Sunday, April 08, 2007

Safe house - follow-up action fumbles

Parliament on Thursday approved a motion by the United National Front (UNF) Government to examine and report on the findings and recommendations of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry as well as two earlier Courts of Inquiry into the Police raid on the Army Safe House at Athurugiriya.

It will now be the task of Speaker Joseph Michael Perera to name the members of this Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) in consultation with the party leaders. Whilst the UNF and members of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) will serve in the PSC, The Sunday Times learns that MPs from the People's Alliance (PA) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) are likely to abstain.

As previously announced, the PSC wants to probe seven specific matters:

i. The basis of the findings and recommendations made by the said Court of Inquiry or Commission of Inquiry.

ii. Whether any recommendations made by such Court of Inquiry or Commission of Inquiry infringe and or interfere with the rights and privileges of Parliament and or any of its members.

iii. Whether any findings or recommendations relate to any matter under adjudication by any Court of Law.

iv. Whether any findings and or recommendations relate to any matter where provision is made for inquiry and investigation under other laws.

v. Whether it is competent for Court of Inquiry or Commission to pronounce upon such matters as referred to in (iii) and (iv) above.

vi. Whether the terms of reference, findings and recommendations of the Committee and Commission are in conformity with the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and other laws of the country.

vii. Any other matter pertaining to the conduct of the inquiry by the said Court of Inquiry and the Commission which the Select Committee finds relevant and or appropriate.

It is significant that neither the UNF Government nor the People's Alliance is challenging the legitimacy of the Safe House or the activities conducted there by the Army's Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI). That is not in dispute. In fact the two Army Courts of Inquiry in question and the Presidential Commission of Inquiry have all established the fact that the Safe House and the activities conducted from there were perfectly legitimate.

However, the UNF is at variance on some issues arising out of the findings of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry vis-a-vis the findings and opinions of the two earlier Army Courts of Inquiry. This is said to include references made by the Presidential Commission to some UNF leaders who are members of Parliament and the alleged propriety of apportioning blame on them. The UNF is also taking exception to procedures adopted by the Army leadership in fixing responsibility on those allegedly involved. They are of the view that some have been wrongly implicated or the correct procedure not followed.

It is exactly a month ago (on December 11), the President's Office formally released the "Findings and Conclusions" of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry chaired by D. Jayawickrema, retired Judge of the Court of Appeal.

One year and eleven months after the Police raid on No 844, Millennium City Athurugiriya, the Presidential Commission declared that it "was a total betrayal and absolute treachery to the nation." (Situation Report - December 14, 2003). Yet, a month after the findings were made known, no formal action has been taken against those on whom the Commission has made indictments. However, State media has carried out a high pitched campaign calling for deterrent punishment.

The Sunday Times learns that President Kumaratunga, before her departure to Pakistan for the SAARC summit, called upon her advisers to make a thorough study of the Commission's findings and identify the punitive measures that may be necessary. However, in view of her urgent political commitments, whether she will have the time since her return last Thursday to focus on the matter remains the question.

The Police raid on the Safe House at Athurugiriya was conducted on January 2, 2002. Immediately thereafter, then Defence Minister, Tilak Marapana, directed Army Commander Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle to appoint an Army Court of Inquiry.

In consultation with the then Defence Secretary, Austin Fernando, Lt. Gen. Balagalle named a four member court. It was headed by Maj. Gen. Ivan Dassanayake and comprised Brigadier Zoysa, Col. Kanska Dharmaratne and Col. J. Pathirana.

As exclusively revealed in The Sunday Times (Situation Report - December 21, 2003), this Court of Inquiry declared in their opinion/recommendations (on January 17, 2002) that:

"The DMI (Directorate of Military Intelligence) has been carrying out covert offensive operations from beginning of 2001 in the Eastern Province. For these operations, weapons, explosives and other military equipment have been drawn with proper authority adopting the laid down military procedure."

For nearly six months after this Court of Inquiry findings were forwarded to the Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Balagalle and later sent by him to the Ministry of Defence, there was no action of any sort. A response from the Ministry of Defence came only on July 19, 2002 when then Defence Secretary, Mr. Austin Fernando wrote to Lt. Gen. Balagalle.

