One bottle of vodka, convinced co-accused to go out on fateful night

Thuvan Prawesh Sawal continued in the witness-box under examination by one of his lawyers Andrew McCormick on Monday 15 July 2013.

Mr Sawal testified that on the evening of Monday 20 February 2012, he was talked by Viraj Alahakoon into going out to meet with Sameera Battelage (the deceased).

(Oxford is a small country town some 50 kilometres outside Christchurch and services the surrounding farmling area. Sameera was living in a rented farm-house outside of the Oxford township and worked on a dairy-farm).

Prawesh understood that they would be picking up an old friend if his from his days working at Firth. Ryan lived almost on the way however shortly after beginning their journey to Oxford, Viraj who was driving said they would NOT now stop to collect Ryan after all.

They did however stop at a bottle shop on Main North Road (I think by that Prawesh meant the Belfast Tavern) to buy a bottle of whisky and smokes, he said.

As has previously come out in testimony, they arrived about 9 pm, the lights were on and the front door unlocked. They knocked and went in, calling out loudly.  Prawesh said that Viraj insisted on waiting, and assured him that Sameera wouldn’t be long. Prawesh thought that Sameera was just away locally. Little did he know at the time that Sameera was staying over the night in Christchurch.

They waited about an hour, drinking some of the Johhny Walker Red Label whisky before returning home to Christchurch. Viraj said that if anyone asked where they had gone that evening, just to say that they had been over to visit Ryan.

Testifying about the 22 Of February 2012, Prawesh Sawal said that after arriving at Viraj’s house about lunchtime, Viraj again wanted to visit Sameera’s house to “talk it out”, and also said he wanted to watch the cricket.

Prawesh said  that he wasn’t keen to go, he’d been out at evenings a lot lately and wanted to stay at home with his partner. That evening, Prawesh got dropped of at Viraj Aahakoon’s house by his partner in her car at about 6pm and started drinking with Viraj some of their leftover whisky from earlier.

In earlier testimony it had been said that Viraj got very angry that Prawesh had not arrived in his partner’s Pajero (a large four-wheel-drive station waggon). Earlier Viraj had told Prawesh that he wanted him to borrow it. Prawesh says he asked but his partner refused to lend him that car on that occasion (she had two cars it seems).

However he reluctantly agreed to go out to Oxford when Viraj assured him that they would not be too late and he would shout a bottle of vodka, Prawesh’s favourite drink. They went to a liquor-store by the corner of Colombo Sreet and Edgeware Road to get the vodka. It was while inside there that Prawesh noticed his partner walking outside nearby so they waited until she had gone before they left the store.

Prawesh Sawal, under questioning from his counsel, thoroughly refuted Mr Alahakoon’s earlier testimony that Prawesh had agreed to talk to Sameera (about his previous affair with the woman known to Viraj Alahakoon).

During the drive out to Oxford, Prawesh said that Viraj Alahakoon was going on repeatedly, saying he wanted to beat Sameera Battelage up. Considering that Sameera practiced martial arts (like Karate), Prawesh thought Viraj was “just mouthing off”. However Prawesh went onto say that if Sameera actually started to attack Viraj, he wouldn’t be afraid to separate them.

When they arrived at Sameera’s house, he was just finishing off some chicken-and-chips and  it was told how the Sky television wasn’t working, so Sameera suggested they go to a local watering hole, The Oxford Workingmen’s Club to watch the cricket on the big screen tv there. However Viraj was suddenly not interested in seeing the rest of the cricket match anymore.

The decision got made to go out though and Sameera got ready and left with Prawesh and Viraj. The men returned to Sameera’s soon after the match finished about 10.30pm.  Sameera set to preparing a curry for them to share while the other two watched some movies on dvds Sameera had previously rented.

They were still there past 2am when Sameera said he needed to get at least one hour’s sleep, as he had to get up at 3.30 pm to start work on the dairy-farm.

Prawesh had been exchanging texts throughout the evening with his missus who wanted to know where he was and when he’d be home. He was growing increasing anxious and kept reminding Viraj he wanted to go home soon. He further testified that “Viraj don’t want to go (home) at the moment”.

At around 2.30am Sameera set the alarm on his phone and Prawesh set the alarm on his phone also. Sameera then slouched down in the corner of the couch and nodded off to sleep. The light in the loungeroom was turned off at that time, with just some indirect light coming from the tv screen and the adjoining dining-room.

Earlier Viraj Alahakoon had claimed that at this time he also went to sleep, laying down on the loungeroom floor (golly doesn’t this house have ANY beds ? or is this a cultural thing ?). However in his testimony, Prawesh Sawal refuted that.

Prawesh admitted he smokes a lot more when drinking and said that he was regularly going outside pacing up and down on the decking that adjoined the sliding-door. Being a hot summer night the door was left permanently open but the curtains were pulled across to deter moths and bugs from entering the house.

It was on one of his smoko breaks that Sawal claims he heard “like a screaming sound, but it’s not a screaming sound”. He could see through a gap in the closed curtains, indicating with his hands “this much”. Directed to the ruler in the witness box, the gap was about one foot he said. It gave a partial view into the house.

Prawesh Sawal testified that he saw Viraj Alahakoon standing behind the couch where  Sameera Battelage was slumped, with his hands apparently around Sameera’s neck strangling him. Prawesh ran inside to separate them, realising moments later that a knife was involved.

Prawesh described how Viraj’s right hand was holding Sameera’s head back by the hair and that his left hand was by Sameera’s throat. Sameera “was making like a gurgling noise” Of Viraj he said “he was crying”.

