Government and Cabinet cannot escape responsibility - PM

Testifying before the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) probing the Easter Sunday attacks on Tuesday, August 6, Prime Minister (PM) Ranil Wickremesinghe said as the Government and the Cabinet, they cannot escape responsibility for the mistakes and lapses that led to the disaster and added that is why the PSC proceedings are being conducted to find out what had gone wrong. Certainly, there had been a lapse and they are now in a transitional period and hope to find measures to prevent the recurrence of such incidents, he said.
The Premier told the Committee that the issue had been raised at the National Security Council (NSC) meetings several times. “I received a couple of reports sent to the Law and Order Minister by the State Intelligence Service (SIS). There was information about ISIS sympathisers and about religious clashes as well. However, we didn’t receive information on terrorist activities committed by these groups. We had been informed of a Sri Lankan who died in Syria while fighting for the ISIS.”
Tuesday’s PSC comprised MPs Dr. Nalinda Jayatissa, Prof. Ashu Marasinghe, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, M.A. Sumanthiran, Dr. Jayampathy Wickramaratne, Minister Ravi Karunanayake and Chairman Deputy Speaker Ananda Kumarasiri.Minister Ravi Karunanayake asked the Prime Minister as to what was the last NSC meeting that he attended. The Premier said he attended the NSC meetings until October, 2018 and thereafter, he was not invited. Minister Karunanayake asked the Premier whether he didn’t inquire as to why he was not invited.
The Prime Minister said he came to know that even the IGP had not been invited. He said there was a change of Government in October, 2018. After I was sworn in again as the Prime Minister, I came to know that a NSC meeting had been held in February, 2019. inister Karunanayake asked the Premier from where he got information relating to the religious extremists and those who had been working against the Sri Lankan identity in the East.
The Prime Minister said, “I mainly received information from the Law and Order Minister and information on the security forces were received through the NSC.” MP Dr. Jayatissa asked the Prime Minister whether it was true the NSC did not meet for a long time after the change of government. The Premier said he heard that it met in February, 2019 but the Law and Order Ministry continued to hold meetings and much information came from them.
MP Jayatissa asked what that information was. The Prime Minister said there was information on strikes, demonstrations, LTTE activities during the time of war and recently there was information of extremist religious groups but there were no information on terrorist activities. Dr. Jayatissa wanted to know the action taken by the NSC regarding it. The Premier in response said they handed over the operations to the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID). The Police had informed the Attorney General’s Department. The TID had also obtained a warrant against Zahran under the ICCPR Act. They thought Zahran had escaped to India via a sea route.
MP Jayatissa asked the Prime Minister whether he didn’t receive reports of any development of extremist groups. The Premier said he checked on those who had gone to Syria and Muslims were concerned about it. There were not only reports on Muslim extremism but also of Sinhala extremism. Some had also attempted to revive Tamil extremism but it had failed.
MP Jayatissa told the Premier, the Chief of National Intelligence and Director SIS had written to the IGP and this information had been given to the security officials of the VIPs. When the MP asked the Prime Minister whether his security officials got that information, the latter said it had not been sent to the Prime Minister’s Security Division (PMSD). The Prime Minister said later, the IGP admitted that he did not send it to the PMSD. “I came to know about that letter only after April 21.”
Sumanthiran: You said in February, 2019 you got to know that there had been a NSC meeting. Did you get to know about it after or before the meeting?
PM: It was after the meeting.
Sumanthiran: Did you check to find out as to why you were not invited for that meeting?
PM: In fact, I asked the IGP and he said he was also not informed about the meeting.
Sumanthiran: Although you were subsequently sworn in as the Prime Minister, there was no NSC meeting. When you found that there had been a meeting you knew you had not been invited. Didn’t you think that it was necessary at that stage to inform the country, that the Prime Minister is not accommodated at the NSC meetings?
PM: At that time I was not accommodated but I came to know the NSC was not meeting any longer.
Sumanthiran: When you found out from the Defence Secretary and the IGP that the NSC is not going to meet again, didn’t you think it is important to communicate with the President and ask him as to why he had discontinued the NSC meetings?
