The brutal attack on Douglas Devananda at the Kalutara jail

Friday, 6 October 2023 00:45 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The cowardly and brutal attack on Devananda was condemned by friend and foe alike. A mob attacking a single unarmed individual engaged in a humanitarian mission to end a hunger strike was unacceptable


Kathiravelu Nythiananda Douglas Devananda is a senior Sri Lankan Tamil political leader. The Secretary-General of the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) has been continuously representing the Jaffna district in Parliament since 1994. Devananda known generally as Douglas, has served as a cabinet minister in different Governments for more than 15 years. He is currently the Minister of Fisheries in the Government headed by President Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Douglas Devananda is one of the few Tamil political leaders who has been courageous enough to oppose the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in politico-military terms in the past. Though many Tamil politicos who fell foul of the LTTE were killed by the Tigers, Douglas Devananda is one of the few frontline leaders who has escaped death at the hands of the Tigers. There were many assassination attempts by the LTTE, but the doughty Douglas survived them all.

It is against this backdrop that this column focuses on an attempt on Devananda’s life 25 years ago. This attempt on 30 June 1998 was quite peculiar in the sense that it was different to the usual modus operandi adopted by the LTTE. In this case Devananda then an MP was set upon by Tamil prisoners held at the Kalutara jail and brutally attacked with crudely fashioned improvised weapons. He had gone there on a goodwill mission to end a hunger strike by some Tamil detenues. The attackers were hard core LTTE members. Devananda was seriously injured but survived miraculously. One of his eyes suffered permanent impairment.

When the Kalutara attack happened President Chandrika Kumaratunga was in power. The prisons department came under the purview of the Justice Ministry then. The Minister of Justice was Prof. G.L. Peiris. The EPDP headed by Devananda had nine MPs in Parliament then. The EPDP supported Kumaratnge’s Peoples Alliance (PA) Government in Parliament while being in the opposition. Though having MPs in Parliament, the EPDP was also a para-military outfit collaborating with the Sri Lankan armed forces in the war against the LTTE. As such the LTTE branded the EPDP as traitors and tried in many ways to assassinate the EPDP leader Devananda.

Jawatte jail in Kalutara

The Jawatte jail in Kalutara had a very large number of Tamil prisoners as opposed to Sinhalese inmates. There were two reasons for this. The first was that a very large number of Tamil detainees held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) had been brought from the Welikada jail to Kalutara after Tamil prisoners engaged in a large scale hunger strike protest. Subsequently Tamils held as “Terrorism suspects” in other parts of the country were also brought to the Jawatte jail in Kalutara.

The second reason was that a large number of Sinhala prisoners had been transferred elsewhere from Kalutara. This was because there had been a prison riot in 1997 in which three Tamil speaking prisoners were killed by Sinhala fellow prisoners. Thereafter the number of Sinhala prisoners was reduced. The induction of more Tamil prisoners coupled with the removal of more Sinhala prisoners resulted in a situation where Tamils comprised the overwhelming majority in the Kalutara prison.

The Kalutara jail on 30 June 1997 reportedly had 648 prisoners. 51 of these were Sinhalese. The other 597 were all Tamil political detenues. Among these were 43 persons convicted under the PTA. The other 554 were those arrested and detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act or the emergency regulations. Technically they were all “Terrorist” suspects. Some sections of the media referred to them all as terrorists or Tigers.

However some of those convicted were undergoing punishment or were undergoing trial for minor offences such as not informing the authorities of LTTE whereabouts or providing food or digging bunkers under duress. Nevertheless the unfortunate image reinforced constantly by sections of the media was that all these persons were LTTE.

Most detenues were kept in prison pending trial or on the excuse that further investigations were going on. These “pending” periods however were quite lengthy. As such the incarceration of many of these inmates was in a sense tantamount to detention without trial in practice.

