SPECIAL REPORT : Part 282August 6, 2019, 9:09 pm
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Thanks to the ongoing Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on Easter Sunday attacks, the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) leader and Vanni District lawmaker, Rishad Bathiudeen, is no longer under heavy fire over his alleged involvement with the now-proscribed National Thowheed Jamaat (NTJ).
The government proscribed the NTJ on May 13, 2019 - 23 days after the Easter carnage. The Jama’athe Milla’athe Ibrahim (JMI) and the Willayath As Seylani (WAS) were also banned in terms of regulation 75(1) of the emergency regulations.
Bathiudeen held the Industry and Commerce, Resettlement of Protracted Displaced Persons, Co-operative Development, Vocational Training & Skills Development at the time of the April 21, 2019, suicide bombing campaign.
Bathiudeen earned the wrath of the Joint Opposition (JO), a section of the Buddhist clergy, and some civil society groups, after Army Chief, Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake revealed the controversial politician’s intervening, on behalf of a person, arrested by the Army, in connection with the Easter attacks and subsequently handed over to the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID). Had Lt. Gen. Senanayake refrained from exposing Bathiudeen, he wouldn’t have attracted media attention. At one point, Bathiudeen, under fire from opponents, revealed he got in touch with Lt. Gen. Senanayake on the advice of State Defence Minister, Ruwan Wijewardene.
The PSC never bothered to seek confirmation from Bathiudeen as regards Wijewardene’s advice when the beleaguered lawmaker appeared before the parliamentary body, on June 28, 2019.
Bathiudeen identified the arrested person as a son of an advisor to Postal Services and Muslim Religious Affairs Minister M.H.A. Haleem, an UNPer elected from the Kandy district. Baithiudeen, Haleem and seven other Muslims, gave up their ministerial portfolios,on June 03, 2019.
Bathiudeen received the same portfolios on July 29, 2019. Haleem and UNP Chairman Kabir Hashim broke ranks with the group of Muslim colleagues to, once again, accept, on June 19, 2019, the ministerial portfolios they held at the time of the blasts.
For almost three months, Bathiudeen was flayed over the Easter Sunday attacks. However, shocking revelations, regarding the negligence on the part of the TID, the Attorney General’s Department, as well as the IGP, made before the PSC in the last week of July and the first week of August 2019, diverted the attention from Bathiudeen.
Those who believed the PSC was meant to clear Bathiudeen, through some trickery, and place the blame on President Maithripala Sirisena, were quite surprised by disclosures of negligence on the part of the police and the AG Department.
With pressure being eased, the indomitable politician, last week, launched a propaganda project to counter criticism directed at him. Interestingly, the media never targeted his party. Instead, Bathiudeen was relentlessly lambasted, both in and outside parliament, until what transpired before the PSC, pointed the finger at the TID, the AG Department and the IGP.
The PSC consists of Ananda Kumarasiri (UNP/Moneragala District), Ravi Karunanayake (UNP/Colombo), Dr. Rajitha Senaratne (UNP/Kalutara), Ashu Marasinghe (UNP National List), Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka (UNP National List), LSSPer Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne (UNP National List), M.A. Sumanthiran (TNA/Jaffna District) and Rauff Hakeem (UNP/Kandy District).
The PSC, or Catholic Church, or the civil society, never really inquired about as to why the NTJ deliberately targeted the Tamil community. At least 60 Tamils perished and over 100 wounded in suicide attacks directed at Zion Church, in Batticaloa, and the Tamil service conducted at St. Anthony’s Church, Kotahena.
As the TID and the AG Department struggled to cope up with embarrassing disclosures, Bathiudeen went on the offensive. The Illankai Thamil Arasu Kadchi-led Tamil National Alliance (TNA) never condemned the attack on the community. Instead, TNA heavyweight, M.A. Sumanthiran, at an event held at the BMICH, on April 29, 2009, justified the TNJ terror project.
Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith rejected Sumanthiran’s assertion that the failure on the part of Sri Lanka’s successive governments, to address the grievances of minorities, over the past several decades, had led to the Easter Sunday carnage.
Sumanthiran alleged that the Easter Sunday carnage was a result of Sri Lanka’s failure to ensure certain basic values. President’s Counsel Sumanthiran warned of dire consequences unless the government addressed the grievances of minorities.
Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, who was present on that occasion, had no qualms naming him to the PSC. Dr. Deepika Udagama, Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission, too, was present, in addition to twice President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Bathiudeen seems to be on the offensive now. Immediately after resuming his ministerial duties, Bathiudeen launched a scathing attack on Sri Lanka Chamber for not condemning calls to boycott Muslim-owned shops, following the NTJ attacks. His English media outfit, managed by Joseph Thavaraja, reported his comments in a statement headlined ‘Rishad decries Sri Lanka Chamber for keeping mum as racist calls of prejudice erupted nationwide’
The attack on Sri Lanka Chamber was followed by a visit to Mannar where he reassured the Catholic community.
Bathiudeen, on August 01, assured the Bishop of Mannar, Most Reverend Dr. Fidelis Lionel Emmanuel Fernando, and Adikarana Sanganayake of the Northern and Eastern Provinces and Chief Incumbent of Sri Bodhidakshinaramaya, Ven Siyabalagaswewa Vipulasara, of his fullest support to government efforts to eradicate terrorism. The Island coverage of Bathiudeen’s unexpected meeting with the Mannar Bishop prompted Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith to clarify his position with regard to the Easter Sunday carnage.
Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith sent the following statement to The Island in respect of ‘Under fire from Cardinal, Rishad meets Mannar Bishop’ in the August 02, 2019, edition: "I have been intrigued and surprised about the news item appearing on the 1st page and continued on the 4th page of The Island newspaper of Friday, 2nd August 2019. It says: "Under fire from Cardinal, Rishad meets Mannar Bishop" and there is a photo of the Bishop of Mannar greeting Mr. Rishad Bathiudeen. The report further states:"The meeting took place close on the heels of the Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, alleging that those responsible for the heinous crime were still free".
I wish to first of all state that I have never named any particular person as being responsible for the Easter Sunday bomb attack, but have insisted that an independent, impartial and trustworthy inquiry be conducted on this matter and those responsible be exposed. In fact, soon after this attack, a delegation of Muslim Ministers and MPs came to see me and I met Mr. Bathiudeen, who was in this delegation.
So, I think as a responsible newspaper, you should have reported just the fact of Mr. Bathiudeen meeting Bishop Fernando without trying to drag me into the picture. This is to say in the least a mischievous attempt to create an unethical controversy. I think this is against media ethics. I hope this will not happen again and I kindly request you to publish this in your newspaper, giving it the same prominence as the news item, for the sake of truth and, justice."
Bathiudeen’s media team released a report on him meeting with Vavuniya-based Ven Siyabalagaswewa Vipulasara after the media reported the powwow with the Mannar Bishop.
Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, on July 15, 2019, cleared Baithiudeen of complicity in the Easter Sunday attacks. The declaration was made in Kinniya, Trincomalee, on the basis of police reports. Thavaraja interpreted Premier Wickremesinghe statement in a communiqué, titled ‘Sri Lanka clears ACMC leader Rishad.’
The police certainly acted fast, in Bathiudeen’s case, whereas a complaint made against Zahran Hashim, way back in June 2017, was never investigated. The Attorney General Department, under flak over its own lapses as regards the bungled inquiry into the Zahran’s affair, exposed the entire police department before the PSC. The AG Department team, included Deputy Solicitor General Azath Navavi, who was earlier accused of sitting on the Zahran’s file, along with State Counsel Malik Azeez.
