Sentences announced for murdering Oxford farm worker

Guilty verdicts on all charges were delivered back in July in the case of murdered Oxford farmworker, Sameera Battelage.

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).

Friday 6 September 2013 the chickens came home to roost, as in the High Court in Christchurch, Justice Christian Whata pronounced sentence on the two men.

Before he did so, were the Victim Impact Statements. The usual practice is that these are provided in written form, to the judge in advance. Later, in open court, people may read aloud their statement, or have someone read it on their behalf.

VIS had been provided earlier by the dead man’s Sri Lankan parents. These were not read out in court, although some copies were later made available for the media to view while in the court-room.

Reading his statement in a clear voice, which was breaking with emotion by the end, Mr Chris Reilly gave a thorough account of what effect Samera Battelage’s murder had had on him, his family and business. Chris Reilly is the owner of Oxford Pastures, a family dairy farm that had been running in excess of 1,000 cows.

Mr Reilly explained that Sameera wasn’t just a “farm worker” he was indeed the herd manager and “2.I.C.” (the second-in-charge).

With the sudden loss of a key staff member, and no opportunity to obtain a suitably skilled replacement quickly enough, Mr Reilly had little choice but to reduce his herd numbers and to put the cows he did keep onto a less labour intensive once-a-day milking regime. It was “milk production suicide” he said. “Business was severely fractured”.

Mr Reilly was fortunate not to have been injured or killed himself. Although the house Sameera was living in was several hundred metres away from the main farmhouse, he was awoken by a neighbour and alerted to the fire about 4am on the morning of Thursday 23 February 2012.

Making his way to the house, he noticed Sameera’s workboots outside the door. He knew that meant that Sameera was therefore NOT out tending to the cows, and he therefore must be trapped inside the house.

Despite his efforts to enter the burning house, which could only be described as ‘heroic’, the house was by this time, well ablaze, and the smoke and heat were just too intense. Mr Reilly was forced to stand at a distance and could only watch on helplessly.

“The following day was very traumatic” he said. “We were in shock”.

Later (after the fire brigade and police investigation team had gone) he had the unpleasant task of going through the burnt-out house. “Sifting through a dead man’s things, horrible” he said. However he wanted to be sure that any personal effects that were salvagable were saved and sent on to Sameera’s brother, Nilantha, who lives elsewhere in Canterbury. Later he also made sure that all outstanding wages were paid in full to Nilantha.

Initially, Mr Reilly wondered if, as the farm owners who had been providing the house to Sameera, perhaps they had been somehow to blame for his death ? Was it caused by an electrical fault ? Initially (until the facts of the situation came out) the insurance investigated whether Mr Reilly had committed arson on his own property.

Now just to be clear. The house Sameera was renting was no old dilapidated half-rotted wooden cottage.

(Sometimes when driving down country roads, the remains of old farmhouses can be seen, places so derelict that even the rats have moved out. Sometimes farmworkers are accommodated in premises, perhaps not quite that bad, but very “rustic” to say the least.)

However the house rented by Sameera, from his employer, was a brand new house in 2008, and could only be described as being in almost “as new” in condition.

Further, the Reilly’s had ensured that it was well equipped with furniture and all the stuff you need for a home, they had provided many of the things one needs, like kitchen-ware and linen etc.

Typically insurance would not only pay the cost of re-building a burnt house, but also the cost of demolition of the remains of the old one and site clean-up.

After the police and fire investigation was completed though, the Reilly’s wanted it cleaned up as soon as possible. The burnt remains of the house was an ugly scar on the landscape, visible from the nearby roads used by locals and the school-bus. It was a sad reminder to them, whenever they saw it. They paid with their own money, so that demolition and clearing up the site could happen sooner rather than later.

Mr Reilly then described (showing great compassion and respect, I thought) how he sought to understand more about how the site should be treated, in order to respect Sameera’s Buddhist faith.

When the time came later to rebuild, he rebuilt a smaller house a little to one side, ensuring that at no point did it cover the same “footprint” as the original house. Although building insurance paid for the majority of the costs of the rebuild, this meant that substantial extra costs were incurred in the re-build connecting up to services and the like, that were not covered by insurance.

Of his worker, who was also undoubtedly a friend, Chris Reilly said “Sameera was a gentle and kind person, always smiling… children liked him”.

The Reillys arranged a memorial service for Sameera. It “felt like a rug being pulled out from under our feet” he said.

Giving his thoughts on the 2 men convicted of Sameera’s murder (Thuvan Prawesh Sawal and Viraj Alahakoon), Mr Reilly said “They did not create, they destroyed, they did not respect life and property”.

They had “cast a shadow over our lives forever”, the “smell of smoke coming out of the house… the sight of Sammy’s burnt remains, will be with us forever”.

“They have turned our farm into a cemetery. The MANA of our farm will always be tarnished”. (Explanation for non-New Zealanders. Some Maori words have been incorporated into everyday NZ-English. “Mana” has several meanings including ‘honour’.)