An ongoing demand of the detenues then was that speedier justice should be meted out to them. Many of them claimed to be totally innocent or that even under the draconian provisions of the PTA their alleged offence was quite minimal. So they wanted the authorities to expedite their cases. “If we are guilty, punish us, if we are innocent set us free, but for heaven’s sake do it quickly please” was the essence of their grievance.

“Visaranai sei allathu viduthalai sei”

The Tamil detenues at Kalutara had been agitating many times that either inquiries should be undertaken or that they be set free. “Visaranai sei allathu viduthalai sei” was their slogan in Tamil. They undertook many hunger strikes as the only available form of effective protest in jail. The pattern was for Tamil political parties supporting the Government to convey these demands to the Government and elicit some reassurance or guarantee. These were then conveyed back to the protesting prisoners who then abandon their protests on the strength of these assurances. 

So the protests that begin with a bang saying “fast unto death” end on a whimpering note of trusting Government assurances. What actually happens is a crisis managing exercise and not a genuine resolution of the issue. This has been the case in almost any political promise made to the Tamil minority in the past – all promises are “gone with the wind”.

The last major death fast protest by Tamil prisoners in Kalutara was on 21 March 1998. A temporary settlement was achieved on the basis that their grievance would be resolved within three months. As usual nothing tangible happened within that time limit. So Tamil detenues at Kalutara decided to commence a death fast again. 

Fast unto death

On 23 June 1998 four detenues started a fast unto death. Within the next 48 hours 43 others too joined the fast. On 26 June all the Tamil detenues at Kalutara went on a day-long fast. Thereafter the others too went on a relay fast in batches to express solidarity with the 47 detenues on a prolonged fast. Meanwhile on an initiative of the PLOTE, Tamil political parties other than the TULF staged a token fast in sympathy on 26 June at the Nallur Kandasamy Kovil in Jaffna. The TNA was not in existence then.

When the June 1998 fast was underway, there was a firm resolve on the part of detenues to go through with the death fast until a definite and positive response was elicited from the Government. As days progressed the condition of five fastees took a turn for the worse. After a few days of perceived apathy, the authorities began taking action. Thus on 29 June the Attorney-General’s Department intimated to the detenues that for a start, 23 of those being detained will be released on bail. 

In the past too several detainees have been released on a bailbond and in most such cases the EPDP stood surety or paid up the cash for these detenues who were mainly from poor farming or fishing families now displaced.

Maheswary Velayutham

The legal work in these instances was done by Maheswary Velayutham a well-known human rights lawyer in her capacity as secretary of the forum for human dignity. The human dignity forum was more or less the legal wing of the EPDP. Maheswary Velayutham when interacting with the Kalutara detenues made impassioned pleas that the fast be called off in the interests of the affected fastees whose health was deteriorating. 

Upon being told by the detenues that merely releasing 23 prisoners on a piecemeal basis was not enough, Velayutham promised them that a time bound guarantee could be provided and that Tamil political party leaders could be made guarantors for it. The detenues agreed to call off the fast if Tamil political parties could provide them such a concrete ironclad guarantee.

Thereafter Velautham persuaded Douglas Devananda to undertake the guarantor mission and visit Kalutara. The EPDP being keen to establish itself as a popular political party decided to take all the “kudos” for resolving the crisis. Instead of getting other Tamil party leaders also as guarantors, the EPDP decided to go solo. 

Benevolent visit

So Devananda on 30 June contacted the then Prisons Commissioner K.W.E. Karaliyadde and obtained approval for his “benevolent” visit to Kalutara. In the afternoon at 3 p.m. Douglas Devananda, three armed bodyguards and Maheswary Velayutham journeyed to Kalutara. They were joined in Kalutara by Suhada Gamlath an Attorney General’s Department official and L.A. Leelaratna the Prisons Superintendent.

Prisons regulations prevented Devananda’s armed bodyguards from accompanying him into jail premises. So they had to station themselves outside. Devananda who usually carried two guns for personal protection also had to leave them behind with his bodyguards when he entered prison precincts. All his bodyguards were EPDP cadres. Within the prisons the chief jailor R.R.A. Fernando also joined Devananda, Velayutham, Gamalath and Leelaratna in interacting with the prisoners. 

