Blog… remain on Standby for a week

I have had some training days to attend and still another week or so to go, so new postings here may be a bit sparse for the next week or so.

Rest assured that especially with the upcoming sentencing stage of the recent murder trial (re death of Sameera Battelage, as caused by Viraj Alahakoon and Prawesh Sawal) I should be in court on the 6th of September and expect to update this blog, after the sentence is handed down.

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Court hearing “Quake Outcasts” vs CERA, also comments on proposed covered sports stadium

(UPDATED 26/8/13, Quake Outcast info at bottom)

I could simply say that “Wednesday was taken up with legal argument… ” However this whole hearing has been one big legal argument.

I am of course referring to the judicial review hearing about the Wellington based government’s offer to buy “Red Zoned” land in Christchurch, for just half of it’s previous value.

That value was calculated by using the 2007 valuations-for-ratings-purposes. Note that properties sometimes sell for somewhat less than their “RV” and sometimes more. Often houses on freehold land sell for more than their RV, some examples have sold for double their RV. It is important to note though that these government Red Zone offers were for the land component only, and not for any house, or other structure or improvements on the land.

(However, especially in the case of brick construction, it is neither practical nor economically viable, to move an existing house or other structure. Wooden houses with corrugated iron rooves and similarly built garages are by comparison cheap and easy to move, ie it only costs a few, tens of thousands of dollars, to move and re-site them).

Some suburbs, due to underlying soil conditions, suffered more during the earthquakes of late 2010 and 2011. Liquifaction damage often caused a sandy watery mud to rise to the surface in many areas, sometimes overflowing not just gardens and streets, but also entering low lying homes. In some areas land has slumped and is now more low-lying than it was, and therefore subject to greater risk of flooding during spells of sustained wet weather or high-tides.

The Christchurch suburbs in the eastern and north-eastern parts of the city, sit on soil types which are more susceptible to liquifaction. Underground infrastructure such as local council owned water and sewerage pipes, and houses’ foundations can also be damaged.

The government claimed that some areas simply weren’t worth fixing up, and indicated it would like to see entire suburbs abandoned. One assumes that the land will then be turned over to be a large park. (Great, another hang-out for winoes and for dumping abandoned burnt-out stolen cars).

So the government designated certain areas “Red Zones” and most people in those areas took offers from their insurance company for a total payout on the grounds that their house was a “write-off”. Note that in many cases, houses had minimal or zero damage.

(However I have my personal suspicions that, before long, the government will claim that land remediation and/or by the use of appropriate technologies, such as lightweight small and modular house constructions and a more flexible infrastructure design, re-settlement would be feasable and economically viable and then they will re-zone Red Zone, and on-sell the land, and for VERY much greater than the price they paid.)

The whole reason for the judicial review is because many people only got offered HALF the RV for their Red Zoned land.

Land that was uninsured at the times of the various earthquakes, only got an offer for half of RV. Now it is true that some people choose to “self insure”. They chose to have no insurance, and if a reason for a claim comes along, like a house-fire or an earthquake, then they will bear the risk and costs themselves.

However many property owners were UNABLE to get insurance coverage for their land. Examples can include people who bought empty sections (in some countries referred to as a block or plot) intending to build a new house later. Commercial premises, such as a shop or petrol service station, and charities like churches are also uninsured for land.

In New Zealand, residential houses which are covered by insurance, have automatic coverage for land damage under the government’s Earthquake Commission scheme; the insurance company submits to the government a small proportion of the insurance premium to cover that scheme.

The government claimed that land designated “Red Zone” had, overnight become virtually worthless anyway. The price a house in the Red Zone could be sold for was very much less and they would be almost impossible to insure and therefore almost impossible to get mortgage finance on.

(The government conveniently side-steps the fundamental issue, that as it was the government that simply decreed certain areas “Red Zone” anyway. There is nothing stopping them from simply re-designating all Red Zone land as Green Zone land tomorrow, and suddenly the houses and land there will be instantly returned to their former value. Remember that especially around the fringes of Red Zone areas, there are many houses which are totally undamaged, or which have only minor cosmetic damage. While next door could be a Green Zone house which has been deemed a total write-off by the insurance and will be rebuilt. Foundations for a typical single-storey family house, onywhere in Christchurch, before the earthquakes, would have usually cost about $10,000. Houses needing to be rebuilt on land now recognised as less stable (during earthquakes) would cost about $80,000. The insurance company is required to pay the extra cost for more expensive foundations if they are required. Keep in mind that in some places the land designated Red Zone is some of the most highly regarded and desirable city land. Houses with a riverbank frontage just across the road and much of the Southshore spit. Prime coastal and beachside real estate in anyone’s books.)

The hearing was brought by two groups. One called themselves “Quake Outcasts” and is 68 people who own 45 properties in various Rwd Zone areas. A separate group of claimants, “Fowler” owned 11 commercial or industrial properties in the Red Zone.

Quake outcasts were represented by three counsel at the hearing and Fowler by two. There were three counsel acting to represent the crown.

Named in the proceeding was the Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Gerry Brownlee and the chief executive of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) Roger Sutton.

Neither man actually appeared in the courtroom in person.

The arguments made by counsel for the various parties were all highly technical legal mumbo-jumbo that means nothing to those of us without advanced legal training.

However reference was made as to whether the offers to buy the land designated Red Zone were legal in all respects.

Reference was also made to an Australian case where the government wanted to stop development of private land that was close to a national park at Jervois Bay. They made, what could be considered “low-ball” offers to the private landowners. Those offers had a strict time limit and were limited to the first 800 people who applied. A sliding scale meant that the slower people were to accept the “voluntary” offer, the lower the price they would get. The government didn’t necessarily threaten to take the land completely, but suggested it could change zoning laws to prevent people from ever being able to use their land for any real and useful purpose.