Azath Navavi’s father, M H M Navavi, served the parliament as a member of the UNP National List. The politician quit his seat after having served about half of his five-year term. Of course, Navavi didn’t forget to procure a super luxury Toyota Land Cruiser with a tax exemption amounting to Rs 33 mn before giving another party member the opportunity to receive the massive exemption. The UNP accommodated Navavi on its National List on Bathiudeen’s request. Navavi handed over his letter of resignation to the Secretary General of Parliament, Dhammika Dassanayake, on May 23, 2018. It would be pertinent to mention that UNP leader Wickremesinghe accommodated Navavi on the UNP National List after the people of Puttalam rejected him. Navavi is the only defeated UNP candidate to enter through the National List and the second to quit National List. In January, 2018, SLMC member Mohamed Hafeel Mohamed Salman quit to pave the way for his party to appoint another member. Salman, too, acquired a super luxury Land Cruiser, like most of his colleagues. Most politicians, in the current parliament, preferred Toyoya Land Cruiser, a vehicle with good second hand value.
The National List seems to be part of payoffs at the taxpayers’ expense, the vast majority of who are struggling to make ends meet.
Did Navavi and Salman sell their vehicles like their colleagues? Of the 225 members in parliament, the vast majority sold their duty free vehicles. Attorney-at-law Nagananda Kodituwakku made an abortive bid to have the vehicle permit scam halted.
In spite of the police and the AG Department trying desperately to shift the blame to each other, there is no doubt as to how negligence facilitated the Thowheed project. The police and the AG Department should examine the circumstances leading to an attack, described as worse than any of those carried out by the LTTE during the entire war.
Bathiudeen fights back
Following Bathiudeen’s meeting with the Bishop of Mannar, the media received two separate statements, with pix ,from the ministry. When the writer made inquiries as to why Bathiudeen’s ministry issued two different statements, on the same meeting, it came to light that the controversial politician had hired media specialist Prasanna Adikari, who, until recently, managed Health Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne’s media team. Bathiudeen, in spite of having the services of an exceptionally good media team, brought in Adikari as his political opponents stepped up pressure on him. Having been accused of destroying Wilpattu, Bathiudeen was overwhelmed when the JO launched a devastating attack on him over the Easter Sunday attacks. The campaign was essentially based on Lt. Gen. Senanayake’s revelation that Bathiudeen called him thrice to inquire about a terrorist suspect in custody. Interestingly, no one bothered to attack Bathiudeen over him seeking State Defence Minister Wijewardene’s intervention. The arrest of Senior House Officer (SHO) Dr. Seigu Siyabdeen Mohammed Safi, attached to the Kurunegala hospital, on the night of May 24, 2019, over amassing of wealth, in a suspicious manner, amidst accusations he conducted a clandestine sterilization project, was quickly leaked to Bathiudeen. A section of the media reported as to how Bathiudeen nominated Safi to contest the Kurunegala district on the UNP ticket at the last parliamentary election, in August 2015. Safi resigned his post to contest the election. When the electorate rejected him, he was again accommodated on the health staff through a special cabinet paper. There is no doubt Bathiudeen intervened on Safi’s behalf. S.B. Dissanayake and Udaya Gammanpila, of the UPFA, repeatedly accused Bathiudeen and his wife of buying land in the Mannar administrative district over a period of time. However, inquiries revealed that some of the questionable land transactions had taken place before Bathiudeen switched his allegiance to UNP leader Wickremesinghe, in Dec, 2014, in the run up to the presidential poll, the following month.
The JVP accommodated the father of two Thowheed suicide bombers on its 2015 National List. The JVP never explained as to how Mohamed Ibrahim, one of Sri Lanka’s wealthiest businessmen, ended up in its National List. Don’t forget Zahran himself advised those who contested the Batticaloa district, at the last general election, as to how they should conduct the campaign. Zahran’s outfit backed Maithripala Sirisena at the last presidential election.
