BY Shafnee Ahamed
The Colombo Fort Magistrate’s Court yesterday (2) ordered to acquit former Minister and incumbent Samagi Jana Balawegaya Opposition Parliamentarian and All Ceylon Makkal Congress Leader Rishad Bathiudeen, who was accused of supporting those who carried out the Easter Sunday terror attacks on 21 April, 2019, of all charges.
Bathiudeen has been one of the primary targets of political victimisation since the Rajapaksa (a reference to former Presidents Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Mahinda Rajapaksa) regime returned to power in 2019. The preliminary indication of the witch-hunt was depicted when Bathiudeen was targeted for the alleged abuse of State resources to transport voters to the polling booths. However, the case bearing number 16071/20/Criminal Investigation Department (CID) which led to his arrest culminated in different results.
Following the victory of Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the Presidential Poll in 2019, the Rajapaksa regime led a witch-hunt targeting several Muslims, including Muslim political leaders such as the National Unity Alliance Leader Azath Salley and Bathiudeen. However, the vendetta against Bathiudeen seemed vengefully personal and unrelenting.
It began soon after the Parliamentary election was announced for August 2020. Bathiudeen was repeatedly summoned to make statements to the CID on a very regular basis for his alleged involvement in the Easter Sunday attacks, thereby hindering his political campaign. However, Bathiudeen went on to win at the election. However, soon after the election, a new charge was brought before court that Bathiudeen had been involved in the alleged abuse of State resources to facilitate the transport of voters to polling booths.
Bathiudeen continued to be targeted by the Rajapaksa regime, especially through the Ministry of Public Security, irrespective of the outcome of the aforesaid allegation of the violation of election laws. This article shall nevertheless investigate only the circumstances and outcomes of the case on the election law violations.
Bathiudeen was the Minister of Industry and Commerce, Resettlement of Protracted Displaced Persons, Co-operative Development, and Vocational Training and Skills Development under the United National Front-led “Yahapalana” (good governance) Government. Bathiudeen together with Project Director at the Resettlement Ministry Mohamed Yaseen Samsudeen and Project Accountant Alagaratnam Manoranjan were accused of violating Section 82(1) of the Presidential Elections Act, No. 15 of 1981 by misappropriating public funds amounting to Rs. 9,529,060 during the Presidential Election.
The allegation suggested that 222 buses belonging to the Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB) had been deployed by Bathiudeen at State cost to transport internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Puttalam to polling stations in Silavathurai during the 2019 Presidential Election.
The Police sought a warrant from the Magistrate of Colombo Fort on 13 October 2020, but was turned down. The Magistrate however informed the Police that the arrest could be executed without a warrant. On that account, the Attorney General (AG) at the time, President’s Counsel (PC) Dappula De Livera issued a directive to the Police to arrest the parties mentioned above without a warrant. Six CID teams were then deployed to track down and arrest Bathiudeen.
Bathiudeen and his lawyers thereafter filed a writ application on or about 15 October 2020, in an attempt to prevent his arrest. The application yielded no results and Bathiudeen was eventually arrested at an apartment in Dehiwala on 19 October 2020, together with six others who were allegedly aiding Bathiudeen to evade arrest.
Bathiudeen continued to remain in remand until he was granted bail on 25 November 2020. The bail was conditional and granted only on the condition that he would surrender his passport to the court. The case continued until 15 October of this year (2022) when it was concluded due to the lack of evidence.
Circumstances of the case
The ethnic conflict that prevailed in the North and the East until 2009 had displaced many people. Many of these were Muslims who were forcefully evicted in 1990, having to leave behind their belongings due to their refusal to support the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Sinhalese too were evicted. They were termed IDPs (internally displaced persons). Many were accommodated in IDP camps set up by the Government, but not all were treated with the same respect and many families had to fend for themselves.
Many Muslims relocated to Puttalam until they could one day return to their homes. Following the conclusion of the war, many IDPs attempted to return to their homes, but they were restricted by numerous impediments and constraints. The loss of land deeds, the destruction of their homes, the lack of basic amenities, and State-imposed systems, among other reasons, contributed to delays. At present, there are an estimated 12,000 IDPs living in the Puttalam District.