Legal counsel pointed out similarities and differences with the New Zealand government’s Red Zone buyout offers.

It is worth noting that in the original media reports, the government had ALWAYS said that Red Zone buyout offers, were COMPLETELY VOLUNTARY and people could choose to stay in their homes if they wanted to. (Keep in mind many of these homes are undamaged or have minimal cosmetic damage only).

Later the comments were expanded to say that the government may later take the people’s Red Zoned land and houses by Compulsory Acquisition anyway. Further, and I think sinisterly, the government said that if it got to compulsory acquisition, then the compensation offered would be almost nothing as the land was almost worthless because it was Red Zoned. (Again, completely avoiding the elephant in the room, that it is only Red Zoned because they it is. They can simply re-classify the land as Green Zone, and whoopee suddenly it is Green Zoned again.)

(In Australia when land is taken by the government whether you agree to it or not, this is called “resumed” and in USA “eminent domain”. Curiously, in the state of Western Australia, politicians have many years back, passed a law, saying that THEIR houses will never be subject to being “resumed” by the government. It’s alright for some, isn’t it?).

Note in considering the impact on the lives of people who only got the 50% of RV Red Zone land offers, consider one of Christchurch’s leading businessmen and landowners. “Old money” perhaps one might say.

So this landowner, who owns or controls large amounts of land in that part of the Western part of Christchurch’s CBD which the govt in Wellington ISN’T planning to steal (by “compulsory acquisition”) from it’s owners. ie along the Oxford street “strip” where insurance is, one assumes, largely funding the $ 140 Million rebuild for cocktail bars and swanky cafes… he’ll be making a fat profit out of that I reckon. Yet he speaks out against landowners in the Eastern CBD who have complained that govt offers of compensation for their land (taken for “The Frame” or “major projects” like the covered sports arena that most people don’t want, and nobody wants to pay for), are only being offered less than a third the independant valuations, which is often less than their outstanding mortgages. I’ve heard him quoted in recent media (Christchurch Press I think) as saying they shouldn’t be spoil-sports and should be happy to move elsewhere and start again. But I’d ask, how can they when compensation for their land to be taken doesn’t even pay out exisiting loans, plus buying replacement land will cost them more than 3 times what they get. Remember too that purportedly, the main idea behind the govt’s idea to take 60% of the CBD land, most of the eastern part, is because the govt claims there is a land surplus and it is “too cheap”. Sorry ? how many millions of dollars per quarter-acre do you consider that land is too cheap ?

The three days of hearings concluded just after 3pm on Wednesday 24 July 2013. A decision by Justice Panckhurst is not expected for some weeks.

If the decision ultimately favours the Quake Outcasts and Fowler, then the government will be in the gun for a few million dollars of compensation, over and above what they were planning to pay anyway.

Considering the total rebuild costs of an estimated 20 to 40 billion dollars, or the previous, and ongoing “leaky building crisis” of $ 20 billion, or even the proposed roofed sports stadium which will have a nett cost of between $ 200 million and $500 million, added on to Christchurch residents’ rates bills; it does seem to me like the government is fighting a court-case over what amounts to chicken-feed. By my count, if the government had voluntarily offered the 56 claimants, their full land RV (I considered $125,000 extra for each, as an average), the total cost would only be some $7 million.

Just a side-note about the sports stadium. Christchurch already has an open roofed stadium. Known as AMI (that is a paid sponsorship name, for decades it was previously called Lancaster Park because it sits by the end of Lancaster Street). The AMI stadium and grounds suffered badly in the earthquakes, but the insurance company have said they can repair it completely for $ 45 million, which will be entirely covered by insurance. The nett cost to the city’s ratepayers would effectively be NIL. In the meantime a “temporary” stadium, intended to last many years, has been built adjacent to the Addington (horse) Raceway. However the power-brokers within the Christchurch City Council (CCC) seem to be going hell-for-leather for a new fully enclosed sports stadium, despite the huge extra cost which this will dump on ratepayers for decades to come. Keep in mind that in the last five years, residential rates (in some countries called ‘property taxes” or “school district fees”) have gone up by double or triple the rate of inflation (CPI, Consumer Price Index) every single year. For the last couple of years, council rates have increased by something closer to five times the rate of CPI inflation EACH YEAR. Keep in mind that most Christchurch workers during this time have had little if any wage increase, and very few people have had wage increases that equal the CPI. The Christchurch City Council do not currently own any land to build the proposed new covered stadium on, but the CCC are set to “inherit” from the national government in Wellington, some of the land it intends taking by compulsory acquisition (“if you don’t accept our voluntary offer”) in it’s “East Frame”.

The current proposal is to take and demolish the fully restored and earthquake strengthened “NG Gallery” building. This building is the sole surviving example of its type in Christchurch, and the gallery building also houses many other small businesses, and the thriving and apparently successful Cassells bar.

Dunedin is a city of some 125,000 people, (about one third that of Christchurch). Situated some 400 kms (250 miles) south of Christchurch it is a noticably colder and wetter climate. Recently a new covered sports stadium was built (called the Forsyth Barr stadium). The Dunedin public were told how great it would be, and it was widely reported that the cost to ratepayers would be reasonable because it would be part funded by private interests and donations.

Not surprisingly most of the private financing and donations failed to eventuate, the project ended up costing squillions, and Dunedin’s ratepayers are facing decades of crippling extra rates to cover the cost. A covered stadium does have more opportunities for various uses other than football, such as a music venue for rock concerts. But just how often and how likely are big names like Madonna, likely to visit Dunedin ? I fear Christchurch ratepayers will get lumped with a similar, and very expensive, white elephant.

UPDATED… QUAKE OUTCASTS DECISION ANNOUNCED 26 August 2013. Below is a brief excerpt today’s Fairfax/Stuff website.