Struggling to cope up with massive media onslaught, Bathiudeen sought Adikari’s advice as part of his overall efforts to counter the campaign against him. Adikari provided the required wherewithal to meet the media offensive as Bathiudeen prepared to face the PSC. There hadn’t been a previous instance of the police headquarters requesting the public to lodge complaints against a member of parliament. This was in addition to the No-Confidence Motion (NCM) moved by the JO and UNP National List MP Ven Atureliye Rathana against Bathiudeen. However, Ven Rathana engaged in a much publicized fast into death in the Dalada Maligawa premises which, in the end, helped Bathiudeen to survive the NCM. Wickremesinghe, under heavy pressure to sack Bathiudeen over the Easter carnage, too, heaved a sigh of relief for obvious reasons. Citing Ven. Rathana’s fast unto death, launched on May 31, 2019, Bathiudeen resigned on June 03, 2019. Eight other Muslim lawmakers, representing the UNP, SLMC and his ACMC, resigned to express solidarity with the Vanni District MP. They made the announcement at Temple Trees with the blessings of Wickremesinghe. One may ask as to how Ven. Rathana facilitated Bathiudeen’s project. The fast unto death gave an excuse to Bathiudeen to resign. The resignation made the NCM irrelevant as such a move can be made only against a minister. The giving up of ministerial portfolios enabled Bathiudeen to side-step the issue against him.
Adikari served the JVP at the beginning of his career as the media officer for the then Agriculture Minister, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, during President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s tenure as the president. Subsequently, Adikari served the then Media Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, followed by Tourism Minister Achala Jagoda, North Western Province Chief Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera, Sports Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera, Megapolis and Western Province Development Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka and Health Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne before taking over Bathiudeen’s assignment recently.
Bathiudeen’s parliamentary group consists of five members, including him. In spite of the ACMC having just five members, it wielded immense influence. Immediately after Bathiudeen meeting the Bishop of Mannar, the Minister’s media officer, Joseph Thavaraja, in a statement issued quoted the Mannar-based priest, Right Reverend Dr. Fidelis Lionel Emmanuel Fernando, as having said: "Being a Cabinet Minister in the government enables one to render services to the public in a much bigger way. "I commend your decision to return to your Ministerial portfolio. This shall sustain your capacity to serve the public better." Thavaraja, who handles the English media for Bathiudeen, headlined his statement ‘Rt. Rev Bishop of Mannar commends Rishad for resuming cabinet portfolio.’ How clever?
Bathiudeen entered parliament, in 2001, on the UNP ticket. At that election, he was nominated by the SLMC. Bathiudeen returned to parliament again, at the 2004 April general election, on the UNP ticket. On that occasion, too, he was an SLMC nominee. At the 2010 general election, he contested on the UPFA ticket and was one of the most influential ministers at that time. In spite of the UNP accusing him of clearing Wilppattu and corruption, he was rewarded with the important Trade and Commerce portfolios, following the last parliamentary elections in 2015 August. Bathiudeen switched his allegiance to the UNP, along with the then SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena, in Dec 2014.
Bathiudeen has now cleared the way for a crucial role in the forthcoming presidential election, scheduled for late Nov-early Dec 2019. The SLMC Chief seems confident that he can proceed with a kingmaker role with the backing of a high profile media campaign. So far, Bathiudeen appears to have succeeded in surmounting the multi-pronged offensive directed at him. Bathiudeen recently took a common stand with Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauff Hakeem regarding the formation of the National Democratic Front (NDF). Their move, along with other minority parties, in the current dispensation, and the Sajith Premadasa group, compelled the UNP to put on hold the formation of the NDF. All of them want consensus on their candidate before the finalization of the agreement on the NDF. Bathiudeen is obviously back in a high profile political project. Let us await the PSC report on the Easter Sunday carnage, expected to be released before nominations open for the 2019 presidential poll. Will it confirm the Premier’s declaration that the police intelligence cleared him of complicity in the Thowheed project?