Considering these issues, a Cabinet memorandum dated 10 May 2016, was presented to the Cabinet of Ministers categorising the IDPs under four categories. The first category included those who had managed to be resettled in their proper homes in the North permanently. The second category included those who had returned to their homes, but not to a permanent abode. The third category was those who had been delisted from their IDP camps, but could not be returned to their homes owing to the aforesaid impediments. The fourth category had integrated with the local populace and made their homes in Puttalam or elsewhere, thereby lacking the will to return.
The said memorandum proposed that the Registration of Electors Act, No. 44 of 1980 be amended to permit the IDPs displaced during the war to vote in their native areas where they resided before displacement. It also proposed the establishment of a task force for the resettlement of the IDPs. The memorandum was approved and eventually, the Registration of Electors (Special Provisions) Act, No. 10 of 2017 was enacted. Thereafter, Gazette Extraordinary No. 2103-33 dated 28 December 2018, was published. It established a proposed task force under the purview of the Ministry of the Resettlement of Protracted Displaced Persons.
Meanwhile, the IDPs formed a forum under the title “Northern Displaced People’s Forum” and addressed their concerns with the task force through this forum. They had complained to the task force on 14 November 2019, that the registration of their votes for the Presidential Election in 2019 had not been adequately done. The matter was raised before the then Minister Bathiudeen under whose purview the task force was. They had complained that although their votes were registered in the Vanni District, they could not however find transport to travel to the election booths to cast their vote.
With hardly any time for the election, Minister Bathiudeen wrote to the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe seeking his approval for the “Project Management Unit for the Resettlement of IDPs” to acquire buses owned by the SLTB to facilitate transport for the IDPs. The proposal was accepted and a letter was immediately dispatched on behalf of the Secretary to the Prime Minister making a request for suitable steps to be taken by the said Project Management Unit for the Resettlement of IDPs.
The matter was also raised before the Election Commission, who had then granted consent to the Chairman of the SLTB to provide transport to the IDPs.
On 15 November 2019, the President of the Northern Displaced People’s Forum also wrote a letter to the Premier, seeking his intervention to provide 230 buses to transport 12,500 persons. Based on this requirement, negotiations were commenced with the SLTB in accordance with the Management Services Circular No. 01/2019. Minister Bathiudeen also wrote to then-Minister of Finance Mangala Samaraweera and the late Minister had minuted his approval on the same letter.
Eventually, 225 buses were provided for the transport of IDPs billed at Rs. 9,529,060, for which the Project Management Unit for the Resettlement of IDPs had offered to place the monies as a security to release the buses on the condition that once the monies had been recovered, the monies were to be reimbursed to the account of the said Project Management Unit.
The buses were released and the IDPs were able to travel to their respective polling booths to cast their votes at the Presidential Election 2019.
Outcomes of the case
Following the presentation of evidence, including all material, letters, and documents, on 15 October, 2022, the AG informed the Court that there was insufficient evidence to constitute charges against Bathiudeen for any alleged misappropriation of State resources. As a result, the case is now concluded.
However, no person can appreciate the trials and tribulations of being wrongfully implicated and arrested. The Police, then under the purview of Minister of Public Security, Dr. Sarath Weerasekera, deployed six teams to seek the arrest of Bathiudeen and others with scant evidence or investigation into the matter. If a mere search of Government records would indicate a paper trail of formal procedures that were followed, and such an investigation was not performed by the Government prior to making the arrest, then it is either a case of omission and negligence of the Government and if not, it is a clear case of the abuse of State authority.
The negligence or abuse of authority resulted in severe and irreversible damage to the image and reputation of Bathiudeen. It has cost him a considerable amount of time spent incarcerated. He was humiliated in a highly publicised manner, and thereafter arrested and further humiliated. He has finally managed to clear his name and regain his honour, but the publicity received upon his acquittal is heavily disproportionate to the humiliation he endured.
Bathiudeen is a well-known name in Sri Lankan politics. His name is often attached to controversy, but it is his political will that often ignites the anger of his political enemies. His refusal to align with the Rajapaksas during the Constitutional coup in 2018 and at the presidential election in 2019 had earned their wrath. He has been targeted on multiple occasions and severely humiliated through arrest in other cases too, none of which have returned any facts on the allegations.
Such political witch-hunts should stop, and the instigators, conspirators, and political motivators need to be brought to book. No person deserves to be degraded and wrongfully accused for the purpose of sheer political revenge.
(The writer is a political activist with specialisation in web based media)
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.