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 Post subject: The first Sri Lankan to hijack an aircraft
 Post Posted: Thu Jun 19, 2008 8:15 pm 
The first Sri Lankan to hijack an aircraft

@LL/RH : 19Jun2008

Sepala Ekanayake created history by committing the criminal offence of hijacking an aircraft – in doing so he became the first Sri Lankan to hijack an aircraft. The plane belonged to a powerful country – Italy. Ekanayake was motivated to commit this criminal act by the love he had for his son and wife. In 1982, Sepala Ekanayake hijacked an Alitalia aircraft with 300 passengers on board. His demand: a reunion with his Italian wife and child.


Sepala Ekanayake was born on June 3, 1949, in the village of Karatota in the Matara District. Educated at the village school and Yodakandiya Vidyalaya in Hambantota, he was a revolutionary even as a child. Sepala run away from home after a heated argument with his father, stayed in rented room at Poorvarama Road, Kirillapone. It had taken about six months for the father to trace the ‘lost boy’.

In 1972 Sepala went to West Germany in search of greener pastures. . While in Germany, Sepala Ekanayake cultivated a friendship with an Italian girl called Anna Aldrovandi. They married in 1977. In 1980 they went to live in Modena Italy and had a son who was named Free Ekanayake.

In the meantime, Sepala lost his Italian visa and requested the Italian authorities to issue a fresh one. But their advice was for Sepala to go to Sri Lanka and obtain a visa from the Italian Embassy in Colombo. When he came to Sri Lanka, however the Italian Embassy here asked him to wait for six years to get a visa.

Having failed in every attempt to re-join his wife and son in Italy, Sepala became a very angry and frustrated man. His plan was to hijack an Italian passenger plane and put forward his demands to the Italian authorities through the pilot.

On the 30th of June 1982 Sepala Ekanayake went to New Delhi airport with a number of accomplices and waited for the Alitalia Boeing 747 from Rome on its way to Tokyo. When the plane landed Sepala made himself comfortable in a rear seat.

After taking off from New Delhi airport when the plane rose to the cruising level of 35,000 feet Sepala put his plan into action. First he sent a letter to the pilot, in which he gave the reasons for hijacking and the demands. The first demand was to bring his wife and the son to the Bangkok airport and the second was a ransom of 300,000 US Dollars.

Some of the other instructions to the pilot were as follows:

"This plane must land at Bangkok airport. Doors of the plane should not be open. Our demands must be communicated to the Bangkok airport and the Italian authorities immediately. All discussions with us should be restricted to radio communications only. We have got the most sophisticated bombs manufactured in Italy. If we feel that you are trying to deceive us or to attack us, the plane with all the passengers, will be blown up. Simultaneously with that explosion, or a little later, there will be two more blasts in Modena and another city in Italy."

After reading Sepala’s letter, the Chief Pilot, Captain Georgo Amarosa brought down the plane to 25,000 feet from 35,000 feet. (Giving evidence in the High Court in Colombo later, Captain Amarosa said he did so to minimise the damage from the impending disaster).

After a few hours of suspense, there came the news that Sepala’s wife, son and the ransom were on the way to Bangkok. The eyes of the world were focused on Bangkok for some 30 odd hours when Anna, Free and the ransom arrived at the Bangkok airport.

Sepala Ekanayake released the exhausted passengers and came out of the plane. The whole world heaved a sigh of relief.

But Sepala was confronted with a new problem: where to go with his wife and son and his newly gained wealth in order to start a new life. Manel Abeysekera, Sri Lanka’s ambassador in Bangkok came to the airport and assured Sepala that he could come to Sri Lanka without any fear. Yet Sepala was rather hesitant.

The Italian government meanwhile was pressing the Sri Lankan government to hand over the highjacker to Italy. But public opinion here was against such a move and the J. R. Jayewardene government was in a dilemma.

When landed in Sri Lanka, people received him as a hero and lined up on the roads to welcome him. But all this fanfare ended abruptly when Sepala was in the South. Sepala was arrested by the police in Galle and taken to Welikada prison.

In the rush the Italian Embassy manoeuvred to ‘smuggle’ Anna and Free out of the country and send them to Italy.

The Italian government did make an application to Sri Lanka for the extradition of Ekanayake, but the application was refused due to a technical defect in the application. The members of the Parliament insisted that he should be tried by the courts of Sri Lanka.

Though Sepala was arrested, the Sri Lankan government did not have legislation to take any action against him.. So the government had to pass new legislation in Parliament in order to try Sepala in courts.

After Ekanayake’s arrival in Colombo, the then Italian Ambassador Franco Micilli de Biase made a complaint to the police that Ekanayake retained stolen property belonging to the Italian government.

