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Channel 4 documentary and lessons not learned

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Unsurprisingly, the recent production by the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 about the Easter Sunday terror attacks of April 2019, has ignited a fierce debate among the people, stirring up controversy.

While those accused by the whistleblowers have vehemently denied the allegations, they have nevertheless piqued the curiosity of the general populace, sparking intense discussions. 

Critics who blame Channel 4 for airing this production fail to recognise that the root of the issue lies in the unsatisfactory nature of the investigations conducted so far. Even though only the investigators are privy to the evidence they have unearthed, discerning people continue to question why obvious leads have been left unexplored. Four years down the line, investigators have yet to conclude their work or identify the masterminds behind these heinous acts.

Government officials have not presented a unified front in answering the question of “who dunnit?” Some point to Zahran Hashim, while others implicate Naufer Maulavi, and yet more insist it was the work of the Islamic State (ISIS). This divergence of opinions suggests that investigators have not reached a conclusive verdict based on concrete evidence but rather relied on speculation.

The sluggish pace of the investigation has sowed deep mistrust among the people, fostering suspicions of a cover-up. Most of those apprehended in connection with the Easter Sunday terror attacks were taken into custody within the first two weeks following the incidents.

During the three years of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s tenure, hardly anyone was arrested in connection with the events leading up to the attacks. When arrests were made, they often involved individuals engaged in seemingly innocuous activities such as delivering food for a class, booking bus seats, fixing a TV antenna, or attending what they believed were harmless training sessions. Moreover, officers actively pursuing suspects were inexplicably relieved of their investigative duties, further fueling suspicions of a sham investigation.

One cannot help but empathise with the grief of those who lost their loved ones or witnessed injuries without anyone being held accountable for the horrific Easter Sunday terror attacks.

Consequently, external organisations have sought to fill the void in the investigation with whatever information comes their way. The Government’s failures have created opportunities for such interventions. The United Nations (UN), the Pope, and both local and international human rights organisations have called for justice in various forums. Channel 4 has chosen to turn the spotlight on the investigations in a more dramatic fashion.

The Sri Lankan government’s approach to investigating the Easter Sunday terror attacks bears a striking resemblance to its past actions, which have fostered mistrust.

Even during the final stages of the military campaign against the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa removed UN personnel and independent observers from conflict zones, turning it into a war without witnesses.

The absence of impartial observers led to an incomplete understanding of the conflict and allegations of human rights violations against Sri Lankan forces, propagated by both reliable and unreliable sources and propagandists.

Similarly, the government ignored recommendations from the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and the Paranagama Commission to conduct independent investigations. The absence of such investigations deprived many armed forces officers of an opportunity to clear their names.

These counterproductive actions by the Government have resulted in many armed forces officers being denied visas to several countries, tarnishing their reputations.

The only way to preclude foreign intervention in the investigations of the Easter Sunday terror attacks is for the Government to undertake a credible and independent inquiry into the tragic events of Easter Sunday 2019. The country possesses the skilled investigators needed for this task, but they must be granted the freedom to exercise their professional expertise and uncover the truth. What happened to Police Deputy Inspector Shani Abeysekera should not befall them.

Simply dismissing those who raise questions and highlighting the inadequacies or contradictory nature of the evidence of would-be witnesses will not make these issues disappear. Every lead must be pursued diligently to achieve closure and justice.

Many of the allegations made in the Channel 4 documentary are not new and have been floating round for some time. That is why the current Defence Secretary Kamal Gunaratne denied these allegations at a media conference on December 14, 2021. At this media briefing he said then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was not the “mastermind” of the Easter Sunday carnage.

Gen. Kamal Gunaratne told the media conference organised by the Presidential Media Division that there was no basis for the allegations that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was behind the Easter Sunday terror attacks of April 2019 that killed at least 279 people.

To use Gen. Kamal Gunaratne’s own words: “There are lot of allegations on social media that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the main mastermind of the Easter attacks. There is no truth in those allegations. It is a despicable attempt at making political gains.”

At the same media conference, he also denied allegations that Major General Suresh Sallay, was also involved in instigating the National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) leader Zahran Hashim to carry out the bombings.

The fact that these allegations keep surfacing even one and a half years after Gen. Kamal Gunaratne’s media briefing in December 2021 is an indication that no progress has been made in the investigations to bring closure.

A few examples of some leads not followed up will reveal the pace at which investigative efforts are being continued. There is no information available in the public domain that the investigators had made any attempt to bring back for questioning Sarah Pulasthini, the wife of one of the suicide bombers and a key witness who was said to have escaped to India.

Ministers Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara when in the Opposition spoke in Parliament of the role of one “Sonic Sonic” in relation to the Easter Sunday terror attacks. Have they been questioned, and statements recorded with regard to the information in their possession?

Prior to the Easter Sunday terror attacks a previously unknown character named Namal Kumara had made allegations that DIG Nalaka Silva was plotting to assassinate President Maithripala Sirisena and former (at that time) Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. On the strength of this statement, DIG Nalaka Silva, who was heading the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID), was interdicted.

During the investigations after the Easter Sunday terror attacks it transpired that DIG Nalaka Silva had obtained a warrant for the arrest of Zahran Hashim but was prevented from doing so due to his interdiction. Had the significance of such an allegation against DIG Nalaka Silva, made by Namal Kumara, been probed?

Many of the statements against Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Suresh Sallay remain at the level of unproved statements. At the time of going to print, Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Suresh Sallay have both issued statements denying the allegations. This is probably the first time they have made public statements on the matter.

In fairness to both Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Suresh Sallay the law enforcement agencies must question them and record their response to the allegations made against them. No person of whatever standing in society deserves to be blamed for something he or she did not do and the same would apply to them as well.

But unfortunately, this is what will happen if the investigations are not carried out in a credible fashion and the truth ascertained and the perpetrators not brought to book.

What Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the victims and indeed all Sri Lankans are looking for is truth and justice. The least the State can do is to deliver. (javidyusuf@gmail.com)

 

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