The Government has been handed an embarrassing defeat in the High Court over its contentious offers to buy red-zoned land from homeowners.

A group of disgruntled red-zone residents, calling themselves the Quake Outcasts and Fowler Developments Limited, have won their High Court battle against the Government over the Crown’s offer for their land.

http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/9089018/Outcasts-win-High-Court-battle

Verdicts reached in Oxford murder case

At 2.17pm on Monday 22 July 2013, verdicts were delivered in the case of murdered Oxford farmworker, Sameera Battelage. The jury deliberated for a little over 3 hours.

Originally from Sri Lanka, Sameera had been working on a dairy-farm, in the Oxford farming district just outside Christchurch, when he was killed in the early hours of the morning, of Thursday 23 February 2012.

Charged with several offences related to his death, and including the arson of the rented farmhouse in which he lived, were Thuvan Prawesh Sawal and Viraj Alahakoon.

Mr Alahakoon was also facing two other charges relating to assaulting a woman and a second assault by cutting her hair, dating from December 2011. (The woman has name suppression).

The verdicts are in and it is guilty on on all charges, for both of the accused men.

Viraj Alahakoon, convicted (guilty) of two counts of assault, one count of murder and one count of arson.

Prawesh Sawal convicted (guilty) of one count of murder and one count of arson.

Both men received a warning from his honour under the “three strikes” legislation. (It’s hard not to be a bit, well perhaps I’ll say, ‘flippant’ about this. What it means is that if either man commits murder again in future, they’ll get in really BIG trouble. A ‘life’ term but without the possibility of parole, would then be possible).

The men have been remanded (not surprisingly, in custody) until 6 September for sentencing. They each face a “life” sentence.

(Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not second-guessing what sentence the judge will later impose, but just to explain that “life” sentences can vary in different jurisdictions. Under New Zealand law, and depending on what the judge sentences them to, it is likely that they will have a minimum non-parole period set, something in the region of 17 years, and possibly much longer. Then and only then will the parole-board consider them for release on parole. However release on parole is by no means automatic, and is often not granted until some years later… if ever).

His honour, Justice Christian Whata, ordered that various reports be commissioned in the meantime. I will do my utmost to be in court on the 6th of September to report what sentence he sets down and the comments he makes at the time.

Outside court, family of the victim (Sameera Battelage) were approached by some of the media present but declined to comment.

(In a way this is unfortunate as I, like so many other New Zealanders would have liked to know their views. However this will have been a particularly hard time for them, keeping in mind that many/most/perhaps even all of them, would have travelled here from Sri Lanka and that, if they speak English at all, it would be very much a second language to them. Hopefully at a later date, they will arrange to make a statement through the media, if necessary with an interpreter present. It is possible, but pure conjecture on my part, that they may have been reserving their comments for a previously arranged meeting with another media organisation. ADDED LATER… YES THEY HAD ALREADY MADE ARRANGEMENTS WITH THE PRESS NEWSPAPER/FAIRFAX FOR AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH THE ASSISTANCE OF AN INTERPRETER. Earlier in the day both Campbell Live and TV One News had vehicles parked outside the court-house. However I think they were mainly present for the first day of the judicial review, Quake Outcasts vs Gerry Brownlee and the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority regarding the crown offers of ‘half the price of previous valuation’ for so called ‘Red Zone’ properties).

Lead counsel for Viraj Alahakoon was also approached as he left court. QC Pip Hall very politely, declined to comment.

(Note the judge took particular notice of the fact that English was a second language for both of the accused, and that Viraj Alahakoon’s English was less good than Prawesh Sawal’s. Also witnesses for whom English was a second-language, were offered the choice of testifying in English, or their mother tongue (some testified in a mixture of English and Sinhalese). The judge seemed to be making a special point of ensuring that court procedures were followed, such that both men would get a fair trial even though their English skills were less than a typical New Zealander’s.)

Explanatory note on names. Sometimes inconsistencies exist in names, and this can be caused by a number of factors, especially when non-European names are “Anglicised” so they can be written using a standard English alphabet. Other factors can be “tribal” names used in some cultures or names which change over the course of life. In some cultures, married women do not assume their husband’s surname and in some countries the surname or family-name goes first and the Christian or given name goes afterwards. Sometimes names can have a numeric meaning also. Much can be ‘lost in translation’. The most common language spoken in Sri Lanka is Sinhalese. This is usually written using a combination of two alphabets, which can trace their roots back thousands of years. The deceased man in the case currently before the court, has been referred to variously as Sameera Chandrasena and Sameera Madurangana Manikka Battelage. On some occasions he has been referred to as “Rassy”. The two co-accused’s full names are listed as Thuvan Prawesh Sawal and Mudijanselage Viraj Wasantha Alahakoon. No offence is intended to any culture, or individual person with respect to the Anglicisation and use of names. )

QC Hall’s closing argument for Viraj Alahakoon, highlights to be added later

QC Pip Hall’s closing address went for almost exactly four hours, spread across two days. This compares to John Brandts-Giesen’s closing which went for an hour and a half.

Although, at the time of writing this entry (9.30pm, Monday 22 July 2013) the trial has now concluded and verdicts are in, I do still intend to upload here a precis, a short review, of some of the key points that QC Pip Hall made in his closing address to the jury.