It was suggested that the International Federation of Pilots Association, International Private Passenger Carriers, International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and also the Indian government and other nations demand that the Sri Lankan Government should prosecute Ekanayake, and appropriate legislation should be introduced for the punishment of hijacking an aircraft.

The Italian Ambassador’s complaint was made after Ekanayake had banked a major part of the ransom money, US$ 280,000. He had deposited the sum at the Bank of Ceylon International Division.

Consequent to the Ambassador’s complaint, the police commenced investigations with regard to the retaining of stolen property under the Penal Code of the country. If Ekanayake had not demanded ransom when he hijacked the plane, the police could not have commenced the investigation since, at that time, Sri Lanka lacked legislation to deal with hijacking of airplanes.

The police had the power to deal with him on the complaint of retention of stolen property. The Sri Lankan government was under pressure internationally at that time to prosecute Ekanayake. If Ekanayake had not been dealt with accordingly given the crime he committed, it would have been a very bad precedent for the safety of air travellers and caused disruption of international commerce, endangered lives and resulted in world travel disputes between nations.

Ekanayake was indicted before the High Court of Colombo on two charges:

1. That between June 29, 1982 and July 1, 1982 on board a foreign aircraft, to wit, Alitalia Boeing 747 No. AZ 1790, whilst in flight between New Delhi and Bangkok, he did unlawfully by force or threat thereto wit, stating to the pilot of the said aircraft that if his demands were not met he would explode the said aircraft with all on board with the use of explosives and that he did take control of the aircraft and thereby committed an offence punishable under Section 17(1) read with section 19(1) and 19 (3)(d) of the offences against Aircraft Act No. 42 of 1982.

2. That between July 1 and July 3, 1982 in Colombo within the jurisdiction of this same transaction as in count 1 above, he did retain US$ 299,700 dishonestly, knowing the same to be stolen property, and that he thereby committed an offence punishable under Section 394 of the Penal Code.

On May 30, 1983, the case against Ekanayake commenced before High Court Judge J.J.F.A. Dias. Upawansa Yapa (then deputy Solicitor General) and V.J.W. Wijayatilaka (State Counsel) appeared for the state. Attorneys at Law Ranbanda Seneviratna with Dammika Yapa, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Mahinda Jayawardana, appeared for Ekanayake. Attorneys at Law C. Titawela, S. L. Stanislans and Haradsa watched the interest of Alitalia.
At the end of the trial, the High Court found Ekanayake guilty on the charges of hijacking and retention of stolen property and sentenced Ekanayake to simple imprisonment of life on the first charge and three years rigorous imprisonment on the second charge.

Ekanayake appealed against his conviction to the Court of Appeal. The court consisting of Justice Abeywardana, (President) Justice Jayalath and Justice Ramanathan interfered with the sentence imposed by the trial judge and held that sentence of simple imprisonment could not run concurrently with a sentence of rigorous imprisonment and altered the sentence on the first court to one of five years rigorous imprisonment to run concurrently with the sentence on the second count, which was reduced to two years.

Ekanayake appealed to the Supreme Court and the appeal was heard before Justice R.S. Wanasundara, Justice L.H. de Alwis and Justice O.S.M. Seneviratna. The Supreme Court, after hearing the appeal, delivered judgment on January 18, 1988, dismissing the appeal, affirming the conviction and sentences on Ekanayake.

Justice de Alwis who delivered the judgment of the court with other two judges agreed with the relevant section dealing with the offence of hijacking according to the judgment comparing Section 17 of the Act with Section 19. It was clearly indicated that whereas Section 17 related to acts committed in respect of Sri Lankan aircraft by any person anywhere, whether on board or outside, and vested the High Court of Colombo with jurisdiction to try the acts of constituting the offence in as much as the aircraft concerned was Sri Lankan aircraft.

Section 19 refers to foreign aircraft and makes the same acts referred to in Section 17 as offences committed by a citizen of Sri Lanka or any other national. Justice de Alwis was of the view that words in relation to the latter section bore a different meaning to that contained in Section 17 and meant nothing more than in respect of foreign aircraft and included acts committed on board and in relation to aircraft.

The main question that was argued before the court by the defence was whether the courts of Sri Lanka had the jurisdiction to try Ekanayake for crimes committed on an Italian plane in Bangkok. Justice de Alwis, therefore, held that although Sepala’s offence was committed on board a foreign aircraft on foreign soil, the High Court of Colombo had jurisdiction to try the offender when he was present in Sri Lanka at the time the charges were framed. Dr. Colvin R. de Silva argued the appeal in the Court of Appeal and in the Supreme Court.

While in prison he produced some plays and became very popular among the other prisoners. Once again, he became free Ekanayake in 1987.

Sepala Ekanayake has re-married an English teacher called Yasanganee Madupali. They have a daughter called Sally and a son called Wirama.

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