Editorial/Opinion

Damning indictment on President and Govt.

By Skandha Gunasekara

Shocking revelations were made during the sessions of the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) probing the Easter Sunday terror attacks, including IGP Pujith Jayasundara, who is currently on compulsory leave, testifying that he had succumbed to political pressure from the highest echelons of the Government.

The PSC sessions began on 29 May with the summoning of Defence Secretary General (Rtd.) Shantha Kottegoda.

Kottegoda told the PSC that the Easter attacks could have been averted had the extremist organisation responsible been proscribed on the basis of intelligence reports received as far back as 2014.

Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, who is member of the PSC, noted that former Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) Head DIG Nalaka de Silva had been investigating Zahran Hashim – the leader of the suicide bombing attack – but following DIG Silva’s arrest, the investigations had been affected.

On the same day, State Intelligence Service (SIS) Chief Sisira Mendis was called before the PSC.

Mendis told the Committee that despite him briefing then Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando on the impeding attacks, the National Security Council (NSC) had not met till after the coordinated suicide bombings on 21 April.

He said that he had been informed of the attacks on the previous day by SIS Director Nilantha Jayawardana.

Mendis said Fernando had instructed him to inform the IGP of the threat as the Police should take action.

He went on to say the warning of the attacks had not even been discussed at the regular intelligence coordinating meetings held at the Defence Ministry, which was attended by the Defence Secretary, Army Chief Lt. General Mahesh Senanayake, Air Force Chief Air Marshal Kapila Jayampathy, Navy Chief Vice Admiral Piyal De Silva, and IGP Pujith Jayasundara.

Mendis said that he had notified the IGP of the imminent attacks with a note emphasising its importance, adding that the last NSC meeting was on 19 February 2019.

The PSC is chaired by Deputy Speaker Ananda Kumarasiri and comprises MP Rauff Hakeem, MP Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, Minister Ravi Karunanayake, MP Ashu Marasinghe, MP Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne, and MP M.A. Sumanthiran.

Due to the Deputy Speaker being overseas, Dr. Wickramaratne functioned as the pro-tem chair of the Committee thus far.

The session unfolds

The PSC, for its second sitting, summoned former TID Head DIG de Silva on 4 June, where he revealed that he had been aware of the subversive operations of the Islamic fanatics led by Zahran Hashim since 2013.

He said Hashim had been engaged in extremist activities since 2013 and had embraced violent extremism since 2016.

“The TID was engaged in anti-extremism activities since 2013 and we were monitoring his activities since 2013. I set up a special unit within TID to monitor extremism. However, I cannot reveal details about the unit before the media,” de Silva said.

He said that his team had been able to find out that Hashim maintained two Facebook accounts and two websites, and the latter were sharing information from ISIS and had various posts put out by ISIS.

DIG de Silva said he had informed the Computer Emergency Readiness Team (CERT) and the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) to block the websites maintained by Hashim but was unable to take further action with regard to Hashim’s online activities.

Further, de Silva said that Hashim had links with several politicians, but refused to divulge more facts on this matter in front of the media.

He said that in 2018, he had informed courts of Hashim’s activities and thus, had been able to obtain an open warrant in July 2018.

“I obtained an open warrant in July 2018 and also went on to get Interpol to issue a blue notice on Hashim after I found out that he had left the country. We concluded that he had left the country as we could not find him anywhere in Sri Lanka. When a blue notice is issued by Interpol, they can look for him and it becomes possible to issue a red notice when the country he is hiding in is uncovered. However, it was not possible to get that far as I was arrested on 25 October 2018,” said de Silva, adding that had he not been arrested, he could have been able to prevent the Easter terror attacks.

He then told the PSC that he had never attended NSC meetings, but had participated in State Intelligence review meetings held every Tuesday which were chaired by the Secretary of Defence.

On Thursday (6), during the third sitting of the PSC, IGP Jayasundara was called to testify.

The IGP said he had been excluded from the NSC by the President since 23 October 2018 over a difference of opinion regarding the transfer of a police officer.

He said that then Defence Secretary Kapila Waidyaratne had informed him that he did not need to attend the NSC meetings.

He pointed out that the SIS, despite being under the Ministry of Law and Order for administrative purposes, functioned under the Ministry of Defence when it came to operational matters.

“Therefore, the SIS Director reports directly to the Secretary of Defence and the Minister of Defence and not to the IGP,” he said.

When MP Sumanthiran inquired what the contentious issue had been regarding the transfer of a police officer during the NSC meeting on 23 October, the IGP said that it had been the transfer of DIG Nalaka de Silva from the TID.

“DIG de Silva was investigating several crucial cases,” the IGP said.

“Was the case of the 11 Tamil youths being abducted in Colombo one of those cases?” MP Sumanthiran queried.