In the letter titled "DEPARTMENTAL INQUIRY INTO THE RECOVERY OF WEAPONS ETC. AT ATHURUGIRIYA," Mr.Fernando began by saying "Hon. Prime Minister has studied the report (reference is to Court of Inquiry) in respect of the above sent to him on 02nd of July 2002." He made four points for further action by the Army Chief. They were:

1. Reference Page 41, Section 1.e - The Board of Inquiry has recommended that weapons, explosives and other equipment be made available to the intelligence team from the nearest Brigade/ Battalion location or the Intelligence team draws these weapons and hand over these items to the above locations to be used whenever there is a requirement, under given circumstances.

Your attention is drawn to this recommendation. Necessary instructions should flow from your office, with copy to me.

2. Reference Page 42, 2.c (3) - Please explain why Captain Nilam had inadvertently failed to maintain secrecy as stated in this Section.

(NOTE: The reference is to the Court of Inquiry observing that "unclassified letters" being prepared from Athurugiriya Safe House disclosing its exact location as the originator's address.)

3. Reference Page 42, Section 2.c (4) - Please give instructions to the Court recommendations mentioned in this Section, as well as in Sections 4a. b,c, Section 5 as appearing on page 42.

(NOTE: The reference on Page 42, Section 2.c (4)in the Court of Inquiry report said: "The Court is of the opinion that Orders governing the maintaining of secrecy and security of the safe house be formulated and issued as early as possible. The DMI also should ensure its implementation by regular visits of DMI and authorised senior MI officers.")

4. Reference Page 44, Section 7.c. - should be investigated. (NOTE: Reference Section 7.c. on Page 44 of the Court of Inquiry report said "The Court recommends that both the above incidents be investigated for breach of security and leakage of secret information." The two incidents referred to are the test firing of thermo baric weapons at the Army's Test Firing Range at Panaluwa, Panagoda, that was wrongly construed as training elements to attack Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe's campaign bus during the general election period.

The other was "an unauthorised person" visitingthe Safe House at Athurugiriya on January 1, 2002,a day before the Police raid.) Acting on then Defence Secretary, Mr. Fernando's instructions, Lt. Gen. Balagalle, appointed a four member Court of Inquiry. It had been formally constituted after verbal instructions from from Fernando, that was followed up by his July 19, 2002, letter. This was to probe the "breach of security and leakage of secret information," - a point raised by the second Court of Inquiry and and follow up action called for by the then Defence Secretary.

The Court was headed by Maj. Gen. Jayantha Ranaweeera (President) and comprised Maj. Gen. Sivali Wanigasekera, Brigadier M.R.W. de Zoysa (since retired) and Colonel A.W.J.C. de Silva.

In their observations, among other matters, this is what the second Court of Inquiry (tasked to probe breach of security and leakages) had to say:

"DMI after obtaining necessary authority from the Commander of the Army had established the Safe House at Athurugiriya Millennium City housing scheme on 16th of December 2002, (NOTE: The Sunday Times found this date is erroneous. The correct date is December 7, 2001) for the purpose of conducting covert operations. A team of intelligence operatives led by Captain Nilam, was based at the said Athurugiriya Safe House. This intelligence team had carried out a number of successful covert operations against the LTTE in Batticaloa, immediately prior to occupying the Safe House....”

"The raid on the Safe House and subsequent detention of Officers and Other Ranks may have demoralised the Security Forces and completely disintegrated the intelligence network painstakingly established over a period of two decades by the DMI. The most damaging by product of the entire drama will be the serious threat on the lives of DMI operatives and their informants in the coming month/years, which no organisation will be able to prevent."

What this second Court of Inquiry forecast came right. More than 44 operatives and informants of DMI have been killed so far and the hunt for others continues. The men involved in the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRPs) have been living in fear since the incident. Many have continued to complain that the lives of their children who have to attend school daily are in danger. So are members of their family. Many have also complained of regular health problems caused by mental strain.

In respect of "breach of security and leakage of information," the second Court of Inquiry made serious indictments on a Colonel, a Major and two Corporals. It said "appropriate disciplinary action" should be taken against them for making attempts to obtain details of the Safe House and connected activities. However, this Court had declared it was "unable to ascertain how information regarding test firing of thermo baric weapons was leaked to outsiders." Yet, the Court asserted that this "test firing" had been done with proper approval of the relevant superior Headquarters.