More “coming soon”

Explanatory note on names. Sometimes inconsistencies exist in names, and this can be caused by a number of factors, especially when non-European names are “Anglicised” so they can be written using a standard English alphabet. Other factors can be “tribal” names used in some cultures or names which change over the course of life. In some cultures, married women do not assume their husband’s surname and in some countries the surname or family-name goes first and the Christian or given name goes afterwards. Sometimes names can have a numeric meaning also. Much can be ‘lost in translation’. The most common language spoken in Sri Lanka is Sinhalese. This is usually written using a combination of two alphabets, which can trace their roots back thousands of years. The deceased man in the case currently before the court, has been referred to variously as Sameera Chandrasena and Sameera Madurangana Manikka Battelage. On some occasions he has been referred to as “Rassy”. The two co-accused’s full names are listed as Thuvan Prawesh Sawal and Mudijanselage Viraj Wasantha Alahakoon. No offence is intended to any culture, or individual person with respect to the Anglicisation and use of names. )

Closing argument for Prawesh Sawal’s defence

John Brandts-Giesen, on of the two co-counsel for Prawesh Sawal, opened by asking the jury to “assess Sawal’s role in this sad episode”. “the death of Sameera Battelage and the destruction of his house, are, by any standards, sad. He did not deserve that fate.”

He went on to say that “friends do not kill friends, unless there is a motive that far outweighs that friendship”. and he claimed the crown’s theory of a motive for Prawesh was “ill conceived”.

He said that a red petrol container had indeed been in the car on Monday, picked up at Viraj’s request by Prawesh as he’d forgotten it earlier. Viraj had said he wanted it for his lawnmower. Prawesh had not seen any petrol container in the car on Wednesday evening, until he saw Viraj emptying the contents of a white “disinfectant container” over Sameera and the couch.

Prawesh was not consumed by the affair, as the crown had earlier claimed, “it was none of his business”.

Regarding how Sameera, while on a video-call using Skype on his iPhone, had made a special point of introducing Prawesh and Viraj and turning the camera around to show their faces, counsel Brandts-Giesen said this was simply a new etiquette being increasingly followed as video-calls were becoming more common. Nothing untoward should be read into that.

If Sameera had really been nervous and in fear of his life, then during the time they were all at the Oxford Workingmen’s Club, he could have stayed in that public place, surrounded by witnesses, and made his fears known to any of the several people there, who he would have known.

At this point he spoke out against the deceased, saying that Sameera had been losing his way as an employee for some time. (This referred to some earlier evidence submitted at the beginning of the trial and accepted by consent of counsel).

He referred to all the men as being hard drinkers who kept long hours, but it was important not to judge them simply because their lifestyle was different to many others in society.

Prawesh he said “was a 22-year-old, happy-go-lucky young man”. Brandts-Giesen went on to say that Prawesh didn’t have a “past” and that he was trying to make a new home for himself in this country and was “behaving himself”.It was accepted he had told lies to the police, and counsel said he’d speak to the jury about that later in his address.

“I put it to you, that Prawesh’s story may well be right” he told the jury. “Prawesh’s story is capable of belief, or at least, reasonable doubt”.

Prawesh did not kill Sameera, nor was he asked by Viraj to help kill.

Referring to various “admitted facts”. Counsel said that that must not be taken as any admission of guilt to the charges themselves. Crown cases often amount to hundreds of pages of evidence, he said, and it was normal defence practice to accept those things which were “straightforward and not in dispute”. Otherwise we’d all be here until Christmas, he said.

Counsel Brandts-Giesen then mentioned Viraj’s earlier admission of threatening to kill with a knife. Although this was a year or so before the killing of Sameera, it showed something of his character and “Viraj’s propensity to threaten with a knife… and to develop a rage in regard to personal issues.”

Prawesh didn’t have to give evidence, but “he wanted you to hear and understand the story”. Yes he had lied to police officers during the investigation, but that was a totally different kettle of fish to what would e the serious offence of perjury in a court.

The police were dishonest too, in the early stages of the investigation, consel said. Police had only allowed Prawesh’s partner to visit with him at the police station if she wore a ‘wire’. A hidden listening device. One could assume that they had been hopeful of overhearing a confession. They didn’t get one, although they did get to hear him claim to her that he had been “bait”. He later made the same claims to police in his official statement.

Detective Fiona Roberts had initially said that they were unconcerned abut his expired visa status, but then detained him on that very basis. Counsel then made reference to the old Biblical quote about him who is without any sin, being the one to cast the first stone.

It was preposturous to even suggest that Prawesh had taken Sameera’s passport and some other legal papers.

(Note Sameera’s passport and various other papers were never found. They might have been completely destroyed by the house-fire but they might also have been taken by someone before the fire was lit. Sameera’s passport contained a visa which was still valid for another year or more).

At the police station, the police arranged for Prawesh to have access to a lawyer. Mr Davis turned up to speak with Prawesh, but under the circumstances he didn’t trust him. To Prawesh he looked like just another policeman. The only lawyer Prawesh would trust was the immigration specialist he had been dealing with, based in Auckland. In due course, that lawyer was contacted and arranged for counsel Andrew Mccormick to represent Prawesh here in Christchurch.

Prawesh, his counsel said, was “desperately trying to stay here, because, for him, it is a better country than Sri Lanka.” He was living “under the radar”, “limiting his driving of cars, doing nothing illegal” he claimed.

Prawesh did not have any motive to kill Sameera.Viraj claimed he did not blame Viraj and that all the blame lie with the woman involved, but just believable was that ?

It was only under cross-examination that Viraj eventually admitted that the blunt butter knife that he originally said he threatened a woman with, was quite possibly a sharp-pointed kitchen carving knife.

