News Features

The hijacker’s tale

25 years down the line

Twenty-five years ago on June 30, 1982, a 33-year-old Sri Lankan young man hit the media headlines all over the world, having hijacked an Italian airplane. The hijacker was married to a 29-year-old Italian woman and was the father of a four-year-old boy.
Having hijacked the aircraft and embarrassed the Italian state, he demanded his son Free and his wife Anna from the Italian authorities.

Hijacking airplanes has now become a criminal act that is mainly committed in order to realise political goals and is a growing menace to the international community.
Sepala Ekanayake from southern Sri Lanka may be the first person who hijacked a plane for personal demands. There was no legislation in Sri Lanka to deal with such crimes until July 1982 since it was an unknown crime in the island.

Ekanayake is now a 58-year-old, mature man who is married for the second time and the father of a son and a daughter, from his second wife Yasangi, who is a school teacher.

His eldest son, Free is a 29-year-old computer engineer who is attending the German University with the goal of becoming an environmentalist for the European Union. Daughter Sally and son Virama are still students.
So what prompted Ekanayake to hijack the plane? The Nation was able to pose this question, among others, to Ekanayake in an interview recently.

Following are excerpts:

By Stanley Samarasinghe
Q: What prompted you to hijack the plane?
I wanted to live together with my son Free and wife Anna. I did it because of the love I had for my son and my wife.

Q: Why? What was the matter with regard to your son and wife?
It is a long story. I am southern Sri Lankan. My principal objective in hijacking the Alitalia plane was to teach the Italian government a lesson for depriving me the companionship and affection of my wife and custody of son Free.

Q: What made you to go to Italy?
In 1973 I left Sri Lanka, seeking employment. First I went to West Germany, where I worked for three years as a labourer and earned about 600 Deutsch Marks a month. At the end of 1976, I made friends with some Italians in Germany and came to Italy. It was my friend Paul who helped me in Italy. I worked on a farm close to the city of Modena.
A friend of mine introduced me to a girl named Anna Aldrovandi. She was a factory worker. Anna and I fell in love and started living together. After two weeks, both of us came to Sri Lanka and stayed with a friend of mine – Dickman Gunawardana of Bandurupawatta Midigama, Ahangama.

Q: Were the two of you married when you visited Sri Lanka?
No. After we returned to Italy, we registered our marriage. In the year 1978, Free was born.

Q: Did Anna’s parents give their consent to the marriage?
They protested, but we married anyway. Anna was able to obtain employment after the marriage and I was able to get a residence visa, which had to be renewed annually.

Q: How was Anna’s father employed?
He was a carpenter.

Q: Why did you name your son Free?
Anna agreed to that name.

Q: It is an unusual name. Did you have any reason for choosing it?
No reason for it, but Anna did not protest against it either.

Q: Why did the Italian government refuse to extend your visa even though you and Anna were happily married?
It happened like this – an Italian who had recently visited Sri Lanka was speaking in loud, disparaging terms about the Sri Lankan administration and the habits of Sri Lankan people. I got annoyed and had an argument with him. In the course of that argument, which took place at a restaurant where beer was being consumed, I threw the contents of a beer mug at the Italian’s face.
That person was a close relation of a director of police in the city of Modena. I believe this was the reason for the Italian government to refuse to extend my visa.

Q: Did your troubles begin when the Italian government refused to extend your resident visa?
In those young days I used to take hasty decisions. Now I realise that that was wrong.

Q: Weren’t there quarrels between you and Anna and wasn’t she living separately?
There were some family problems.

Q: Then you came to Sri Lanka with your son?

Q: Then you invited her to Sri Lanka?
She came to Sri Lanka with her brother Claudio and stayed at Bay Beach Hotel, Weligama, and contacted me. She told me to bring the child to the hotel, to be with her. She told me that all the matters with regard to his visa had been settled. I took the child to the hotel. The next day, when I went to the hotel, Anna and her brother had left for Italy. It was with the support of the Italians that Anna left Sri Lanka with the child.

