Easter Sunday probes and 20A in limelight | Daily News

Easter Sunday probes and 20A in limelight

In the aftermath of the  Easter Sunday attacks.
In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks.

Defensive measures against COVID-19 have been reinforced in the wake of fresh fears of a resurgence of the virus after a Minuwangoda apparel factory worker tested positive for COVID-19.

The Security Forces together with health authorities have once again begun the strenuous and exhaustive process of contact tracing, quarantining and testing. As the country switched back to safe mode, the Government drew its full attention to take swift decisions in consultation with the relevant authorities to protect lives.

The Coronavirus scare subdued public interest in political developments to a certain extent this week, but in the political landscape there was heightened activity on two crucial issues - the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution (20A) and investigations on the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks.

Justice to victims

The Easter Sunday carnage on April 21, 2019, which took the lives of over 250 innocent people and injured more than 500 people including foreigners, children and women in a series of suicide bombings in churches and hotels, will haunt the conscience of this nation for many more years to come.

The information that came to light in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, that there had been pre-warnings, not just once but multiple times, but in a massive blunder the public had been kept in the dark and the security establishment failed to avert the tragedy, shook the nation and also sounded the death knell for the previous administration.

The testimonies elicited from former IGP Pujith Jayasundara and former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando at the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) to probe into the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks sent shockwaves across the political spectrum during the last couple of weeks, leading up to the appearance of former President Maithripala Sirisena at the Commission.

Some of the revelations which came up during cross examinations of the two key officials, who were caught in the eye of the storm following the attacks, made the audience sit up and take notice.

The five-member Commission appointed in September last year is determined to leave no stone unturned to find the truth behind the Easter Sunday attacks. Nobody who was following news of Commission proceedings could have missed seeing how those findings have ruffled a few feathers of political bigwigs who held authority at that time.

In search of the truth

Instances of a lukewarm attitude to matters of national security, inefficient communication, lack of coordination in the defence apparatus and among political authorities and the glaring leadership gap were laid bare during the investigations.

Former IGP Jayasundara, in an explosive revelation before the PCoI on September 24, said Easter Sunday suicide bomber Abdul Latif Jameel Mohammed had met with an intelligence agent just 45 minutes before he blew himself up at the Dehiwala Tropical Inn lodge. Mohammed first went to Taj Samudra Hotel, but his attempt had been aborted due to a malfunction of the detonator.

The former IGP urged the Commission to follow this piece of information and inquire in what capacity the intelligence officer met the suicide bomber. Earlier last month, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Leader Rauff Hakeem, in another observation, told the Commission that a mastermind of the attacks hired National Thawheed Jammath and its leader Zahran Hashim as pawns to destabilize the country and the ISIS banner was used as a front. Asked to reveal the identity of the group which he suspects as the mastermind, Hakeem said he would do so in camera.

The proceedings of the PCoI culminated this week with former President Maithripala Sirisena and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the two leaders at the helm of the Government at the time of the brutal attacks, were summoned to testify. The PCoI recorded statements from both of them in August and they were then summoned for cross-examination.

Previously, a seemingly troubled former President Sirisena turned up twice at the Commission as an observer when the former IGP was being questioned. He also issued a media statement denying evidence about him given by ex-Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando. The Commission later advised the former President’s Private Secretary to refrain from issuing media statements on Commission proceedings.

The former President had left for a visit to India and Singapore during the time of the tragedy and he repeatedly claimed ignorance of any pre-warnings. The former Premier also claimed ignorance on the intelligence information, also complaining that he was cut off from the National Security Council meetings following the 52-day political crisis in 2018.

All eyes have now turned to the PCoI to see how it connects the dots and clears the air of uncertainty surrounding the Easter Sunday carnage to expose those responsible for it.

Cardinal’s remarks

Archbishop of Colombo His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, who had commended the efforts of the PCoI, however made a hard-sitting statement last week over the CID’s sudden change of tracks that led to the release of Riyaj Bathiudeen, brother of All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) Leader MP Rishad Bathiudeen. The Cardinal went on to question whether it was a political manoeuvre.

Playing a voice cut of the Police Spokesman at a press conference, the Cardinal questioned how the same Spokesman, who said that there was enough evidence to prove direct links between Riyaj and terrorist outfits five months ago, can now claim otherwise. Hours after this statement, heads rolled at the Criminal Investigations Department (CID). Deputy Inspector General (DIG) Nuwan Wedasinghe, who was in charge of the CID, was transferred as Western Province (North) acting DIG, and DIG S.P. Ranasinghe took the reins of the CID.

Simultaneously, a clarification came from no less a person than President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In a Facebook post on Sunday, he said, “Ensuring national security is the first and foremost responsibility of my Government. I am not prepared to hand over the power of arresting or arbitrarily releasing people or politicians, as happened in the past. I will also take actions to rectify any omissions or mistakes made by the relevant authorities or officials. I emphasize that our Government has not entered into any political deal with MP Rishad Bathiudeen. I assure my citizens that I will not forsake the trust that they have placed in me and I will most certainly continue to work towards strengthening that trust”.

Supreme Court verdict

In another important development, the Supreme Court five-judge-bench headed by Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya concluded the hearing of petitions challenging 20A on Monday after four days of sittings.

After carefully considering arguments for and against the draft Constitutional Amendment, the Supreme Court is expected to send its determination to the President and Parliament before October 13.

The Government will review 20A in line with the Court order and it intends to put it forth for Parliamentary debate in early November, before the presentation of its maiden Budget.

A series of amendments the Government intends to make to the 20A Bill in the Third Reading was presented to the Court by the Attorney General last week. Under the proposed amendments, the President will only be able to dissolve Parliament two and a half years after Parliament first meets. Under the earlier gazetted version of the Bill it was one year.

The Offices of the Secretaries to the President and the Prime Minister will be brought back under the scope of the Auditor General, and a provision has been added to say that the Auditor General should be a “qualified auditor”. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in a recent statement noted that these institutions have always been and will always be subject to audits.

However, dissenting views on 20A have not yet died down within the Government, and MP Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe and the National Freedom Party (NFF) led by Minister Wimal Weerawansa sent two letters to the President and the Prime Minister over the weekend informing of their objections to certain provisions of the 20A.

Opposition parties have already expressed their disapproval of the draft Bill and have stepped up their campaign against it. At the same time, there was also speculation that several Opposition MPs were willing to support the Government for the passage of 20A in Parliament. Moves are also underway to formulate a new Constitution.

“Politics makes strange bedfellows” is a saying that has been proven time and again in our political context, and going by the current developments it could yet be proven in the coming weeks.