. That shot struck him. While he was running into the house, I ran behind him and fired three more shots. Then I was overpowered. Someone shot me too and I was rendered unconscious. I do not know what happened next.
There are several interesting features. There was no mention of visiting Amarasinghe’s house, just a discussion in a car in August, and no mention of Newton Perera either. Dickie de Zoysa had tagged along for the ride to Muthurajawela but, one month later, when hearings commenced at the magistrate’s court, the police withdrew the case against him for lack of evidence. There’s no mention of marksmanship training but Somarama says he aimed at some fruits at Muthurajawela and succeeded in hitting them, establishing that he was somehow handy with a revolver. He states that he ran behind the PM and shot him but all the entry wounds on the PM were in the front or side of his body.
Somarama retracted this ‘confession’ at the end of the magisterial inquiry (on July 15, 1960), seven months before the SC trial began. In the retraction he stated –
“When I expressed reluctance to make a false statement as required by the police, I was shown a newspaper which said that the death penalty had been re-introduced and was told that, in view of this development, there could be no doubt that I would be sentenced to death and hanged. If, however, I were to make a statement to a magistrate professing that I was doing so voluntarily, the police promised to have me released and made a crown witness. To me, who now lived in the shadow of death, the offer of freedom was irresistible. Therefore, I made a statement to the Magistrate as required by the police, asserting that I was making it of my own free will. In it I implicated the persons whom the police wanted me to implicate. I now state that that statement was absolutely untrue.”
The first visit to Somarama in prison by the police team was on October 2, the date on which the government had issued an extraordinary Gazette repealing the suspension of capital punishment. Somarama in a statement from the Dock, made on April 6, 1961, went further and said that B.W. Perera showed him the front page of the newspaper, explained that the death penalty had been reintroduced and he would certainly be hanged. Perera had then asked him to give a statement that he had shot the PM on the instructions of Buddharakkitha and Jayawardena and in exchange he would be made a Crown Witness and escape death. Somarama also said that Perera had mentioned the pardon given to Rupananda, one of the accused in the Turf Club robbery and murder case, as an example. Perera had been on the police team that handled that famous case ten years earlier. It should be noted that Amarasinghe had already been made a Crown Witness six months before Somarama’s retraction. Somarama also said that he had developed an addiction to opium after being medically treated earlier for haemorrhoids, and that he was offered some opium by Perera.
Incidentally, B.W. Perera subsequently committed suicide, in early 1960, when it came to light that he had provided some ammunition to an intermediary, ostensibly acting on behalf of Buddharakkitha. There was no evidence of those bullets being used to assassinate the PM.
Visiting prisoners in remand to question them regarding cases in which they themselves were involved was considered irregular. During the SC trial, the Chief Magistrate of Colombo and some senior Prisons officers stated that it had never happened before in their experience. However, despite objections by Somarama’s counsel, the Judge ruled that it was acceptable since Somarama had been jailed before the police had an opportunity to question him adequately.
Somarama’s counsel also argued that, according to the law, the retracted ‘confession’ should not be admissible as evidence since there were circumstances that showed that it had been made as a result of inducement, threat or promise. He emphasized that in accordance with the prevailing Evidence Ordinance, even the ‘appearance’ of such influence would render it inadmissible, but Justice T.S. Fernando ruled that there should be clear evidence of influence.
The judgement of the Court of Criminal Appeal (https://www.lawnet.gov.lk/the-queen-v-mapitigama-buddharakkita-thera-and-2-others/) contains a rather ambiguous comment on this matter. It states
— “Held, (i) that the admission in evidence of a confession made by the 4th accused to the Magistrate, even assuming that the confession was not voluntary and was obnoxious to section 24 of the Evidence Ordinance or was otherwise inadmissible, could not vitiate the conviction of the 4th accused, because the fact that the 4th accused killed the deceased was established beyond any manner of doubt by the direct evidence of some of those present at the deceased’s house at the time when he was shot there.”
Interestingly, that court had a different view on the value of the ‘confession’ as well. Another passage in the judgement reads –
“Even if any or all of these submissions are entitled to succeed, that would make no difference in the instant case, because the fact that the 4th accused killed the deceased was established beyond any manner of doubt by the direct evidence. Indeed, it is surprising that with that evidence available the prosecution thought it necessary to lengthen the proceedings so much by seeking to prove the confession.”
The prosecution appears to have had a different assessment of the adequacy of the ‘direct evidence’ at their disposal.
MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS
The PM knew Somarama well and had interacted with him on matters relating to the College of Indigenous Medicine even a few weeks before the shooting. Somarama had been involved in campaigning for the MEP and had chaired meetings where Bandaranaike had spoken. Yet, in his ‘Address to the Nation’ written for broadcast by radio, he did not say the assailant was Somarama. He didn’t even say it was a genuine monk – just “a foolish man” wearing robes. The PM was known to be very precise in his use of words, especially in English. He had been joking with doctors and nurses at the hospital despite his injuries, fully expecting to survive, so he was in control of his mental faculties. It’s hard to believe that the PM could not recognize Somarama at such close quarters.