The Tamil detenues were housed in four major blocks or wards termed A, B, C, and D respectively. According to some reports the chief jailor Fernando had advised Douglas against going into the wards and wanted him to get all fasting persons to come outside but Devananda refused saying that it was proper to go to each fasting person and assure him personally.

Glucose filled water

Thereafter Devananda went through the wards of A, C and D meeting with each fasting detenue individually and getting him to call off the fast. Douglas personally gave each person glucose filled water as a symbol of the fast being ended. He also addressed the prisoners in each block other than B and also answered their questions.

Devananda gave them a firm guarantee that the EPDP would ensure within one month, the beginning of a speedy disposal of their cases by the authorities. It would be a process of release or commencement of trial. He also assured them that the EPDP would stop supporting the Government if this guarantee was not honoured by the PA Government.

It was a matter of immense satisfaction to all concerned that the fast had been called off under amicable circumstances and the authorities were explicitly grateful to Devananda for diffusing an explosive situation. Devananda then looked at the time and exclaimed “6:23 p.m.”. He said that he had another important appointment in Colombo and prepared to depart from Kalutara after a rewarding day personally and politically. Leelaratna and Gamlath also took their leave of Devananda and went away.


Apparently the attack was a result of a direct order relayed from the LTTE high command in the Wanni. The LTTE hierarchy conveyed instructions to its operatives in Kalutara to attack Devananda or other Tamil leaders whenever they got a chance. The implementation of that directive was an autonomous decision taken by the local LTTE leaders in Kalutara. The assailants were waiting for the opportunity and seized the moment to target Douglas

Block “B” inmates

At this point of time a request was made to Devananda by the inmates of Ward B that he should visit them too. Earlier Devananda had not visited Ward B for two reasons. Firstly no one from that block had undertaken the death fast. Secondly the inmates of that block were suspected of being hardcore LTTE. The prison guards themselves referred to Block B inmates as “Koti”. But now Devananda was told that some of the B inmates had also begun a fast and that they would appreciate his meeting them. This was a lie as events proved later.

Devananda used to taking many a risk in his life decided then to visit B ward too. At this point the chief jailor Fernando again warned Devananda not to go into the ward itself but get the detenues to meet him outside in the hall. Devananda agreed and so the B detenues started coming out into the hall. Although there were 234 in Ward B only about 150 came out, the rest saying that they were not interested in talking to Devananda.

Douglas, Maheswari and Fernando then went into the hall alone. Maheswary Velayutham sat on a cement seat in the hall. She placed her files by her side on the cement seat.

Douglas and Fernando remained standing. Douglas was addressed as “Annai” (elder brother) in friendly and polite tones. Asked as to what the situation regarding the plight of the detenues was Devananda began explaining. He had spoken for about two minutes when some of the detenues commenced their brisk operation.

Improvised weapons

Some detenues surrounded Douglas Devananda. He was suddenly tripped from behind. Douglas fell. Four persons then began attacking him with improvised weapons. Two others swiftly grasped the chief jailor Fernando from behind, one of whom gripped him in a vice like lock preventing all movement of his arms.

About 15 to 20 detenues formed a human wall encircling Devananda while the assault continued. Devananda in a bid to protect his eyes turned on his back. Then one of the assailants bent low and began stabbing Devananda on the back of his head with a knife crudely fashioned out of a metal plate. Hooks used to fasten roofing sheets were mounted on sticks and used as makeshift pikes. A metal rod used to fix a toilet in the prison also was used as a club. 

The worst was that block like chunks of cement were also used to beat Douglas in a primitive manner. Blood started oozing out of Devananda’s head.

Maheswary Velayutham saw what was happening and began screaming and tried to rush to Devananda’s side. She was seized by some of the detenues who began dragging her to the cells inside Ward B. Some caught hold of her saree and started yanking it. Fortunately another set of detenues came to Maheswary’s defence. These detenues overpowered the others and allowed a thoroughly bruised and dishevelled Maheswary to get away.

