Many an eyebrow was raised when Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, intervened in the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (P CoI), tasked to inquire into the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage.
The Diocese of Colombo stepped-in, in the wake of accusations that attempts were being made to suppress the investigation. The then President Maithripala Sirisena, who named the P CoI, on Sept 22, 2019, wouldn’t have anticipated the P CoI to boomerang on him.
Sirisena, who is also the beleaguered leader of the SLFP, constituted the P CoI, ahead of the seven-member Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) submitting its report to the Parliament, on Oct 23, 2019. The PSC sittings took place between May-Oct 2019.
Sirisena, who had been away in Singapore, at the time of the coordinated suicide attacks, on the morning of April 21, 2019, returned on the following day, to take charge of the situation. Initially, the public didn’t find fault with the President, whereas the then Premier Ranil Wickemesinghe was mercilessly attacked. Within days after the attacks, Sirisena appointed his first P CoI to probe the attacks. The P CoI, headed by Supreme Court Justice Vijith Malalgoda, included former IGP N.K. Illangakoon (July 16, 2011 to July 11, 2016) and retired Secretary to the Ministry of Law and Order Padmasiri Jayamanne.
It would be pertinent to mention that the Easter Sunday carnage mastermind Zahran Hashim stepped up his clandestine activities, during Illangakoon’s tenure, as the IGP. By August 2015, Hashim had reached consensus with a group of Muslim politicians, and the parties they represented.
Sirisena named his second P CoI, in response to the PSC named by the then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. Headed by Deputy Speaker Ananda Kumarasiri, the PSC consisted of SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem, Ravi Karunanayake, Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka. M.A. Sumanthiran, PC, Dr. Nalinda Jayatissa , Prof. Ashu Marasinghe, and Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne, PC. The PSC summoned members of the first P CoI, on August 20, 2019. Illangakoon and Jayamanne also appeared before the PSC, on July 25, 2019.
Special status for Prez, SIS head
Sirisena declined to appear before the PSC. Instead, the PSC visited him at the President’s House, on Sept 20, 2019. Sirisena received kid glove treatment. Let me reproduce what the PSC stated in its report on meeting Sirisena:
“Committee, having observed the evidence of H.E. Maithripala Sirisena, the President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, who was the Minister of Defence at the time these incidents took place, would be very helpful and important in preparing the final report of the Committee, decided to make a request to H.E. the President to give the Committee an opportunity for that.”
Sirisena named his second P CoI two days after his chat with the PSC, on Aug 20, 2019. The then head of the State Intelligence Service (SIS) Senior DIG Nilantha Jayawardena too received special status when his testimony was recorded in camera, at the Parliamentary Committee Complex (formerly Agriculture Ministry) located at Rajamalwatta Road, Battaramulla, at 7.00 p.m., on July 24, 2019. The hearing continued till 1 a.m. the following day. Jayawardena, having joined the Police, as an ASP, in February, 1998, received appointment as Senior DIG, in late Feb 2019. Interestingly, even after the PSC named Jayawardena as the main culprit, the incumbent SLPP administration appointed him Senior DIG, in charge of the Eastern Province. Jayawardena received the appointment on Jan 1, 2020.
Obviously, Sirisena never expected the second P CoI to really go into the Easter attack. Perhaps, Jayawardena, too, didn’t anticipate any devastating exposure, at the second P CoI.
Sirisena concluded his testimony, on Nov 25, having appeared before the P CoI, on eight occasions, with Shammil Perera, PC, Counsel for the Diocese of Colombo, giving the former President a very hard time. Sirisena, now an SLPP (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna) MP for Polonnaruwa, ended up having to produce his medical reports to the P CoI.
The on-going second P CoI comprises Court of Appeal Judge Janak de Silva, Court of Appeal Judge Nissanka Bandula Karunaratne, Retired High Court Judges Nihal Sunil Rajapaksa, and A.L. Bandula Kumara Atapattu and former Secretary of the Ministry of Justice W.M.M.R. Adikari. Secretary to the Commission is H.M.P.B. Herath.
Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith refrained from seeking changes to the P CoI, though President Gotabaya Rajapaksa requested the Archbishop of Colombo to make suggestions. Instead, the Church had Counsel therein to raise pertinent issues. Perhaps Sirisena felt confident that he could deal with the situation. However, the proceedings have taken a nasty turn with the Counsel for disgraced former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando questioning Sirisena whether he lied before the P CoI.
Responding to Fernando’s Counsel, Sirisena, on Nov 24, acknowledged how his son Daham’s wedding had to be shifted from the Shangri-La Hotel, where Zahran Hashim, and another, carried out suicide attacks, to Hilton Colombo. Sirisena also defended visiting Tirupathi, before Singapore, where he claimed he received treatment, whereas Fernando’s Counsel insisted he was there for a regular checkup. The Counsel also challenged Sirisena’s excuse for not taking an earlier flight, in spite of the unprecedented national security emergency.
Diocese of Colombo responds
sought an explanation from His Lordship Rt. Rev. Dr. J. Winston S. Fernando, S.S.S., President, Sri Lanka Catholic Bishops’ Conference and Bishop of the Diocese of Badulla as regards the intervention made by the Church.