The IGP responded in the affirmative and said he had been pressured by President Maithripala Sirisena to transfer DIG Nalaka de Silva.

Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne then questioned whether the President had given a reason for requesting the transfer of DIG Nalaka de Silva: “Did the President give a reason for the transfer? Was there a particular case being investigated that was the reason for his transfer?”

The IGP said that it was the case of the abduction of the 11 Tamil youths in Colombo.

“The current Chief of the Defence Staff is involved in this case,” the IGP added.

“Why did you succumb to political pressure?” MP Sumanthiran demanded to know.

However, his query went answered by the IGP.

Thereafter, the IGP said he had been informed of a possible terror attack by the extremist group led by Hashim’s faction of the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) on 9 April and that he had taken action to inform other police officials on the same date.

“The SIS Director as well as the Chief of National Intelligence (CNI), in top secret documents, informed me on 9 April of an impending terror attack by Hashim’s group.

In addition, on the evening on 20 April around 7.30 p.m. or 8 p.m., the SIS Director gave me a phone call and said the following day would be dangerous and something would happen. I conveyed that warning to all relevant Senior DIGs,” he said, adding that on the following morning, the day of the attack, the SIS Director had called him between 6.45 a.m. and 7.15 a.m., stating “something dangerous would happen today”.

‘We are the scapegoats’

In another startling disclosure, the IGP said, following the Easter Sunday tragedy, President Sirisena had asked him to bear the responsibility for the disaster in exchange for a diplomatic post.

“The President told me that there would be a presidential committee to probe the incident, and I would be found guilty and would go home without my pension. I was asked to resign and was offered an ambassadorship in return if I comply with his instructions. I did not accept the offer, so the President sent the letter sending me on compulsory leave,” the IGP said.

He said that he had been chosen as the scapegoat.

“I was told to accept an ambassadorial post so that others responsible for the disaster could exonerate themselves. I did not accept that offer because my conscience did not permit me to betray my ethics and morals,” he said.

He then said the Easter Sunday massacre was a result of a complete system failure of national security protocols.

Former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando, who testified before the PSC on Thursday after the IGP, said although there were designated officials to attend the NSC meetings, he had been instructed by the President to invite only officials named by the President.

He said on 13 November 2018, the President had specifically ordered him not to invite Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene, and IGP Jayasundara for NSC meetings.

Four meetings had taken place since then until 25 April when Fernando resigned.
He too said that he had received early warnings of an impending attack from CNI Mendis on 8 April.

“The CNI had been alerted by foreign intelligence services of the impending danger. That had been conveyed by the foreign intelligence services on 4 April. However, that was not included in the weekly report by the SIS Director covering 31 March to 6 April,” Fernando said.

In addition, he said that the SIS Director reported directly to the President.

“I have twice been told by the President that the SIS Director directly reported to him.

Thereafter, I did not communicate intelligence reports to the President during my five-and-a-half-month service in the position of Defence Secretary. During that period, there had been references to the NTJ’s subversive activities and movements four or five times. Those references were to the effect that the NTJ was getting ready to attack persons of other faiths. I refer such reports to the CNI. He would investigate them and refer them to relevant offices.”

The PSC then questioned whether NSC meetings had been used by officials to speak of matters that were favoured by the President.

He said that during the period before the Easter attack, the matter of narcotics eradication was the predominant topic at NSC meetings: “During the period before the terrorist attacks, the NSC meetings were allocated to talk about Makandure Madush,” he said.

He said he felt practically powerless as the Defence Secretary and was hardly given an audience with the President.

“There is a vast difference between Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s time as the Defence Secretary and my time in the same office. He was so powerful. He was the unofficial Minister of Defence. I was only a simple secretary who couldn’t see his minister even once a week. Sometimes, I had to wait at least three hours to get his signature on a document,” Fernando said.

He also said that he too received warnings by the SIS Director of the attack on 20 April and again on the morning of 21 April.

When asked why he didn’t convey the warnings to the President, Fernando responded that he assumed the SIS Director had already notified the President as was the practice followed.

Fernando then confirmed that IGP Jayasundara had been requested by the President to accept blame and resign in exchange for an ambassadorship.

“I offered my resignation because I knew that there were some fundamental wrong procedures there. For example, I couldn’t meet my minister whenever there were urgent issues. On offering my resignation, I asked the President to allocate at least half an hour a day to meet my successor so that there would be no disasters of this nature again,” he said.

Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, on 23 May, announced the members of the Special Select Committee chaired by Deputy Speaker Ananda Kumarasinghe, appointed to probe and report on the co-ordinated terrorist attacks that took place on 21 April.

The Committee is required to produce its report either within three months from its inaugural meeting or before the completion of the three months on a date set by Parliament. Its interim report is to be submitted within two weeks.

The next session of the PSC is scheduled to be held on Tuesday (11) at 2 p.m.