Counsel then turned his attention to Viraj’s story that he had enlisted Prawesh to speak on his behalf to Sameera about the (previous) affair. John Brandts-Giesen pointed out that it’s almost laughable to suggest a man in his thirties would seek the advice and assistance of a man 10 years his junior, for help with his love-life. Explanatory note on names. Sometimes inconsistencies exist in names, and this can be caused by a number of factors, especially when non-European names are “Anglicised” so they can be written using a standard English alphabet. Other factors can be “tribal” names used in some cultures or names which change over the course of life. In some cultures, married women do not assume their husband’s surname and in some countries the surname or family-name goes first and the Christian or given name goes afterwards. Sometimes names can have a numeric meaning also. Much can be ‘lost in translation’. The most common language spoken in Sri Lanka is Sinhalese. This is usually written using a combination of two alphabets, which can trace their roots back thousands of years. The deceased man in the case currently before the court, has been referred to variously as Sameera Chandrasena and Sameera Madurangana Manikka Battelage. On some occasions he has been referred to as “Rassy”. The two co-accused’s full names are listed as Thuvan Prawesh Sawal and Mudijanselage Viraj Wasantha Alahakoon. No offence is intended to any culture, or individual person with respect to the Anglicisation and use of names. )

Prosecution closes in long running murder trial

Brent Stanaway, opened the closing address for the prosecution’s case at 2.20pm on Wednesday 17 July 2013. It has all come down to this. The death of a young farm worker in the early hours of the morning of Thursday 23 February 2012, and the burning of his body and the farmhouse where he lived.

The two co-accused, Viraj Alahakoon and Prawesh Sawal have been in prison, remanded in custody since just a few days after the February event. There is no dispute that at least one of the men killed Sameera Battelage. But both men are claiming ‘it wasn’t me, your honour, the other guy did it’.

Later, counsel for both men will have their chance to address the jury in their closing arguments. For now, it is the prosecution’s turn.

Prosecutor Stanaway started going over the facts of which there is no doubt. A man is dead with serious cutting wounds to his neck.  The strength of the prosecution case, he said, left the two co-accused with little left, other than simply to blame each other.

There were eight key aspects prosecutor Stanaway mentioned:-

1…  CCTV at the Oxford Workingmen’s Club

2…  Skype phonecall to a woman in New York, United States of America

3…  The texts exchanged between Sawal and his partner over 22/23 February

4…  Witness statements

5…  The  two accuseds late arrival home and attempts to get partners to lie for them

6…  Cut up clothing found with “contact and dispersed blood splatter”

7…  Sameera’s chilling texts

8…  The certainty that the cutting wound was a fatal, non-survivable wound

Stanaway went on to say that “neither of the accused is in the least bit convincing”. Some of the legal issues were explained.  Section 66.1 relates to committing the offence or abetting the commission of the offence. Section 66.2 for two parties working together with a common purpose.

The jury could find cause to apply section 66.1, where Prawesh Sawal was the principal offender (in this case, the one wielding the knife) and Viraj Alahakoon a party to the offence. Alternatively the jury could find that under section 66.2 that there was a common intention to kill, among the both of them.

“Motive plays a substantial and important part in this trial” Stanaway said. Viraj’s motive he addressed first. There had been a short term sexual affair. Viraj he said was “a jealous and possessive man” who had a history of domestic violence against women. In a previous “agreed fact” document (for which Viraj is still to be formally convicted and sentenced) he admitted to threatening with a knife, and male-assault-female being the cutting off of a woman’s hair.

Regarding the first of the two witnesses who have name suppression, prosecutor Stanaway said she was “obviously an educated and devout witness”.

Prosecutor Stanaway went on to quote from the court record earlier in the trial. The first witness with name suppression had said “I was so much suffering, I made a mistake. Viraj was upset about gossip in Sri Lankan community”.

Viraj, Stanaway went on to say, had previously been involved in “serious and persistent domestic violence”.

Motive for Prawesh Sawal was next on the prosecutor’s radar. He had, briefly at least, also been interested in the woman who had had  the affair with Sameera. Prawesh was consumed by the fact of the affair and kept bringing it up, when he would hang around almost every day, with Viraj in his garage.

Regarding the reasons claimed for the visits out to Oxford on the evenings of 20 and 22 February, prosecutor Stanaway said “none of those really wash, none bear scrutiny”. And that “both (men) are angry, the affair is consuming them both”.

Sameera had been very surprised when the men turned up at his house. Also, why had a container of petrol been taken out on both occasions, the 20 and 22 of February ? The petrol was taken out on both occasions for “a deeply sinister purpose” Stanaway claimed. Previous witness testimony was that the lawns at Viraj’s house had already been mowed. There was therefore no reason to be driving around with a can of petrol still in the car.

When the two accused had arrived at Sameera’s at about 8.30pm,  he was just finishing his dinner, in the middle of Skyping a friend overseas and preparing to go to bed (as a farm worker he was required to get up at about 4am to begin work).

Sameera had no doubt what they were there for and it wasn’t innocent, prosecutor Stanaway told the jury. He was a (physically strong) dairy-farm worker with a martial-arts background. “Sameera was expecting trouble, his texts tell that”, he said.

An attack on Sameera would require both accused, it would take two men. There was also the issue that Prawesh Sawal had refused his partner’s offer of a ride out and back with her on Monday evening. Later, both of the men had asked their respective partners to lie about what time they arrived back in Christchurch. And both men have a familiarity with knives, he said.

(Sorry but I have an issue with that small part of Prosecutor Stanaway’s statement. ALL ADULTS in New Zealand ‘have a familiarity with knives’. EVERY kitchen has knives, sometimes sharp ones, often they’re all blunt dammit ! In Kosher Jewish kitchens, the knives may be stored in separate drawers. Old pensioner’s kitchens have knives, student flats have broken knives from being used on motorcycle repairs… the list goes on. Even people who usually buy sliced bread still have knives in their kitchens ! I’m sorry Mr Stanaway, you were drawing a bit of a long bow there.)

Prawesh Sawal has claimed in court that he was “bait”. Unwitting and unwilling. However when his partner, at police request, secretly wore a “wire” (sound recording device) during a visit with him at the police station soon after his arrest, he never mentioned to her the concept of him being bait. (Editor’s note: sorry I may have miss-heard something here. Whether, or not, he admitted to being bait while being secretly recorded, I will need to verify later and update this entry. However I am leaving this paragraph in here for now, as it is my best an honest recollection of what I heard said in court at the time.)