After Viraj moved his left hand, then Prawesh saw the black handle and realised he had a knife. He pointed the knife at me and said “don’t run” Prawesh told the court. “He was still holding Sameera’s head… I just froze”.

Viraj Alahakoon then instructed Prawesh Sawal to wash his blood-stained hands in the kitchen sink, and then to collect up the dishes and bottles they had used into several old shopping bags, and carry them out and put them in the boot of his car. Questioned by counsel, Prawesh  clarified that it took several trips to carry the several bags of items out to the car. Asked by his counsel why he didn’t run then, he said that Viraj had the car keys.

“I had to help him, or he’d kill me. That’s all he said” Prawesh testified. Viraj Alahakoon had Prawesh help him lift Sameera’s body so he lay flat on the couch. He wanted to carry the entire couch with Sameera outside and put it into the car, however Prawesh said he didn’t think it would fit in Viraj’s small car and the couch was far too heavy for the two of them to manage anyway.

“I was scared at that time, I just did what he told me” Prawesh told the court. Viraj Alahakoon left the room and returned with a white bottle which he had apparently gotten out from his car. It was as he started to pour the contents over the couch and Sameera’s body that Prawesh could tell from the smell that it was petrol.

Viraj he said, told him to go and wait in the car. He was there for 15 minutes he estimates as he smoked two cigarettes in the time, before he heard an explosion and Viraj came running out and jumped in the car and they sped off, with Viraj Alahakoon driving dangerously at speeds of up to 120 or 130 kmh Prawesh told the court.  A few minutes down a country road, Viraj pulled to a stop then washed his face using a water bottle he took from the boot of the car before continuing on at high speed.

Back in Christchurch they stopped beside Viraj’s garage and Viraj went inside to get clean clothes for Prawesh. Meanwhile Prawesh unloaded the bags of stuff they had taken from Sameera’s house and put then in the garage under Viraj’s workbench. He also unloaded the white “disinfectant” type container that had contained the petrol.

Prawesh claimed that Viraj then gave him some clean clothes to change into, then held up their blood-stained clothes while Prawesh cut them up using his pocket-knife (although Viraj had offered the use of scissors).

Prawesh said Viraj offered him Sameera’s iPhone, “I said ‘no’, he got a hammer and started smashing it… into pieces”. Prawesh said he wanted to go up to Auckland and spend time with his wife, but Viraj told him to stay in Christchurch and “keep his phone turned on”. According to Prawesh, if he didn’t do exactly as Viraj said, he had  threatened to tell police that  he was involved in the killing and that he was a visa overstayer. They were at Viraj’s place for only about 15 or 20 minutes and then Viraj dropped him off at the Manchester Street flat he shared with his partner.

Prawesh showered and went to bed, but his partner awoke as he entered the bedroom. It was about 5am and she asked if he had done something. “I said  ‘yes/no/yes/no’ but nothing specific” he said.

Prawesh told her to tell anyone that he was home earlier, when she said ‘like who’, he said ‘like the police’. “I’m not going to lie for you” Prawesh said was his partner’s response.

Testimony was then given about a Swiss Army pocketknife with tool attachments that Prawesh used to own and carry with him, but it was seized earlier at an airport security screening on one of their previous trips to Queenstown. Sometime after that, Prawesh had gone to a hunting and outdoor supplies shop in Riccarton and bought a replacement knife. He chose one which was on special at the time and was just a simple knife with a single folding blade and no tool attachments.

He said the replacement knife was about 17 or 18 centimetres long when fully opened, and that he carried it with him all the time. He used it when working at Pak ‘n Save supermarket for opening flourbags. “Most of the time I carry it with me, just a habit, I use it as a tool” he said. Further, he went on to claim that his pocket-knife never came out of his pocket during the time they were at Oxford, and that on Thursday 23 February he said he didn’t have the knife on him. He didn’t want to have a knife on him if police caught him, he said.

After Prawesh’s partner (who has name supression) left for work, Viraj came around to pick him up and they went back to Viraj’s place. Prawesh claimed that Viraj did not want him to admit to anyone that they had been at the “Rasaka’s” place the previous evening.

(Note that several times during today’s testimony, Prawesh used a word I had not heard him use before that sounded to my ear like “Rasaka”, which by its context, I took to mean Sameera Battelage (the deceased man). It has previously been mentioned that Sameera was sometimes also known as Chandrasena and I am assuming that here again we have some naming issues where something is being ‘lost in translation’ due to cultural differences. For example, in many Australian Aboriginal communities it is considered highly disrespectful to refer to recently deceased people directly by name. No offence is intended here, but where my notes indicate “Rasaka” was used in testimony, I will use it here.)

It was while Prawesh was at Viraj’s house that Viraj answered a phonecall from another Sri Lankan, and when told of Sameera’s death, Viraj put on a pretty good act of crying. Later that morning they were in Viraj’s garage (which also served after the earthquakes as his jewellery manufacturing workshop) and another phonecall came in. It was from the woman who had previously had the affair with Sameera. Viraj’s tone of voice was very different according to Prawesh. Laughing, Viraj said “That c**t is dead”.

Viraj took the knife which had been used in the killing and washed it under an outside tap in the garden and the bags with the blood-stained clothing were put into Viraj’s car.  They drove around from Burwood to Sumner clocking up so many miles they had to stop for more petrol somewhere in the Ferrymead area. Eventually they threw the broken knife into a river along with the broken iPhone and their jandals and the clothes were dumped outside some earthquake damaged houses in River Road, in the Richmond area.

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. )

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