Asked whether the decision to employ legal counsel had been taken by the Sri Lanka Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Dr. Fernando explained how the Diocese of Colombo could take the relevant decision as the Easter Sunday attacks took place within the area coming under its authority. The senior clergyman pointed out that the church, attacked in the Batticaloa district, didn’t come under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Batticaloa. Responding to another query, Dr. Fernando said that the intervention of the Sri Lanka Catholic Bishops’ Conference depended on the nature of the issue at hand. On behalf of the Sri Lanka Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Dr. Fernando strongly endorsed the measures taken by them to ensure justice for those who perished in terror attacks.
Dr. Fernando underscored the pivotal importance of maintaining cordial relations among communities as the investigation progressed. Colombo is among altogether 12 Dioceses which constitute the Sri Lanka Catholic Bishops’ Conference, the Supreme body responsible for the overall direction of the community. Rt. Rev. Dr. J.D. Anthony Jayakody, Auxiliary Bishop of Colombo, functions as the Secretary General of the body.
In October 2020, the supreme body had the courage to reject the much touted 20th Amendment to the Constitution. Instead, it called for the appointment of an independent constitutional council to draft a new constitution. It also called for tangible measures to plug the loopholes that could lead to multiple interpretations.
Thanks to apt strategies adopted by the Church, the P CoI inquiry attracted unprecedented attention with the Counsel going ahead with no holds barred questioning of no longer privileged ex-President Sirisena which would have been unthinkable a year ago. Did Sirisena realize how the P CoI inquiry could boomerang on him! Obviously, consequences are catastrophic and irreversible. The impact on the Muslim political leadership too is quite devastating and likely to undermine their longstanding relationship with major political parties. If not for the tough stand taken by the Church, utterly corrupt political party system could have easilysucceeded in suppressing the investigation.
The releasing of Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) Vanni District lawmaker Rishad Bathiudeen’s brother, Riyaj, taken into custody over his alleged involvement with one of the National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ) suicide bombers, by the incumbent government, is a case in point. Attorney General Dappula de Livera, PC called for an inquiry into the release of Riyaj. However, law enforcement authorities are yet to take him back into custody.
Pompeo’s questionable claim on Easter Sunday attacks
Outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, at the end of his official talks in Colombo on Oct 28, 2020, directly blamed ISIS for the Easter Sunday attacks. Let me reproduce the relevant section of his statement verbatim: “Finally, this afternoon, I’ll travel – it’s important for me to take a moment to go and visit the Shrine of St. Anthony, one of the five sites that were attacked by ISIS on Easter Sunday of 2019. I’ll shortly have the chance to pay my respects to the hundreds of victims of evil terrorists, including five Americans. I’m proud that the State Department has offered substantial counterterrorism assistance to help Sri Lankans bring killers of Americans and their own people to justice. These Easter Sunday attacks represent the kind of sectarianism that Sri Lankans are ready to leave behind forever. Sri Lankans of all backgrounds – Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims alike – want a peaceful nation where their human rights are respected.”
Two senior intelligence personnel, a retired official and a serving officer categorically denied ISIS culpability, though the organization claimed responsibility for the Easter Sunday carnage, several days after the attack. Both having access to an entire range of information, emphasized that at the time the suicide bombers struck, the ISIS hadn’t been aware of the operation. Referring to the US Secretary of State’s claim, they underscored the need to set the record straight as the perceived ISIS leadership could divert government and public attention, away from the real perpetrators.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, they explained that the ISIS claimed responsibility for coordinated bombings at churches and high-end hotels on Tuesday (23) after a youth, 21, from Matale, who had been in Qatar before, contacted the ISIS. The CID later arrested the suspect.
The ISIS offered no evidence to back its claim, initially announced in Arabic, carried by its Amaq news agency, on April 23, 2019. The news agency claimed the attackers were ‘among the fighters of the Islamic State.’
ISIS later issued a longer, formal statement, identifying the seven suicide bombers, who detonated explosive-laden vests, at the churches, and hotels, and a housing complex, on that particular Sunday.
Elusive ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a week later, reiterated his fighters carried out the attack.
In spite of Sirisena continuing to deny knowledge of the NTJ build-up, there had been three briefings on Zahran Hashim at the National Security Council (NSC) before the Easter Sunday massacre. In addition to them, the Defence Ministry received nine comprehensive reports on the extremists. The DMI, on several occasions, in the run up to the Easter Sunday attacks, suggested that Zahran Hashim be arrested and dealt through legal means.
Who really masterminded the Easter Sunday carnage?
What really triggered the Easter Sunday attacks? Did negligence on the part of the political leadership, and the security apparatus, paved the way for this high profile terror project? Who masterminded the overall operation? If Zahran Hashim wasn’t responsible, who actually picked the targets? Did Thowheed Jamaat suicide bomber Atchchi Muhammadu Hastun’s Tamil wife P. Pulasthini Rajendran alias Sarah, 24, leave their Sainthamaruthu hideout, on April 28, before troops, and the police, cordoned off the area. Pulasthini remains an enigma, well over a year after a series of blasts, within the hideout, claimed the lives of 15 persons, including six children. Troops captured Zahran Hashim’s wife and child following the confrontation at Sainthamaruthu.