Prosecutor Stanaway gave details of the fire. Quoting from the evidence of (recently retired) fire officer Graeme Reid who examined the scene. He estimated that between five and siz litres of accelerant had been poured through the kitchen, living-room and laundry areas, and lit from outside the house.  In “a determined effort to consume Sameera and destroy forensic evidence in the house” he said.

Both of the accused men gave similar false statements to police, which he claimed showed planning and purpose. This he said showed their “agreement and common intent and purpose”.

The taking of petrol out to Oxford on both the 20th and the 22nd of February should not be forgotten. Viraj had earlier claimed he wasn’t sure if Sameera was dead or not, but he made no attempt to call for an ambulance. Prosecutor Stanaway said that all throughout, Viraj had attempted to minimise and downplay his previous acts of violence towards women.

As prosecutor Stanaway’s closing address to the jury continued, the “extraordinary apology”  was then mentioned. Those in the court-room at the time may well recall, that soon after he started in the witness box, Viraj Alahakoon in responding to a question from defence counsel, totally begged the question and went off in a long rambling statement. It was in part an apology to Sameera’s father and family.  

In part, Viraj’s  statement included “I tried hard to stop what I could”.  (Note. I think we have to consider that there may have been some cultural aspects in play here, something ‘lost in translation’ to those of us from a Western European background. However, having experienced this incident at the time, it was an extraordinary piece of testimony for the accused to come out with.)

Prosecutor Stanaway concluded by saying that this was a “joint enterprise” with both of the accused travelling out to Oxford, on both the 20th and 22nd of February with intent to kill. Prawesh he said, inflicted the fatal cuts to Sameera’s neck.  Who aided, abetted or procured him to do that ? Viraj actively encouraged Prawesh to kill Sameera, he said.  Both of the accused had formed a common intention to kill Sameera.

It was for this reason, that prosecutor Stanaway said verdicts of manslaughter would not be appropriate. The only suitable verdicts for the jury to return would be murder and arson. With that, the prosecution’s case was closed.

John Brandts-Giesen, counsel for Sawal Prawesh kindly furnished a transcript of his closing statement, it will be a useful supplement to my notes when I write up a review of his closing address.

(Note this is the first murder trial I have covered from (almost) the very beginning. (I missed just the first two days, but since then have only missed only the occasional day or afternoon).   Yesterday I had a few words with an “indirect victim” of this whole tragic situation. It has moved me deeply as it brought home to me the “collateral damage” that such violence causes not just to the  people directly involved, but also to the wider community. Kia Kaha.)

Explanatory note on names. Sometimes inconsistencies exist in names, and this can be caused by a number of factors, especially when non-European names are “Anglicised” so they can be written using a standard English alphabet. Other factors can be “tribal” names used in some cultures or names which change over the course of life. In some cultures, married women do not assume their husband’s surname and in some countries the surname or family-name goes first and the Christian or given name goes afterwards. Sometimes names can have a numeric meaning also. Much can be ‘lost in translation’. The most common language spoken in Sri Lanka is Sinhalese. This is usually written using a combination of two alphabets, which can trace their roots back thousands of years. The deceased man in the case currently before the court, has been referred to variously as Sameera Chandrasena and Sameera Madurangana Manikka Battelage. On some occasions he has been referred to as “Rassy”. The two co-accused’s full names are listed as Thuvan Prawesh Sawal and Mudijanselage Viraj Wasantha Alahakoon. No offence is intended to any culture, or individual person with respect to the Anglicisation and use of names. )

Dreams of a better life in New Zealand, washed away

Tuesday 16 July 2013 and Thuvan Prawesh Sawal is still in the witness-box undergoing examination by one of his two counsel, Andrew McCormick.

He was quizzed again about the driving around on the Thursday 23 February 2012 and how the knife and clothes were dumped. At one point, Viraj had to go and collect his son from school, and then later he dropped Prawesh off home, in time so he could go and pick his partner up from her work.

That evening there was to be a gathering at a house in Leeston (similar it seems to a more typical European style “wake”). Prawesh told his partner that a Sri Lankan friend had “been burned” and he needed to go to pay his respects. She was unhappy about him going out again, but did later drop him off at Viraj’s house, about 5.30 or 6 o’clock in the evening he said.

There had been disagreement about whether it was even a good idea to attend at the wake. Eventually it was decided that it would look more suspicious on them if they didn’t attend, however neither knew where the place was. A number of phone-calls were made to other members of the Sri Lankan community in Christchurch, and eventually they got a ride organised with Praneeth Gamage.

They left Viraj’s about 7 pm (it may have been closer to 8pm) and arrived at the Leeston house about 11pm.

(Leeston is a small farming service town, set in the countryside about 50 kilometres SouthWest of Christchurch city.  It takes about 30 minutes to drive to Leeston from the edge of Christchurch city and no more than 30 minutes, at that time of night, to drive from Viraj’s house to the SouthWest edge of Christchurch City).

Prawesh testified that they got lost on the way.

(Taking four hours, or even ‘just’ three,  for a one hour drive, I’d say ‘lost’ is an under-statement.  It was never made crystal-clear where the house was in the Leeston area, but I am assuming it was in the surrounding farmland, outside the town itself, as testimony was given about the car skidding while driving down unsealed gravel roads. That could perhaps add another 20 minutes travelling time, allowing for the size of the farming area around Leeston town.)

After arriving at the house, according to Prawesh’s testimony, Viraj dutifully turned on the tears again as he hugged Sameera’s brother Nilantha (not to be confused with the other  Nilantha, the baker, who has previously testified in this case). Prawesh had a brief hug from Nilantha also, before Viraj ushered him outside the house into a nominated smoking area outside, and told Prawesh to watch what he said to people.