Acting on the recommendations of this Court of Inquiry, The Sunday Times learnt that the Army Commander had immediately thereafter told the Ministry of Defence that action should be taken against those indicted. However, there had been no developments since then. The whole episode has now been revived with the findings of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry being made public.

Quite clearly, there are some minor deficiencies in the findings and recommendations of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry when compared with the two Courts of Inquiry held by the Army. The Presidential Commission has been a public probe wide open to anyone who was willing to testify. The two Courts of Inquiry, in contrast, are Army inquiries which were essentially an internal departmental matter. This is where positions of the United National Front and the People's Alliance differ.

Yet, there is absolutely no dispute at all over the fact that on January 2, 2002, residence No 844 Millennium City, Athurugiriya, was indeed a forward operations cell of the Army's Directorate of Military Intelligence from where operatives moved out to take on guerrilla targets in the Batticaloa district. It is a fact that operatives from this cell have assassinated important guerrilla leaders and thus caused fright in the minds of their leadership.

Yet, many critics who have derided this national effort by the Army have got themselves bogged down in semantics. That is over questions like whether this intelligence cell could be called a "Safe House" and whether the operatives can be identified as Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols (LRRPs). In the process what the men of the Army's DMI did and the disastrous consequences that followed when they were betrayed have been forgotten.

As one wag said, it is like men in the Ceylon Electricity Board insisting it is only they who are entitled to use the word Flying Squad when their men raid households that tap electricity illegally or tamper with meters. They could claim that Transport Board men who conduct surprise checks on buses for ticket-less travel by passengers cannot call themselves members of a Flying Squad. Yet others attempt to seek umbrage by citing America's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) definitions to describe a Safe House. Even if one were to call House No 844 at the Millennium City, a “hide out” to please those who want to go by only CIA definitions, it was yet legitimate.

Disregarding these indisputed factual realities, some UNF Ministers even cast personal aspersions on the men involved in LRRP operations. They suggested they were profit minded individuals who did business with the Army.

However, these very men turned down UNF overtures for handsome payments and positions abroad (together with their families) if they withdrew the Fundamental Rights cases they filed in the Supreme Court against the Police. Criticising those whom they fail to silence, which includes slander, has become a trait among some UNF leaders.

It is now a month since the findings of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry has been given wide publicity. More Sri Lankans are now aware of the sacrifices made by the men who formed the LRRPs. They are also aware of the many that had to die as a result of the raid and the resultant publicity about the existence of the Safe House. Many more are living under threat to their lives. Yet, with a month gone after the Nation has been told how they were betrayed, nothing tangible has happened. Justice delayed, no doubt, is justice denied.

Indo-Lanka defence deal: more talks amid Tiger jitters
President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who now holds the defence portfolio, will go ahead with the proposed Defence Co-operation Agreement with India.

She is sending a four member official delegation to New Delhi to pursue talks with Indian officials. Defence Secretary, Cyril Herath will lead the team that will comprise Chief of Defence Staff and Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Lionel Balagalle and Nigel Hatch, Attorney at Law. The team is due to leave on Wednesday (January 14).

The Sunday Times learns that talks in New Delhi will centre on the outlines to be covered by proposed agreement. Lt. Gen. Balagalle, who made an official visit to India in early December, last year, told the media there would be increased co-operation between the two countries on exchange of intelligence information, training of Sri Lankan security forces personnel in India and joint patrols by Indian Navy, Coast Guard and the Sri Lanka Navy. Besides these factors, supply of Indian military equipment to Sri Lanka and a variety of other related matters are expected to be incorporated in the proposed Defence Co-operation Agreement.

This Agreement was originally decided upon when Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe, held talks in New Delhi with Indian Premier, Atal Behari Vajpayee, in October, last year. A Joint Statement issued after a three day official visit said "the two Prime Ministers discussed the ongoing co-operation in training and the supply of equipment to the Sri Lankan defence forces and agreed that the two sides will commence discussions with a view to concluding a defence co-operation agreement at the earliest."

PA sources say that the proposed Defence Co-operation Agreement was between two Governments. Therefore, since the subject of defence is now in the hands of President Kumaratunga, she was pursuing the matter. However, the composition of the delegation for talks in New Delhi makes clear there is no representative from the Foreign Ministry or the Attorney General's Department, both subjects coming within the purview of the UNF Government.

