Property-grabbing mafia on the rise

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The country’s economic crisis, which is one of the worst of its kind, has exposed many white-collar officials’ and blue-collar individuals’ corruption and fraudulent activities. This has been the practice for many years, perhaps more so, during the height of the pandemic, when the country was paralysed. Many members of the public have complained about banks and Police Officers enlisting the help of thugs to go after elderly people, who are living abroad, and those who are poor but have land and houses as their only assets in Sri Lanka.

As a result of many people filing complaints with the Police and seeking legal advice, it has become clear that there is a ‘ring’ or network that plunders land and deeds, forges deeds, and sells them to others while the owners are alive or overseas.

It should also be mentioned that The Citizens for Truth and Justice made a complaint to the Criminal Investigation Department on 9 March. The complaint was on forgery of deeds by the Banks, Non-Bank Financial Institutions, politicians and their henchmen and various individuals across the country, with the help of Police, lawyers, Land Registry staff, Court Staff and the complete state mechanism, they alleged. They said organised crimes are committed against Sri Lankans living abroad and their elderly parents, ordinary citizens, and people living alone. In some instances, the owner has been murdered. This is the first step and from here we go forward in unity.

Ceylon Today obtained several victims’ affidavits to their lawyers alleging that they had been beaten up and threatened by goons and unknown persons. Some people have also told private television networks and YouTubers about their ordeal with property thieves.

The land deed of one of the individuals has been with the Police for the past 12 years after it was confiscated from him with the explanation that the case was still pending and that the deed could not be given, they alleged.

Defence Secretary Kamal Gunaratne recently announced the formation of a new division in the CID to combat land and property plunderers in the country. There was nothing of this sort before. He tells the story of a public servant who, after retiring, bought a 15-acre plot of land with his retirement funds and a housing loan. “He and his family have lived in a rented house their entire lives. He was pondering how to construct a house with at least two rooms, a hall, a kitchen, and a toilet after purchasing the land. While pondering whether or not to build a house, he returned to the land after eight months and found it had been occupied. When he inquired about his right to occupy the land, the man who lived there responded that he was the owner and that the retired public servant had no right to question him. It was found the deed was forged and signed by the Land Registrar before being sold to the retired public servant,” he said.

“Someone paid for forgery, drafted a deed, and sold it to the poor retired man. Officials in provincial councils divide land and remove the entire annexation of the original deed, so that no one can trace it. This must be addressed,” the Defence Secretary said.

“While arresting those responsible for these forgeries, drug kingpins, and underworld members is important, people must also be able to reach out to authorities by not offering bribes, if this is not possible, something is radically wrong in this country. While there are many officials who do excellent work, there are also some who are dishonest. So everything that happened in the past is history, and nothing else can happen from now on,” he said.

However, the victims claim that the Defence Secretary’s statement that “what happened should not happen again” cannot be taken lightly because there are so many land forgery cases being fought in Court and nothing can be erased too soon, despite the fact that Police and banks who are part of the racketeers are after many of the innocent people, they alleged.  

Some of the case studies are below: it was obtained from the victims with their affidavits submitted with Police reports.

Anura Dharshana Perera Abeysekara Gunaratne of Dehiwala. His mother wrote her property to him prior to her death. He was unmarried at that time. Over this, his brothers plotted to take the land and lodged a complaint that Anura forged his mother’s signature. There was no case against Anura about forgery nor was he arrested. However, in the morning of 25 October 2011, Police Officers of Dehiwala Police had allegedly gone to his neighbour’s house and inquired about his whereabouts. According to the affidavit, the male attendant who took care of Anura’s ailing mother and him had been telling others that Anura is mentally ill. According to the complainant, the attendant was alleged to be part of the racket to seize the property.

“Since 2012, by searching the house where I lived, day and night, by intimidating people through the Police, by misusing the Court, forcing me to transfer property involving me in criminal cases, sabotaging my businesses, searching publicly the houses of whom I associate and intimidating them by the Police, I was harassed in a number of ways.” 