Prawesh did though confide to Praneeth that they had been with Sameera the evening before he died, and he was worried that if the police spoke to him, they would discover he had overstayed his visa and he would be deported back to Sri Lanka. They stayed for about an hour, leaving at about midnight for the return trip to Christchurch city (which one hopes took less than  four hours). They were dropped off at Viraj’s house and Prawesh walked back to his home from there.

On Friday morning, 24 February, Prawesh was woken by Viraj telephoning. “He told me police wants to talk to me so he wants me to come to his house… come soon”. Prawesh promptly drove around to Viraj’s house and they waited quite awhile but no police turned up. Meanwhile Prawesh’s partner was texting him. She had the day off work and needed the car for running errands and appointments related to an ongoing insurance claim for her damaged and unlivable house in Burwood.

Later when the police did turn up at Viraj’s, Prawesh was interviewed by a lady cop. He couldn’t remember her name but agreed with the court record that it would have been Detective Roberts. He confided to her his visa status but she assured him she had no interest in that matter. She did however want the clothes that Prawesh had been wearing on the Wednesday evening of 22 February.

There was then some questioning by counsel relating to the fact that Prawesh had initially told the police the wrong house number, however he said this was just an accidental slip, in the car he had immediately directed them to the correct address. Prawesh gave the police clothes that were approximately similar to what he had been wearing. He gave them a red tee-shirt, some cargo pants, the new jandals Viraj had recently given him and his partner’s black hoody. (Not sure if that move is likely to keep the girlfriend onside).

Prawesh Sawal was taken to the Papanui police station for formal questioning. He told the police that they had gone to Sameera’s house and collected him, watched the cricket together at the workmen’s club and then dropped Sameera off home afterwards and driven straight back to Christchurch.

When he asked to go home he was not allowed to leave the police station. Kept in custody he thought “they’re going to send me home, my dreams (pause) washed away”.

(Going by the account he gave at the beginning of his time in the witness-box, his relatives raided their savings and took out loans to help him get a chance at a new life, a better life, in New Zealand. After arriving here in January 2009 he met first one nice woman and then another. They were both happy to start building a new life with him and were in the process of helping him solve his visa issues so he could obtain a work-permit and ultimately be on the path to permanent residency. In his testimony he claims he was innocent bait and tried his best to save the life of Sameera. It is up to the jury and the jury alone to decide on the veracity of his testimony and draw their conclusions from the evidence presented in court. However whichever way that goes, it seems most probable that he will be deported back to Sri Lanka, whether that’s soon after a not-guilty verdict, or much later after a lengthy term of imprisonment if a guilty verdict is reached.  I think though that it’s not just this young man’s dreams that are “washed away” but also the dreams of his entire family back home in Sri Lanka).

It was also brought up by Prawesh Sawal’s co-counsel Andrew McCormick that when he was first given access to a lawyer at the police station, he refused to speak to him. He thought the man who came in to speak to him was just another policeman, and was trying to trick him. He said he only wanted to deal with his immigration lawyer in Auckland. That first lawyer left after just  a few minutes.

However contact was made with the Auckland immigration lawyer who in turn contacted Andrew McCormick. However at first Prawesh didn’t trust him either. Prawesh was suspicious whenever Mr McCormick went out of the room to speak to police. It was said to be several months before trust developed between them.

Counsel for Viraj Alahakoon got their chance to cross examine.  Lawyer Kerry Cook quizzed Sawal about a Casio watch, found by ESR examiners to have minute traces of Sameera’s blood on it.

Kerry Cook also pointed out that Viraj Alahakoon had voluntarily submitted to a physical examination, whereas Prawesh Sawal had not. Viraj, Mr Cook said, was not found to have any injuries on him.

“I didn’t have anything to hide, but I was afraid they were going to trap me” Sawal testified.

Asked by Kerry Cook how long it took to give his statement to police, Sawal said about three hours. Mr Cook pointed out that in all that time, Sawal never once claimed to be a “saviour” doing his best to protect Sameera from Viraj’s attack.

Cook…  “You were straddling, left leg forward, right leg back, while you were stabbing Sameera”

Sawal…  “No”

Cook…  “Each time you did it, impact blood splatter was coming on to your clothing”

Sawal…  “No, I didn’t do that, I never stabbed him”

Cook…  “How did the blood get on the front and back of your cargo pants ?”

Sawal…  “I don’t know”

Kerry Cook then brought up the matter of the scientific evidence presented by blood splatter analyst  Rosalyn Rough, and the demonstration she gave in the court-room, of the positioning she said, was the only position that she knew, that would give rise to the blood stains she observed.

Sawal… “But what she said is not true, it didn’t happen. I was close to Sameera”

Mr Cook went on to suggest that Sawal was the perpetrator in the attack. If he had been so innocent, then in the 15 minutes he claimed he was waiting in the car alone,smoking, why hadn’t he telephoned the police, he had his phone on him. Sawal said it was because he “couldn’t think properly”.

Mr Cook also suggested that there was no need for Sawal to carry a pocket-knife at work as craft-knives are routinely supplied to supermarket staff. Sawal said he was never issued with a knife so always used his own.

Counsel also pointed out that Sawal seemed to be quite happy driving, almost every day sometimes, as he went with his partner to drop her off at work and again in the afternoon to bring her home. A suspicious amount of driving for someone who was claiming to be trying to keep a low profile and keep off the police’s radar.

Pointing out that, by Sawal’s own testimony, Viraj made many anti-Sameera comments during the drive out to Oxford, on both the Monday 20 and Wednesday 22 February, Kerry Cook asked “Why didn’t you tell Sameera ?”

Sawal answered “There was no need, I thought he was just mouthing off”

Brent Stanaway, counsel for the prosecution got his turn at cross-examining Prawesh Sawal in the witness-box.

Stanaway…  “You didn’t warn Sameera that Viraj may assault him ?”

