ECONOMYNEXT – The explosive documentary aired by the UK’s Channel 4 on Sri Lanka’s 2019 Easter Sunday bombings is “mostly an anti-Rajapaksa tirade”, former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa said, insisting that the film’s claims were absurd.
In a lengthy statement issued on the documentary on Thursday September 07, Rajapaksa said the documentary was aimed at “blackening the Rajapaksa legacy from 2005 onwards and is a tissue of lies just like the previous films broadcast by the same channel.”
He was likely referring to a highly controversial documentary released by Channel 4 in the aftermath of Sri Lankan government forces’ military victory against the separatist Tamil Tigers in 2009. That film had accused the then Sri Lankan government, of which Rajapaksa was a senior defence official, of human rights violations – an allegation that successive governments have denied.
“To claim that a group of Islamic extremists launched suicide attacks in order to make me President, is absurd,” said Rajapaksa, in his statement on Friday.
The latest documentary, aired Monday night, claimed that Sri Lanka’s current intelligence chief was complicit in the attack.
The documentary had cited a “whistleblower” identified as Azad Maulana, a former top aide of chief minister Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pillayan.
Rajapaksa claimed that the intelligence officer in question had been removed from his position as Director Military Intelligence in 2016 and not been in Sri Lanka at a time a meeting was said to have taken place between the officer and the purported whistleblower.
“After leaving the position of Defence Secretary in 2015 and until I was elected President, Maj Gen Sallay and I had no contact at all,” said Rajapaksa.
“From January to November 2019, he was in India following the National Defence College course and during this entire period from 2016 to 2019 he was not operative within the defence or security structure of Sri Lanka. After Maj. Gen. Sallay was removed from Military Intelligence in 2016, he never served in that organisation again. It was only after I became President that he rejoined the intelligence apparatus as the head of the State Intelligence Service from December 2019 onwards,” he said.
“Hence this story about Maj Gen Sallay meeting the suicide bombers in February 2018 is clearly a fabrication,” he added.
Rajapaksa said that, in order to bolster the filmmakers’ claim that Military Intelligence was in league with the suicide bombers,the film alleges that when the police started investigating into to the Vavunativu incident of 30 November 2018 where two policemen were killed and their weapons stolen and the discovery of explosives at the Wanathawilluwa safe house on 16 January 2019, Military Intelligence had sabotaged the police investigations. Rajapaksa dismissed this assertion as plain nonsense.
“All Sri Lankans are aware that the government of 2015-2019 persecuted the intelligence services and particularly the Military Intelligence and that that quite a few of its members spent months and years in remand and in police custody during that period. Hence any claim that the Military Intelligence could sabotage police work during the 2015 – 2019 government, is plain nonsense,” he said.
The alleged persecution of military personnel was a popular slogan the Rajapaksa opposition had used against the then United National Party (UNP)-led Yahapalana (Good Governance) government under President Maithripala Sirisena, who had a few months prior to the Easter bombings had removed the UNP government and replaced it with a Rajapaksa cabinet for 52 days.
In his statement, Rajapaksa repeated another popular allegation against the Yahapalana government: that it had turned a blind eye to reports of rising Islamic extremism at the time. He also highlighted a number of incidents to substantiate the claim.
“The Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Easter Sunday bombings has stated quite clearly that signs of a Muslim extremist build up were ignored by the government of 2015-2019. They stated that the revelation made by the then Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapakshe on 18 November 2016 that 32 Sri Lankans had gone to Syria and joined the ISIS terrorist group and that foreign Islamic preachers were coming to Sri Lanka to propagate extremist teachings had been ignored. The Easter Sunday suicide bombers had held training camps from 23 to 25 March 2018 at a guest house in Lewella and more gatherings had been held in April and May 2018 at a guest house in Nuwara Eliya all of which had been reported to the police but had not been investigated.
“Rilwan, the brother of Zaharan Hashim [the ring leader of the suicide bombers], was seriously injured whilst experimenting with explosives in Kattankuddy in the early hours of 27 August 2018. Apart from the Vavunativu and Wanathavilluwa incidents referred to earlier, there had been the vandalizing of Buddha statues in Mawanella in late December 2018 as well. As the Presidential Commission observed, the proper investigation of any one of these early incidents would have led to the early apprehension of the terrorists and the prevention of the suicide bombings. It was the police and not Military Intelligence that was in charge of these investigations,” said Rajapaksa.