PM: I didn’t ask that but I told the President that I need a separate Minister for Law and Order and I thought that was the best way to deal with the security situation. Even earlier, I dealt with the Law and Order Minister and that was effective. My view was that Law and Order should be a separate ministry.
Sumanthiran said the whole country knows the relationship between the Prime Minister and the President broke down last year. “Would you say that was in anyway a contributory factor to this serious intelligence information not being acted upon?”
The Prime Minister said it was difficult to comment. “During that period, there was an agitation and I was informed about it. I don’t know as to why they didn’t send it to my security division.”
Sumanthiran: You not being invited indicates a strange relationship between you and the Minister of Defence
PM: The relationship has not been cordial as before. That is why I thought this has to be investigated by a parliamentary committee and I supported that motion. I thought the answer to this question should come from the Parliamentary Select Committee.
Sumanthiran: Would you say as the Prime Minister, you too bear some responsibility for the disaster that took place on April 21?
PM: I said so at the very beginning. When there is a serious breakdown in the security situation in the country, we as the Government can’t run away. We should find out what really happened.
State Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene said the intelligence services did not convey the information regarding the prior warnings of the Easter Sunday attacks to him. The Minister was of the view that he should have been among those who should have been given the information.
Minister Wijewardene said, “There had been disagreements between the Defence Minister who is also the President and the Government following the Constitutional crisis. After that crisis, I was not invited to NSC meetings.”
PSC Chairman Kumarasiri asked Minister Wijewardene whether the SIS informed him of the attack, the Minister said no specific matter had been discussed and added that he had been asked only to support the national security apparatus as per the gazette.
MP Sumanthiran asked Minister Wijewardene what was the last NSC meeting he attended before October 2018. The Minister said he attended NSC meetings before the constitutional crisis but he did not attend meetings during the crisis. He said he was not invited to NSC meetings thereafter.
Minister Karunanayake: Do you think that there has been a serious lapse in coordination?
Minister Wijewardene: Absolutely, there has been a serious lapse in coordination. The stability within the Ministry of Defence too is questionable and there had been five secretaries since 2015.”
Field Marshal Fonseka: Don’t you think that if action had been taken early, this disaster could have been prevented?
Minister Wijewardene: Yes, certainly, it could have been prevented. There were several such occasions as far as I know. For example if the Kaththankudy Police had done their job properly when there were clashes among two rival Islamic groups, this disaster could have been prevented.
Ports and Shipping and Southern Development Minister Sagala Ratnayaka said that there had been problems with regard to information sharing among various departments of the security establishment and those mistakes had paved the way for the terror attacks. The Minister said that intelligence sharing at the international level had been at the optimum but at the local level there had been shortcomings and a lacuna.
Minister Ratnayake said when he was the Minister of Law and Order, he received 407 reports from the SIS on Muslim and Sinhala extremist activities. Among them, 13 reports were on ISIS activities in Sri Lanka. “I received the first report about Zahran Hashim on November 2, 2016. There had been a previous report dated August 6, 2016 too. I referred those reports to the then Defence Secretary Karunasena Hettiarachchi.
“The ISIS is a global terror network. We too have threats from them. The then defence authorities prepared a report on ISIS activities in Sri Lanka. We made various important points on the basis of the conclusion of that report and focused on several matters.”
Minister of Public Administration, Disaster Management and Livestock Development Ranjith Madduma Bandara said that the arrest of former Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) Head DIG Nalaka Silva was the reason that the security apparatus could not prevent the Easter Sunday terror attacks.
The Minister told the Committee that DIG Nalaka Silva and his division were closely monitoring Zahran Hashim and his NTJ group. The TID could not progress when their leading officer had been taken into custody.
MP Dr. Jayatissa: Don’t you think that on the basis of TID reports, Zahran and others should have been arrested?
Minister Madduma Bandara: They thought so. That was why the TID made several arrests. The TID also got warrants against them and it also prevented them from leaving the country.
Field Marshal Fonseka asked the Minister whether he thought the person who is appointed Minister of Law and Order should have experience on that subject.
Minister Madduma Bandara dismissing Fonseka’s claim said, “It is the duty of the Minister to get the job done by the officials below him. When we elect a person to lead the country, we do not usually find experience in such a person. I did not have any problems when I handled my ministries.”