Somarama’s behaviour that fateful morning also raises doubts about his guilt. When he set out that morning in a taxi, which is easily traceable, he offered a lift to two people for part of the way – hardly the behaviour of an assassin primed for action within a couple of hours. Then, while sitting on the verandah of the PM’s house, he had quite normal conversations with others minutes before he allegedly became homicidal. Ananda even asked Somarama for an appointment for a friend with an eye ailment, and was requested to send him the following Thursday.
Somarama’s movements on the eve of the shooting (September 24, 1959) were quite normal too. In fact, when Buddharakkitha and Jayawardena visited Somarama’s temple that evening (for last minute consultations and instructions, according to the prosecution), they found him missing. Somarama was relaxing at a temple in Kotahena, having a chat with his friend, Colamba Saranankara. Is it likely that the master-mind and his chosen instrument of death didn’t know each other’s whereabouts, or even that they were due to meet, on the day before the long-planned assassination of the Prime Minister?
The police recovered three outer robes and an inner jacket worn by Buddhist monks lying discarded in the premises after the shooting. Somarama’s outer robe and inner jacket were pulled off in the struggle and that accounted for one robe. Even if Somarama wore two robes that day, as the prosecution argued, one more robe remained a mystery. The prosecution suggested, rather facetiously, that they had probably been kept in the house to be gifted to monks.
A woman who was cooking in a house across the road had come out on hearing the shots and saw a man vault over the perimeter wall of the PM’s house. He shouted “Hari machang” to someone in one of two cars parked on the road outside, jumped into the other one and both cars sped off towards Borella. The prosecution did not call her to give evidence, but Weeramantry did. When the prosecution could not shake her evidence, they suggested that the escapee was probably a ‘look-out’ working in league with the conspirators, and even argued that it bolstered the ‘fact’ that there was a conspiracy. It seems far-fetched that a ‘look-out’ would have had two private cars at his disposal whereas the alleged assassin, Somarama, arrived alone in a taxi that could be easily traced.
Several other common-sense questions come to mind re Buddharakkitha’s motivations and actions.
- why would a young, powerful and street-smart monk like Buddharakkitha, with his life before him, risk losing everything by killing the PM, without even having a replacement ‘sponsor’ in place?
- was he the type to wait for over one year, as the indictment indicated, before taking his revenge?
- why did he not use his close links with underworld characters to kill the PM in some remote location, perhaps as he campaigned?
- why would he draw attention to himself by sending another Buddhist monk to murder the PM in public and in broad daylight?
- why would the ‘plan’ be for Somarama to go into the house after the shooting, where he was sure to be captured, rather than escape in the ensuing chaos?
In addition to the bullet-points above, is it conceivable that Somarama could have expected to be believed when he pleaded innocence, after shooting the PM in front of so many people? On the day, he did not proudly exult that he did it for country, religion and race, as he did in his ‘confession’.
As stated earlier, the jury operated in a politically charged, pressure-cooker atmosphere, with limited technical facilities and under tremendous time pressure. On top of that, there was quite a lot of evidence presented that appeared to have little relevance to the assassination per se, which they still had to take note of and assess. The judge’s summing up alone was spread over six days. They didn’t have the luxury, that we now do, of being able to refer to documents and contemplate at leisure.
In the end, the members of the Special Jury were convinced that the prosecution’s case was proved beyond reasonable doubt, and that is what finally mattered. As Justice Fernando mentioned in his charge to the Jury, they were the sole judges of fact and therefore the real judges in the case. Besides, their opinion was in consonance with that of the experienced judges of the Court of Criminal Appeal.
In that Court, the focus was mainly on legalistic aspects, such as whether the Judge misinterpreted or misguided the jury in matters of law. It was not a full re-assessment of the evidence, but specific submissions made by the defence counsel were considered and addressed. Deliberations were concluded on January 15, 1962.
The main focus of this article is on the testimony in the SC of the witnesses, especially the ‘eye-witnesses’, and the forensic evidence as they relate very specifically to the case against Somarama. His culpability is at the core of the case.
Obviously, there are many other aspects of the alleged conspiracy – in and out of court, legal and political – that could not be covered in an article of this length. There were also many colourful characters who played their parts in this long drama that held the entire nation spellbound all those years ago. Adding even some of them on, would have diverted attention from the main actor – Talduwe Somarama.
It all boils down to a key question.
Can we be reasonably sure of anything beyond the fact that the assassin was a man – foolish or fiendish – “dressed in the robes of a monk”? That is all we know for certain from the only 100% reliable eye-witness …. the late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike himself.
And, if the murderer was not Somarama, who was it, and why did he come dressed as a Buddhist monk?
NOTE THAT Sanjiva Senanayake’s Analysis was presented in a Series in THE ISLAND = https://island.lk/beyond-reasonable-doubt-3/ …. AND he has indicated to THUPPAHI that he would welcome questions sent to him at email@example.com
ADDITIONAL NOTE from KKS Perera, 2 October 2023
OTHER REFERENCES [among a host]
DBS Jeyaraj: ……https://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/?p=33515
Sachi Sri Kantha: ….. https://tamilnation.org/forum/sachisrikantha/090926banda.htm