Although Pulasthini was widely believed to be therein, later multiple sources claimed she escaped. Had the P CoI been able to verify claims Hasthun’s wife fled to India, in September 2019, suggesting the possibility of she being one of the informants, run by Indian intelligence?
The Indian intelligence warning, in spite of being ignored by Sri Lanka, revealed the true status of the Indian operation that enabled New Delhi to alert Colombo, well over two weeks before the coordinated terror strikes. Perhaps, Sri Lanka’s response to intelligence warning wrong-footed New Delhi, as Indian interests here were provided enhanced security. On the other hand, New Delhi certainly knew the attackers’ preparations, hence additional warnings.
The confidential Indian memo provided names, addresses, phone numbers, even the times in the middle of the night that one suspect would visit his wife.
If one examined the testimony of Sirisena, and fallen SIS Chief Jayawardena, who appeared before the P Col, for at least 20 days, the bone of contention is nothing but the latter’s failure to tell President of the Indian warning, received on April 4th. Zahran Hashim’s group carried out thespate of blasts, on April 21. Who would believe Sirisena didn’t receive the alert against the backdrop of revelation at the P CoI where there were at least 20 telephone conversations between the two from April 4 to April 21 period alone.
During October 24 P CoI proceedings, President’s Counsel Shamil Perera watching the interests of the Catholic Church, revealed how Sirisena and Jayawardena engaged in a 159-second telephone conversation, beginning at 7.59 am on the day of the attacks. The first blast hit St. Anthony’s Church, at 8.45am. The bomber targeted the Tamil service. However, the PSC, in its report, asserted that the suicide attacks, on St. Anthony’s Church, as well as St. Sebastian’s Church, Katuwapitiya, were carried out at 8.45 am. The next blast, at The Kingsbury Hotel took place at 8.47 am, Shangri-La at 8.54 am, Zion Church, Batticaloa, at 9.10 am and the sixth explosion at the Cinnamon Grand at 9.12 am.
There were two subsequent blasts at Tropical Inn, Dehiwalaand the Dematagoda house of spice tycoon Mohammad Yusuf Ibrahim, at 1.30 pm and 2.25 pm, respectively. Ibrahim’s two sons were among those who carried out attacks. When police surrounded the Dematagoda residence, Ibrahim’s daughter-in-law detonated explosives. Ibrahim who had been on the JVP’s National List, at the 2015 general election, is still in detention, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).
Counsel Perera produced a document before P CoI, in the presence of Sirisena, that proved the then President and hisspy chief had been constantly in touch. The list proved that there had been altogether 221 calls, from January to April 2019, therefore claim of Jayawardena didn’t receive an opportunity to pass such vital information, is highly questionable.
Similarly, can the possibility of Premier Wickremesinghe receiving the intelligence warning be ruled out, asJayawardena had shared security alert, received from New Delhi, with the then IGP Pujitha Jayasundera and CNI (Chief of National Intelligence Intelligence) retired DIG Sisira Mendis? Both IGP Jayasundara and Mendis wouldn’t have received appointments if they weren’t the UNP’s favourites.
The NTJ struck a couple of months after UNP leader Wickremesinghe regained the premiership, following Sirisena’s abortive bid to have the general election ahead of the presidential poll, which eventually took place on Nov 16, 2019. If the UNP-TNA-JVP combine hadn’t been successful in its legal challenge, the general election would have taken place on January 5, 2019. Had that happened, who would have taken the upper hand? Under whatever the circumstances, the SLPP wouldn’t have secured a near 2/3 majority by winning 145 seats. The result could have gone either way. Most importantly, the then UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa wouldn’t have an opportunity to contest the general election, under a new symbol. In other words, in case the SLPP won the Jan 2019 general election, envisaged by Sirisena, with a slim majority, the main Opposition would have been the UNP. What we should also take into consideration is that if Sirisena managed to sustain his strategy, his SLFP would have had a far bigger share in the SLPP parliamentary group. The SLFP managed to obtain 13 seats, under the SLPP ticket, and one on its own, in the Jaffna peninsula, at the Aug 2020 general election, after the judiciary reversed the then President’s strategy.
The NTJ mounted attacks after Wickremesinghe regained premiership though the police couldn’t be brought under the UNP. Sirisena would have been in a far more comfortable situation now if he gave in to the UNP demand to have the police under its control. However, an adamant Sirisena retained both the defence and police portfolios thereby automatically taking responsibility for the Easter Sunday carnage.
As claimed by academic Rajan Hoole in his explosive ‘Sri Lanka’s Easter Tragedy: When the Deep State gets out of its Depth, ‘launched ahead of the Nov 2019 presidential election, the failure of high profile NTJ’s political project to get some parliamentary representation, at the 2015 general election, may have prompted the Easter Sunday attacks. According to Prof. Hoole, the NTJ sought an arrangement similar to that of the LTTE having its interests represented in Parliament, through the TNA. An in depth examination of political factors is certainly essential as part of the overall investigation which is still at a very early stage.