Although Anura lives in the house his mother gave him, the deed of the house is with the CID for almost 12 years, he said. “I lodged a complaint with Samanthi Ranasinghe, then Secretary to the President, she referred this case to Munasinghe, Inspector of the Colombo South Crimes Division, Nugegoda. He launched an investigation and statements were recorded, but to no avail, and the deed is with the CID,” he said. 

Another person named Herath Bandaralage Thakshila Sajeewani residing in Nuwara Eliya who had a request of Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) to lay high voltage power lines across her land from Polpitiya to Hambantota for the money which will be paid as compensation for the trees that will be cut down for this project. When she visited the land from Colombo, she was accompanied by CEB officials and the Grama Niladhari to mark the trees to be felled. But a person named Chaminda Saman Perera, a Member of the Pradeshiya Sabha had allegedly told the Grama Niladhari on 1 February 2020 that the land belongs to him and the CEB payment had to be halted when the dispute arose. Although at the first inquiry at the Divisional Secretariat, the deeds were checked and it was confirmed that these were two blocks of land, the land was inspected due to pressure by Chaminda. Finally, he claimed the whole block of land belongs to him. The Land Officer and all other officers acted partially, she said. The Divisional Secretariat and Divisional Secretary had asked her to share the compensation of the CEB between her and Chaminda. She objected and filed a case. The land deed was not in her name by then. The letter to the Divisional Secretary dated 2 October 2020 informed her that if she does not comply, her compensation will be paid to Chaminda. She had then informed the Nuwara Eliya District Secretary and the Bribery and Corruption Investigation Unit in writing. Although the Presidential Commission was informed in writing, justice was not done.

Chaminda meanwhile had built a house on her land, she said. This occurred during the lockdown. Three very old fruit-bearing mangosteen trees and a large number of valuable trees and coffee trees had also been cut down and the boundaries have been altered and removed. “About six concrete pillars which were in my old house have been removed. The Electricity Board had cut a road with our permission for the installation of concrete pillars,” she said.

She also alleged that Chaminda had fraudulently prepared a deed for a person called Kumara and he is also building a house on her land under the programme ‘Vistas of Prosperity.’ “The land belongs to my grandmother and she had transferred it to her sister Kusuma Mathota Arachchi (M.A. Kusumawathie) by a deed in 1957. After her death, her only daughter J.P. Samantha Vijithangani Dharmapala inherited this land from her mother. Both parents died. She transferred this land, occupied by me and my mother, separately in two different times.”

In the list of victims is Sudath Fernando from Kawdana West Grama Niladhari Division, Colombo District, Western Province. His case is regarding kidnapping, forcible seizure of household items and making death threats at gunpoint. A father of two children was asked by a priest to fix the loudspeakers at a Catholic Church in Kimbulapitiya. The conversation regarding this is recorded. The Priest had sent his representative to his home address. “A person aged around 43 years came up to me and asked whether I am Sudath, I said yes. I have never seen him before. I never asked his name and whereabouts. He only said the priest sent him.”

“He later told me that the Priest named Tyronne was in Wellawatte and suggested that we go there. I had no doubt about them, although he said he had come with another group in a separate vehicle. In that vehicle, he said we need to travel to Mount Lavinia again. Two strangers were in the car. They pointed two pistols at me and threatened to kill me. They assaulted me saying ‘we have a contract to kill you.’ They gagged me. They said to give Rs 1 million taken from Mohan Peiris. I said I did not take any money from Mohan Peiris. Then they picked me up and drove me to my house.

Then they came to my house, opened the back door, entered our room, forcibly opened the closet and seized the house deed and several other documents, two of my wife’s passports (with an old one), Rs 350,000 worth of gold jewellery and also Rs 75,000 in cash. They forced me to sign two documents that had stamps. I signed out of fear. It was blank. In addition, another letter was signed on a stamp stating that I have received Rs 2,500,000 from Mohan Peiris. They got that letter written by me. They also seized invalid cheque books with remaining cheques. They got me to sign a cheque worth Rs 1,200,000. They also got me to sign a blank cheque. I declared that this account had been cancelled.