Q: What followed thereafter?
I tried to get a visa from Italian Embassy, but they refused to give me a visa and told me to get one from Rome. Then I thought of hijacking the plane.
I was able to get US$ 700 in foreign exchange and on June 15, 1982 I left for India, from Talaimannar to Rameswaram. In Delhi I contacted a friend and travelled to Bombay, having planned the hijack, and got on the Alitalia flight from Delhi on June 29.
After the plane took off, I contacted my friend who promised to bring me some explosives and he gave me instructions as to where they were hidden. I found the handbag with bombs in the form of torch batteries, which were connected with wires.

Q: How many bombs were there?
Nine or 10. I went to the toilet and connected the batteries according to my friend’s instructions.

Q: In the trial against you, it was revealed the explosives were never traced and that the threat to blow up the Italian plane was a gigantic hoax. What do you have to say in this regard?
That is what they say. (smiles)

Q: What happened to the bombs?
Couldn’t I have flushed them down the toilet?

Q: How did your friend manage to take those bombs inside the plane?
You cannot take bombs on board a plane if they are taken in the form of bombs.

Q: Do you mean to say that chemicals were taken separately and the bombs were then made?
It is like this. For example, take your pen. You can take the tip separately, the carbon separately, but you can join them together later.

Q: Thereafter what happened?
I handed over some papers to air hostess Baba Tomaco to be given to the pilot.
Those were the papers in which I sent my message to the pilot. They stated that my son and wife were residing at Via Delgi Esposti No. 11, 41018 San Casiro Modena, that my wife was working in Asilo Nido, that my son was studying in San Cesario, that I have a problem with my in-laws, that the authorities were not allowing me to go to Italy and that I wanted my wife and son.
I demanded that my wife and son be brought to me with US$ 300,000, and stated that if they did not agree to my demands, I was capable of blasting up the plane with the explosives I had with me.
When Pilot Giorgio Amorosa received it, they examined the papers and realised that there was a threat to blast the plane with explosives if the demands of the hijacker were not met.
In the papers I described the harassment by the Italian authorities, depriving me of my wife and son. In those papers I informed them to bring my wife and son to Bangkok with the ransom of US$ 300,000.
Amorosa came to me he and saw me seated near the door, signalling to somebody. When the plane landed at Bangkok Airport, Amorosa informed the passengers that a person board was threatening to blow up the plane with bombs and warned them not to open the door. There were 261 passengers on board the plane.
My demands were conveyed to the Alitalia staff at Bangkok. By this time Amorosa spoke to me several times and I explained everything to him, about how the Italian government was not allowing me to reside in Italy.

Q: Were the crew on the plane helpful to you?
I believe they helped me unofficially.

Q: What stance did the Sri Lankan government take?
They took legal action against me and sent Anna and my son back to Italy. I was tried in the Colombo High Court on two charges; one was hijacking Alitalia Boeing 747 and the second was retaining US$ 299,700 dishonestly, knowing that it was stolen property.

Q: What was the High Court verdict?
The High Court sentenced me to a simple life sentence for the first count for three years and a rigorous sentence for the second count.

Q: Did you appeal against the sentence?
Yes. The Appeal Court reduced my life sentence from five years rigorous imprisonment to two years rigorous imprisonment, for the second count to run concurrently. The Supreme Court dismissed the appeal. I came out of the prison in three years.

Q: Did you contact Anna after that?
No. She informed me that she had divorced me and wanted have nothing to do with me.

Q: When did you marry for the second time?
January 14, 1990 I married Yasangi, an English teacher. Sally and Virama are my children from that marriage.

Q: Your son Free comes to see you yearly, doesn’t he?
Yes, it was Yasangi and the children who got in touch with him. Every year they send birthday greeting cards to Free. In 1997, Free came to Sri Lanka to see me. He spends the month of December with me each year. Free and my other children get on very well.