Sawal…  “No”

Stanaway…  “You didn’t warn Sameera that on Monday, you and Viraj went out there, with a gas can ?”, “The gas can was picked up from (Sawal’s) place on the way to Oxford ?”

Sawal…  “Yes”

Stanaway…  “The purpose of taking the petrol out on Monday was to destroy Sameera’s body by burning it”

Sawal…  “No”

Stanaway…  “When do you think that Viraj found out about the affair between (the woman, name suppressed) and Sameera ?”

Sawal…  “Probably towards the end of 2011, he was asking me about it”, “I said I don’t know anything about it”

Brent Stanaway then quizzed Sawal about the situation between him and the woman with which Sameera had had the affair. After Sawal had texted her, he “noticed the way she dress and makeup after those texts”.

Stanaway…  “The words used (earlier) ‘she was a little bit flirty’ ?”

Sawal…  “Yes”

Stanaway…  “Throughout January and February (2012) Viraj was almost consumed with anger about the affair ?”

Sawal…  “Yes”, “Sameera came to Viraj’s house heaps of times un-invited”

Stanaway…  “It made Viraj even more angry when Sameera kept visiting ?”

Sawal…  “He was angry more towards February”

Stanaway…  “He was very angry when he turned up with his friends on the 18th (of February) to buy the ring ?”

Sawal…  “Yes”

Stanaway…  “What was it that made Viraj SO angry about Sameera turning up on the 18th at his home ?”

Sawal…  “He felt like less of a man”

Brent Stanaway then suggested that Viraj wanted to do some real harm, or even kill Sameera

Sawal…  “No, he just wanted to get a big apology”

Stanaway…  “Was that all”

Sawal…  “No, he wanted to beat him up too”

Stanaway…  “I put it to you that you were ‘Willing Bait’, you knew what your part was when you went out on the 20th and the 22nd” (of February)

Sawal…  “No I thought we were just going to have a drink, be normal”

Syanaway…  “I suggest you were ‘firing Viraj up’, making him more angry with Sameera”

Sawal…  “No”

Stanaway…  “Sameera texted at least three friends that you and Viraj were there”, “When you arrived the plan had been to remain at the house in Domain Road”

Sawal…  “There was no plan”

Stanaway…  “When you arrived Sameera was Skyping on his phone to a woman in America”

Sawal…  “Yes”

Stanaway…  “And he made a point of pointing the phone… so on the other end the lady could see both your faces”

Sawal…  “Yes”

Stanaway…  “And he told her both your names ?”

Sawal…  “No”

Stanaway…  “That created a problem for you because now somebody knew you were at the house”

Prosecutor Brent Stanaway then drew attention to some mobile phone records. A text had been sent from Sameera’s phone using English alphabet characters but, in part at least, phonetically spelled out some words in Anglicised Sinhalese..

The text apparently said “My hangman came” or “I hangman came”. Sawal suggested that there was a letter missed out in error. ‘Hanguman” in Sinhalese means ‘feeling’. But Mr Stanaway suggested that hangman was spelled correctly and meant ‘executioner’.

Stanaway…  “Did you go out there as a hangman ?”

Sawal…  “No”

Stanaway…  “Did you go out there to kill Sameera at the request of Viraj ?”

Sawal…  “No, he never done any request like that”

Stanaway…  “When do you say Sameera died ?”

Sawal…  “Nearly two or three-thirty, the phone alarm started, and my phone too. Closer to 3.30”

Prosecutor Stanaway then quizzed Sawal on his location with respect to the position of Sameera on the couch.

Stanaway…  “You heard a scream ?”

Sawal…  “Yes”

Stanaway… “You looked inside the house ?”

Sawal…  “Yes”

Stanaway…  “You saw Sameera on the couch, but his feet still on the floor ?”

Sawal…  “Yes”

Stanaway…  “You saw Viraj with one hand around his neck ?”

Sawal…  “His right hand holding his head, his left hand by his neck”

Stanaway…  “But he, Viraj, is right-handed”

Sawal…  “Maybe, I dunno”

Stanaway…  “Doesn’t it strike you as odd that he stabbed and cut Sameera’s throat with his left hand ?”

Sawal…  “No”

Stanaway…  “Where did the knife come from that Viraj was using ?”

Sawal…  “Dunno”

Stanaway…  “By your account, all stabwounds have already occured by the time you get to Sameera”

Sawal…  “I dunno”

Stanaway…  “I suggest to you, that you were the one who stabbed and cut Sameera’s throat, but you were helped by Viraj”

Sawal…  “No”

Stanaway…  “Viraj was behind him holding him”

Sawal…  “No”

Stanaway…  “How many knives that night were used on Sameera ?”

Sawal…  “I dunno”

Stanaway…  “Do you think there could have been more than one knife ?”

Sawal…  “I dunno”

Stanaway…  “Tell us about the towel around Sameera’s neck”

Sawal…  “I don’t know”

The trial continues

Explanatory note on names. Sometimes inconsistencies exist in names, and this can be caused by a number of factors, especially when non-European names are “Anglicised” so they can be written using a standard English alphabet. Other factors can be “tribal” names used in some cultures or names which change over the course of life. In some cultures, married women do not assume their husband’s surname and in some countries the surname or family-name goes first and the Christian or given name goes afterwards. Sometimes names can have a numeric meaning also. Much can be ‘lost in translation’. The most common language spoken in Sri Lanka is Sinhalese. This is usually written using a combination of two alphabets, which can trace their roots back thousands of years. The deceased man in the case currently before the court, has been referred to variously as Sameera Chandrasena and Sameera Madurangana Manikka Battelage. On some occasions he has been referred to as “Rassy”. The two co-accused’s full names are listed as Thuvan Prawesh Sawal and Mudijanselage Viraj Wasantha Alahakoon. No offence is intended to any culture, or individual person with respect to the Anglicisation and use of names. )