Chief jailor Fernando

In the meantime chief jailor Fernando managed to free himself and rushed outside to raise the alarm. Prison guards rushed to the scene. First they tried normal riot control techniques. Finding them useless they began firing in the air and on the walls. A few bullets ricocheted and struck some of the detenues injuring three.

Upon hearing the reports of gunfire Devananda’s bodyguards got perturbed and wanted to go inside the jail. They were forbidden to do so, but the intrepid bodyguards possessing intense loyalty towards Devananda brandished their firearms and forced their way in. In their zeal to protect Devananda they attempted some unorthodox measures that were resisted by the prison guards.

During this fracas the 248 B ward inmates retreated to their cells and locked themselves from within fearing the wrath of Devananda’s armed bodyguards. Later these locks had to be broken by the regular prison guards.

It took some time for the Police to arrive. Devananda was losing blood fast. But remarkably he did not lose consciousness at the prison and even conversed feebly with his bodyguards. He lost consciousness while being taken to the Nagoda hospital, Kalutara. Taken to the intensive care unit he was given emergency treatment.



Later in the night Douglas was taken to the Colombo National Hospital where he was given emergency neurosurgery for five and a half hours by a team of 10 doctors headed by Dr. Sunil Perera. Apparently the stabbing at the back of his head had damaged vital nerve centres. Also some arteries and veins leading to the brain had been ruptured resulting in heavy haemorrhage. Devananda was taken abroad in mid-July for further medical treatment. 

Two detenues at Kalutara, Krishnakumaran (No. 4180) and Sriskandarajah (No. 4590) were arrested immediately by the Police on receipt of information supplied by Prison authorities. Some of the improvised weapons used to attack Douglas were also seized. The inmates of B ward were compelled to surrender the clothes they were wearing at the time of the incident for forensic analysis. 

President Kumaratunga ordered a top level probe into the incident by the Police under the direction of the then DIG-CID, Punya de Silva. 20 detectives were deployed. Apart from the Police investigations, Justice Minister Peiris also appointed senior Prisons Department official Paskaralingam to conduct an internal inquiry.

Premeditated assault

Meanwhile the LTTE through its media outlets attempted to project the attack as a spontaneous uprising motivated by the detenues’ anger against Devananda for supporting the Government. But evidence available to the sleuths suggested that the assault was clearly premeditated.

Apparently the attack was a result of a direct order relayed from the LTTE high command in the Wanni. The LTTE hierarchy conveyed instructions to its operatives in Kalutara to attack Devananda or other Tamil leaders whenever they got a chance. The implementation of that directive was an autonomous decision taken by the local LTTE leaders in Kalutara. The assailants were waiting for the opportunity and seized the moment to target Douglas.

The cowardly and brutal attack on Devananda was condemned then by friend and foe alike. A mob attacking a single unarmed individual engaged in a humanitarian mission to end a hunger strike was unacceptable. Prisons Commissioner Karaliyadde told the media, “It is a dreadful incident, where a person who came forward to redress the grievances of the inmates had been mercilessly pounced on by the inmates.” 

Well-known lawyer Kumar Ponnambalam who was appearing in courts for many Tamils detained in Kalutara announced that he would not appear for them anymore.

Identification parade

Devananda returned to the island in September 1998 after medical treatment abroad. An identification parade was held at the Kalutara magistrate court. Some detenue suspects were mingled with civilians. They were then placed in two batches of 50 persons each. Devananda identified two suspects from the first batch and four from the other. All six were remanded.

Subsequently 16 persons were indicted. The protracted trial dragged on for many years. One of the accused pleaded guilty and was sentenced while court proceedings went on against the rest. On 30 October 2017, Colombo High Court Judge Piyasena Ranasinghe found six guilty and delivered a sentence of ten and a half years imprisonment each. The other nine were acquitted. 

(The writer can be reached at [email protected].)

Recent columns