1989 – Hillsborough in England & our Matale!

Last Thursday, 29 June, Barman felt very happy and sad at the same time.

The reason for the happiness was that after 10,301 days, or nearly 30 years, justice was served for victims of the Hillsborough disaster.

The Hillsborough disaster was a human crush at Hillsborough football stadium in Sheffield, England on 15 April 1989, during the 1988–89 FA Cup semi-final game between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. The resulting 96 fatalities and 766 injuries made it the worst disaster in British sporting history. The crush occurred in the two standing-only central pens in the Leppings Lane stand, allocated to Liverpool supporters. Shortly before kick-off, in an attempt to ease overcrowding outside the entrance turnstiles, the police match commander, chief superintendent David Duckenfield, ordered exit gate C to be opened, leading to an influx of even more supporters to the already overcrowded central pen.

In the days and weeks following the disaster, police fed false stories to the press suggesting that hooliganism and drinking by Liverpool supporters were the root causes of the disaster. After Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun whitewashed the police, the newspaper was boycotted by most newsagents in Liverpool and many readers cancelled their orders and refused to buy it from newsagents.

The first coroner's inquest into the Hillsborough disaster, completed in 1991, ruled all deaths that day to be accidental. Families strongly rejected the original coroner's findings, and their fight to have the matter re-opened persisted, despite Lord Justice Stuart-Smith concluding in 1997 there was no justification for a new inquiry. Private prosecutions brought by the Hillsborough Families Support Group against Duckenfield and his deputy Bernard Murray failed in 2000. In 2009, a Hillsborough Independent Panel was formed to review all evidence. Reporting in 2012, it confirmed tails about the extent of police efforts to shift blame onto fans, the role of other emergency services, and the error of the first coroner's inquest. The panel's report resulted in the previous findings' of accidental death being quashed, and the creating of a new coroner's inquest. It also produced two criminal investigations led by police in 2012: Operation Resolve to look into the causes of the disaster, and by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) to examine actions by police in the aftermath.

The second coroner's inquest was held from 1 April 2014 to 26 April 2016. It ruled that the supporters were unlawfully killed due to grossly negligent failures by police and ambulance services to fulfill their duty of care to the supporters. The inquest also found that the design of the stadium contributed to the crush, and that supporters were not to blame for the dangerous conditions. In June 2017, six people were charged with various offences including manslaughter by gross negligence, misconduct in public office and perverting the course of justice for their actions during and after the disaster.

While that happens so in England, in our country a mass grave was found during digging for a new building at the Matale hospital on 26 November 2012. Remains of at least 154 persons could have been there, and it was evident they had been tortured and their bodies dismembered before burial. People of Matale say a camp of the Army’s Sinha Regiment was located near that gravesite in 1989. Its commanding officer was ex-defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, and major generals Kamal Gunaratne, Shavendra Silva and Jagath Dias also served there.

While the fight for the Hillsborough victims materialized, evidence of the JVP’s second insurgency in 1989 surfaced without an effort. Our country does not have a method to manage that evidence and punish the guilty. Dr. Ajith Jayasena, who carried out the forensic tests for the Matale grave was transferred to Kurunegala general hospital in May 2013. Then, the dug up skeletal remains were sent to the US for carbon-testing. The US reported back that they belonged to 1950 or beyond. That opinion was negated by Prof. Raj Somadeva. The case filed in the Matale magistrate’s court was categorized as ‘C’ without a suspect being found. The JVP has forgotten about that, and the SAITM matter is more important to it than the Matale mass grave.

Barman felt sad because of the plight in Sri Lanka. In 1989, he was a law student and his colleagues were the then IUSF convener Gemunu Yasas Seneviratne alias Gayan and Wilson Wijesekera alias Malimbada Wilson. Barman still remembers how Wilson looked like. Both had had deaths without any evidence, with the latter last seen leaving for his Kiribathgoda boarding house after finishing the final day of the second year examination on 01 November 1989.

Barman recalls what Priyantha, formerly of the BBC Sinhala Service, told him over a glass of wine around three years ago:

“In 1989, there were no viber, whatsapp, SMS, email or at least a mobile phone. Richard Zoysa introduced a student of Vidyalankara Pirivena in Kelaniya to obtain information for the BBC. His name was Gayan. That could have been an assumed name. I did not go to inquire. We were close friends by 1989. My reporting prevented me from visiting Sri Lanka. But, both of us did not give up. The situation worsened by mid-1989. Advocate Prins Gunasekara brought many JVP activists to London and gave them asylum. But, he could not save his elder sister’s son, lawyer Kanchana Abeypala. Human rights lawyers like Wijedasa Liyanarachchi, Charitha Lankapura, Sanath Karaliyadde and Neville Sri Nissanka were murdered. But, Gayan supplied information while in hiding. I pleaded with him many times to leave Sri Lanka. But what he said was, “If we too, leave the country, who will do these things?” That was my final telephone conversation with him.”

“Gayan was arrested in late November 1989. Military intelligence was keeping a watch on him. They got to know his ties with Richard de Zoysa. In the end, military intelligence gave Gayan a call, posing off as a messenger of Richard, asking him to be at the lobby of Hotel Galadari. Gayan went there, waited for Richard for many hours, and left without meeting him, and was arrested on the way back. We searched for him and got to know that he had been kept at the notorious torture cell Yataro Cafeteria at Thimbirigasyaya. Secretary to president R. Premadasa at the time was K.H.D. Wijedasa, who was a close relative of Gayan. Even he could not trace him.”

“Two months after Gayan, Richard followed him to his death on 18 February 1990. After Gayan’s killing, I was completely dejected. I had only one way of remembering Gayan, my friend forever, that was by naming my eldest son, who was born in early 1990s, after him. Last year, he got married to a US girl. At the wedding, I related this entire story and brought tears to the eyes of everyone present.”

Priyantha had not met Gayan, but he was a bosom friend of Barman. When he left in his final journey, it was a Barman’s shirt he had been wearing. At the time, Barman lived at Beddagana, Pitakotte. In the dark year of 1989, Gayan spent most nights at the front room of Barman’s home. In the night, the two of us sang, using Gayan’s guitar with broken-chords. He was a very good singer. Barman kept that guitar safely until he came to England. Barman was arrested on 30 January 1990 and he first thought that had been done on information given by Gayan. But, by then, he had gone in his final journey like a real hero, without betraying anyone. Although arrested, Barman was not harmed as he did not do any politics with Gayan.

At Hillsborough, 96 football fans died. But, in that year, around 60,000 youths were killed in our country, called the best in the world. When the British sought justice for their dead, the JVP and the Frontline Socialist Party have a duty to appear on behalf of those youths. They are fighting for the closure of SAITM, not for those who had sacrificed their lives 28 years ago for their ideals. It is a complete hoax that the fallen heroes are remembered on 04 April and 13 November every year. It is a relief for Priyantha and Barman at least to write a little piece about heroes like Gayan.

What has to be said finally is that what happens in England cannot happen in Sri Lanka.

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