Mr Reilly detailed all the costs which his family farm business had incurred as a result of Sameera’s murder. Judge Whata suppressed the exact figures, suffice to say that the Reilly family farm business have had unrecovered costs which are “very substantial”.

Nilantha Chandrasena, the brother of the murder victim, lives elsewhere in the Canterbury region outside Christchurch city and is also a farmworker. He had supplied a Victim Impact Statement in writing, and it was read out on his behalf.

Referring to his younger brother by the nickname “Rassy” he said he “was 5 years younger than me, we were very close”.

“He was the only good friend I had, in New Zealand or Sri Lanka”.

“It would have been good for my future” (Sameera being alive) “but it is all gone now”.

“It feels very lonely being here without Rassy”.

“It always feels like something is missing”.

“We are still suffering and will continue to do so for some time”.

Nilantha’s statement explained how under Sri Lankan custom, funerals are normally, what we in the West call, an “open coffin’. However due to the extensive injuries to Sameera’s throat and burning to his body, the coffin had to remain sealed, with a just a photo of Sameera alongside.

Nilantha spelled out how he was only a worker of modest means, who along with Sameera had sent back money to help his aging parents in Sri Lanka. Nilantha and Sameera were the only children his parents had. In the aftermath of Sameera’s death, Nilantha had had to leave the dairy farm where he had been working and was unemployed for awhile before finding work in another area of agriculture.

He spelled out his costs in full, which for a young immigrant worker in his situation, were considerable. The judge ordered the exact figures to be suppressed. (Fair enough, I’d say).

The Crown, represented by lead prosecutor, Brent Stanaway then got to have their say, suggesting what sentence they thought appropriate and detailing their reasons why.

There was some legal argument about whether section 103 or 104 of the criminal code applied. Basically whether this was one of the “better” murders or one of the “worse”.

The arson, committed after the murder, in a deliberate attempt to destroy evidence and hinder police investigation, was “a substantial aggravating factor” he said.

Counsel for the 2 men, QC Pip Hall and John Brandts-Giesen both spoke for a little over 10 minutes each, on behalf of their clients.

Mr Brandts-Giesen was trying to make the point that arson of a remote farmhouse didn’t create an undue hazard, as even volunteer fire brigades in country areas can handle a single-story house-fire, and it wasn’t likely that anyone else would be hurt.

It was at this point that a loud startled gasp of utter disbelief at hearing such nonsense, came from the public gallery.

(I can’t be sure but think it was from Mrs Odette Reilly. Remember it was her husband that attempted to enter the burning house, to try to rescue Sameera, not knowing he was already dead from stab-wounds).

Judge Christian Whata then got to have his say. Of Thuvan Prawesh Sawal and Viraj Alahakoon he said their “planning was unsophisticated and incompetent” but it was a “clearly calculated endeavour”.

“A planned endeavour for which both of you are equally culpable”.

“plainly neither of you are remorseful”.

Viraj Alahakoon was convicted but discharged (no extra jail time added) for the 2 assaults on the woman.

Both men were convicted of the arson, and sentenced to 7 years jail. However as that sentence runs concurrent with the murder sentence, no extra jail time will be served.

Thuvan Prawesh Sawal and Viraj Alahakoon were both sentenced to Life Imprisonment, with a minimum non-parole period of 17 years.

Mr Sawal will almost certainly be deported immediately upon his release. (Prior to his arrest, he was an illegal overstayer). Remanded into custody this last year-and-a-half, he has reportedly become a member of The Mongrel Mob and been involved in many prison fights.

I am not sure about Mr Alahakoon. He already has NZ permanent residency, however I understand that after a conviction for murder, there is a process whereby that can sometimes be cancelled.

Before leaving the court, Judge Christian Whata reminded the media present about some aspects of the court case itself which remain suppressed, and that the actual dollar amounts detailed in the Victim Impact Statements are suppressed.

So closes this sad chapter in so many people’s lives.

I feel privileged in some ways to have followed this case through, from almost the beginning. But it has been a moving experience for me.

The murder of a young hard-working new-New Zealander, because of sexual jealousy, about a very short-lived relationship that he’d had, a time in the past… a senseless waste of a valuable worker’s life. Someone who was working hard to make New Zealand a better place, and helping to support his aging parents in a far away land.

Sri Lanka is a very poor country, with very little public support. Elderly relatives sometimes count on money sent to them from their children overseas. The 2 murderers made choices to act in despicable ways, and for the sake of petty jealousy have thrown away the amazing opportunities for advancement that New Zealand gave them, and their entire extended families back home in Sri Lanka. They have brought shame on their families and have dishonoured their own religion of Buddhism. A faith usually known for peacefulness, calm and tranquility.

Sameera Chandrasena Battelage.
Rest In Peace, surely you will be sorely missed by all who knew you and whose lives you touched.
Kia Kaha.


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