“Apart from the fact that I was not in power during this entire period, like many members of the intelligence services and armed forces, I too was going from one police unit to another and from one court house to another from 2015 till I became President in November 2019 as a result of relentless government persecution,” he added.
Rajapaksa also responded to allegations made in the film that he had “sabotaged” the investigation by transferring officers carrying out the investigation.
“I assume that this is a reference to the former Director of the CID Shani Abeysekera. Leaked telephone recordings had revealed that he had conspired with a politician to influence the outcome of an ongoing criminal case in the High Court, and he could not be kept in a position of responsibility in the CID under any circumstances by any government,” he said.
The police officers attached to the Presidential Commission to investigate the Easter Sunday attacks were not transferred after he came into power, said the former president. In any case, he said there was a gap of nearly seven months between the Easter Sunday attacks and his coming into power, and investigations should have been carried out during that period. SSP Abeysekera was also one of those responsible for the negligence between 2016 and 2019 mentioned in the Presidential Commission’s report, he said.
“Channel 4 states that when the report of the Presidential Commission to investigate the Easter Sunday Attacks published its report, that I refused to make it public. That is an outright lie. Everyone in Sri Lanka knows that it has even been tabled in Parliament. Last year, when some people started linking me to the Easter Sunday bombings, I instructed Ambassador Mahinda Samarasinghe in Washington to explore the possibility of obtaining FBI/CIA assistance in investigations into the Easter Sunday bombings.
“On 7 April 2022, Christopher A.Landberg of the Bureau of Counter terrorism, U.S. Department of State wrote to Ambassador Samarasinghe stating the following:
‘Thank you for raising with us Sri Lanka’s request for an independent investigation into the Easter Sunday attacks… In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, and continuing to the present day, the U.S. government provided assistance in the investigation and prosecution of those responsible – to the point that the Department of Justice filed a criminal complaint in January 2021 against those deemed responsible for the deaths of U.S. citizens. In light of that, even as we stand ready to continue providing support to your government, it would not make sense for the United States to conduct an additional investigation into the attacks…In terms of our cooperation on this case, I would like to highlight that the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has worked closely with Sri Lankan law enforcement, and in the week after the attack, deployed approximately 33 personnel to Colombo to assist Sri Lanka’s Criminal Investigation Department with all aspects of their investigation. These efforts included evidence collection, witness and victim interviews, and exploitation of digital devices…’”
In this letter, said Rajapaksa, Landberg had also stated that if any additional requests were made by the Sri Lankan Attorney General they would be able to provide support from the two US prosecutors, who were on the ground in Colombo at that time in April 2022.
Earlier on 8 January 2021, the US Department of Justice had issued a media release stating among other things, that:
“…three Sri Lankan citizens have been charged with terrorism offenses including conspiring to provide material support to a designated foreign terrorist organisation (ISIS)… The men were part of a group of ISIS supporters which called itself ‘ISIS in Sri Lanka’. That group is responsible for the 2019 Easter attacks in the South Asian nation of Sri Lanka, which killed 268 people including five U.S. citizens, and injured over 500 others… Two days after the attacks. ISIS claimed credit for the terrorist acts, attributing the murders to ‘Islamic State fighters’… The criminal case filed on Dec. 11, 2020, in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles is the result of a nearly two-year investigation by the FBI, which assisted Sri Lankan authorities in the wake of the suicide bombings that targeted Christian churches and luxury hotels frequented by Westerners.’”
Rajapaksa also commented on his relationship with Sri Lanka’s Catholic community including the head of the church Archbishop Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, who had been calling for justice and alleging that a “grand conspiracy” was behind the Easter attack.
“Despite the politically motivated accusations being made against me by certain individuals, I have personally done everything possible to help the Roman Catholic community when I held government office. After the war ended, I helped in the restoration and reconstruction of the Madhu Church and the Church in Mullikulam. I also helped facilitate the arrangements to invite His Holiness the Pope to Sri Lanka and I headed the committee formed by the then government to organize the visit. I also played a key role in the construction of the Benedict XVI Catholic Institution of Higher Education in Bolawalana,” said Rajapaksa.
“I worked very closely with His Eminence the Cardinal during that period,” he added. (Colombo/Sep07/2023)