If Premier Wickremesinghe's move to forge a Defence Co-operation Agreement with India angered the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, subsequent developments appear to have incensed them. These followed widespread publicity in the recent weeks on matters relating to increased military co-operation between India and Sri Lanka including New Delhi's offer to help repair the only airport runway in the Jaffna peninsula at Palaly.

Tiger guerrillas have begun a crackdown on what they call "Indian infiltrators" in the Wanni following several cordon and search operations. At least one South Indian businessman has been arrested on suspicion together with a guerrilla cadre holding the rank of "Major." This new "anti-Indian push," coming immediately in the wake of LTTE efforts to befriend India, has led to increased check-points in the Wanni and the clamp down of other security measures.

These developments come in the backdrop of the inability of both the UNF and PA leaders to reach any agreement over co-habitation. This was after President Kumaratunga took over defence, interior and mass communication portfolios on November 4.

Last Wednesday Premier Wickremasinghe told a public rally in Panduwasnuwara that President Kumaratunga should take over the responsibility of moving the peace process forward if she insists on holding the ministries she took over from the government.

"In this regard she will have to negotiate with the LTTE and redraft the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) to reflect the realities arising since the taking over of the ministries," a press release from the Prime Minister's Office quoted Mr. Wickremasinghe as saying.

Elaborating on the point, the Press Release said, "peace negotiations entirely depend upon the successful implementation of the CFA. The CFA was signed on the basis that our government has the full power and authority to implement it. However, the action of the President has totally shattered the entire foundation on which the CFA was signed by our government. As a result, the validity of some of the clauses of the Agreement is no more there. At the same time we cannot violate the Agreement as such situation will take the country back to war."

PA sources, however, argue that Premier Wickremasinghe's assertions do not hold water since President Kumaratunga, upon take over of the three Ministries, had vowed to uphold the CFA. They say she had also directed the armed forces commanders to co-operate fully with the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) to ensure the CFA is fully enforced.

These sources also point out that Premier Wickremasinghe signed the CFA on behalf of the entire government of Sri Lanka and not as a leader of a political group. Hence they argue that his contention that "our government" signed the CFA is wrong. They also argue that constitutionally President Kumaratunga is the Head of Government and Head of State and, therefore, the responsibility was in any case cast on her. An official statement on the mater is expected, according to these sources.

Meanwhile the Norwegian Government which suspended its facilitator role between the Government and the LTTE due to "lack of clarity" continues to monitor developments on the ground.

Last Thursday, Norwegian Ambassador Hans Brattskar, who was in Trincomalee met LTTE area leaders including Pathuman and Thilak in Sampur. This was after a meeting with senior military officials in the district.

In the coming week, Mr. Brattskar is expected to travel to Kilinochchi for a meeting with LTTE Political Wing leader, S.P. Tamilselvan. This week, the head of LTTE's Peace Secretariat in Kilinochchi, Pulithevan, was in Colombo meeting diplomats from several Western embassies.


7 killed, 25 injured in Vavuniya bus blast

Seven people, including two children, were killed when a state-run passenger bus was hit by a powerful claymore mine explosion at Pirimanalankulam in Vavuniya yesterday morning, a military spokesman said.

Nineteen civilians and six soldiers were injured in the blast which took place around 7.40 a.m. as the bus was heading from Mannar to Vavuniya, the spokesman said. Tiger guerrillas appeared to have misidentified the bus as a bus carrying soldiers as two soldiers on leave were on the foot-board, the spokesman said.

The claymore mine had been set on the road in a lonely area. Soon after the bus was caught in the blast the driver lost control and the bus crashed into a large tree, causing further casualties.

One of the persons killed was a soldier while the others were identified as civilians. The injured civilians were rushed to the Vavuniya hospital and four of them were in a critical condition. The soldiers injured were removed to the Anuradhapura hospital. Vavuniya District judge V. Illancheliyan visited the scene of the blast.

All vehicular traffic along the Mannar-Vavuniya road was suspended until last evening. On Sunday night, six labourers were killed in Mailambavani, Batticaloa and hours later a bus bomb went off in Kondawattuwan, Ampara killing 16 civilians and a soldier. Four more farmers were shot and hacked to death in Polonnaruwa on Thursday.