After sputtering away for many months now, serious headway seems to have been made by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) probing the Easter Sunday attacks, going by what transpired before the commission last week.
As expected, former President Maithripala Sirisena was the cynosure of all eyes and the man of many surprises did not disappoint. In the process, the former President, who is well known to be a serial betrayer, added one more to the infamous list when he had no hesitation in pushing his former confidant and Head of the State Intelligence Service (SIS) right under the bus. Others who have suffered a similar fate in the recent past include the Late Ven. Sobitha Thera, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and the 6.5 million people who voted for him in 2015.
Although Maithripala Sirisena had insisted all along that SIS Director Nilantha Jayawardena did not communicate the foreign intelligence received on 4 April 2019 of an imminent terror attack, telecommunication data obtained by the PCoI probing the 21 April 2019 attacks had in fact revealed evidence to the contrary. In fact, call records produced at the inquiry last week show that Jayawardena had called Sirisena on multiple occasions between 4 and 16 April 2019 when the then President left for Singapore on what has so far been described as a private visit.
However, in his evidence last week, Maithripala Sirisena for the very first time revealed that he had been hospitalised in Singapore at the time the attacks took place. Having been the Head of State at the time, the people of the country deserved to have been informed whether this was a sudden, unplanned hospitalisation and if so, for what reason, or whether it was a pre-planned hospitalisation, in which case he had all the time in the world to make the necessary arrangements to appoint someone to act on his behalf during his absence from the country.
It is unfathomable that the SIS Director was unaware of his statutory obligation to brief his boss and Commander in Chief on sensitive intelligence information, given the credible foreign source, whether corroborated by local intelligence or not, during the multiple times the duo had spoken between the 4th and 16th. All evidence points to the affirmative, especially in light of the well-known fact that Jayawardena was considered to be the ex-President’s confidant and go-to man for all matters concerning the Police, even bypassing the Inspector General of Police (IGP). It was this short-circuiting of the police hierarchy by the Defence Minister and Commander in Chief that led to a breakdown of communication with the IGP who, at least in Sirisena’s eyes, was seen as being more loyal to the then Prime Minister.
By the looks of it, Sirisena may well have cooked his goose as a result of what he said before the commission last week. The inaccuracy of telephone records, inconsistencies with regard to what was stated before, and multiple slip-ups on his version of events during the inquiry proceedings last week, have opened up what might well be a can of worms. What stood out, however, was his revelation that he was hospitalised when the explosions took place in Sri Lanka and the fact that either by design or default, he avoided appointing an acting Defence Minister in his absence as “he could be contacted at any time using technology”.
The most startling revelation was when Sirisena told the commission that SIS Director Nilantha Jayawardena had contacted him and informed him about the explosions that had taken place on Sunday morning. However, phone records show the particular call was made before the explosions took place. How Jayawardena could have informed him about explosions that were yet to take place that morning is the million-dollar question, while Sirisena claimed Jayawardena told him so. When the improbability of such a call being made was pointed out to Sirisena based on call records, he pointed to the time difference between the two countries. When this was also factored in and it was established that the call came before the attacks, he said he could not recall speaking to Jayawardena that morning.
The contradictions are astonishing to say the least. Having gone on record that the reason he did not appoint an acting minister to oversee the defence portfolio was because he could be reached at any time, he then claimed to have been hospitalised on the 20th and 21st, and therefore, could not be contacted as even his security was not allowed to be in the vicinity. On the face of it, whichever way one looks at it, Sirisena has to be held accountable if nothing else for sheer negligence and the cavalier manner in which he handled the country’s most important job at its most critical point.
If Sirisena knew he was going to be hospitalised, does that not merit the appointment of an acting minister under normal circumstances? In this instance, it can be assumed based on the evidence submitted before the PCoI so far that Sirisena could not have been unaware of the intelligence reports pointing to an imminent threat. Yet it seems he took things for granted.
If one is to go by what the former President is now saying, then his friend, the SIS Director, needs to be held accountable for his monumental failure to apprise the Defence Minister of an imminent threat despite multiple warnings from multiple sources. It has now come to a point where it has to be one way or the other. It is up to the commission to find out who is to be believed and indeed who is to be punished.
If that was not bad enough, adding fuel to the fire was the revelation that it was none other than Sirisena himself who had signed the recommendation for the release of suspects held in custody over the recovery of a large haul of explosives and weapons in Wanathawilluwa just four months prior to the Easter attacks. These suspects were identified as Muslim extremists hailing from the East, connected to the destruction and vandalising of Buddhist statues in Mawanella, which resulted in a mini riot there. All four suspects had been arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and two of them had been released based on Sirisena’s recommendation in less than three months – just over a month before the Easter attacks.
Unfortunately, for the people eagerly seeking justice for the hundreds who perished and yet more maimed for life, the drama unfolding before the commission is being drowned out by the cacophony surrounding other current issues. One can only hope that the law will take its course and those responsible for criminal negligence and breach of duty will be identified and held accountable.