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. )

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