They fled after assaulting me. They threatened me not to notify the Police. I lodged a complaint in this regard with the Dehiwala Police on the same night which was 10 September 2011 under GCIB 215/161 GCF 411/2011. As no action was taken by Dehiwala Police until 29 September 2011, I lodged a complaint with Police Headquarters. The report given by the Dehiwala Police with regard to obtaining my Passport was completely false. (As I lost) he alleged. With regard to obtaining my wife’s passport, I received a report with factual information. Those copies are also attached.”

Another case is of Wagage Nimal Somasiri and Pitiyegedara Dayani Kusumalatha of Kurunegala District, who had mortgaged their property to a private bank and obtained a loan of Rs 4.5 million. Today, the third defendant in the above case is this bank, in order to emphasise our rights and entitlements. They claimed that while they have all documents, signature and the official stamp of the Commissioner, Municipal Council, Kandy, signature and the official stamp of the surveyor, the deed had been forged allegedly to prepare the plan to mortgage the land again. The victims had declared that another private bank has released a large sum of money to one Jayawardena, a retired technical officer of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, on a forged deed.

Another person, Razeem Wangsa, residing in Dehiwala had been living at that address for 25 years. The property belongs to Razeem, his sister and her son. He had been visiting Sri Lanka occasionally as he is employed overseas. Suddenly, his sister and her son were moved out from that house. “My brother and his brother-in-law and his wife were relocated to a rented house in Kreeda Mawatha. I was wondering why they had a house and had to move out to the rented house.” He alleged that his family members used the Police to get the house written to his brother and his wife. The sister who lived with Razeem had been taken to the rented house and later she had died there.

“I also locked the house and moved to another place temporarily in Kohuwala. I left because in the night of 16 January 2018, several men entered the house and tried to strangle me. I was admitted to the Kalubowila Hospital on 17 January 2018. The medical records of that hospital were also presented to the lawyer. At the hospital, I complained to the Police, but I received no support or justice. Subsequently, submitting a medical report of the hospital, I lodged a complaint with the Dehiwala Police under CIB /355/182 on 19 January 2018. After that, the Police arrested the suspects and handed over the matter to the Mediation Board for investigation. The case was later referred to the Mount Lavinia Magistrate’s Court as a settlement wasn’t reached at the Mediation Board. The victim claims that this incident which was committed with the intention of killing him had been reported by Police in the B report ‘that they had caused only minor injuries.’ The Court ordered the Police to amend the B report in this connection and resubmit it. The group that assaulted me have forcibly acquired the house. I was threatened to give the house. There are three cases filed against him that he removed the electricity meter and that he had assaulted his sister and that he had broken into someone’s house. The attempted murder story has not counted much.

The Supreme Court case has now changed to Dehiwala Magistrate and I am under constant threat despite owning the house. The sister died under mysterious circumstances. She has a share of Rs 10 million from the property. I don’t want to sell my portion of the house. They are demanding that property and allegedly the Police are involved in the matter. I am unable to go to the house where I lived for 25 years out of fear of going to the Police, as false complaints have been made,” he alleged. The Police are forcing him to transfer the portion of the house where he lived, belonging to him, to his brother and family, he alleged.

Tikirihannadige Sisirawathie Nona née Tikirihannadige Merlin Silva from Mount Lavinia said her husband Ande Leslie Silva and her were taken to the Mount Lavinia Police Station around 2:00 p.m. and till midnight forced to sign a document saying that the land, for which forged deeds were prepared, had been sold. They were assaulted and her husband fell unconscious. The Police then left them alone. But when they had returned home they saw that their house was forcibly acquired. A section of the house was separated by a wall.

“At the time of this incident, my husband was 67 years and paralysed and I was 65 years. My husband died of a heart attack on 9 March 2016 due to injuries and severe trauma caused by this attack. I declare that those who forcibly took over the land had to pay compensation at the Courts for breaking my left hand, that my children have also been assaulted by the Police, and they are in danger,” she said.

“In 2019, when the roof of my house was damaged while cutting down trees, I was taken to the Police and harassed. I fell unconscious and was hospitalised.”

She also claimed there is a video detailing this heinous crime committed in connivance with the people who made these forged deeds and urged investigations to bring the perpetrators to justice and provide her with a solution.

There are also affidavits where expats have lost their lands when they had returned. The lands had been used by someone else and the deeds were forged and sold. These stories are circulating widely on social media too.  

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan