Former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando says he has found himself in a sorry state when then-President Maithripala Sirisena called him from abroad and asked him not to attend a meeting chaired by then-Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, after news broke that terrorists had struck on Easter Sunday last year.
Giving evidence before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) probing the carnage on Easter Sunday for the 8th day, Fernando said the former President had ruthlessly made him and the former Inspector General of Police Pujith Jayasundara culprits in the explosions, during his address to the nation while washing his hands off in the process.
Responding to the questions raised by the Additional Solicitor General of the Government, the witness said the meeting was scheduled to be held at 11 am, one hour in advance.
He further stated that the first person to call him was the Secretary to the then-President’s Udaya R. Seneviratne. “He asked me whether I am aware that a meeting is scheduled to be held at the Prime Minister’s office. He said he too got the message and that the President had called him to ask both is to refrain from attending that meeting.”
Speaking further, he revealed that 10 minutes after the presidential secretary’s call, he received a call from the then-President. “He told me sternly ‘You two are not to attend this meeting under any condition.’”
The Additional Solicitor General then asked the witness if the former President had asked him not to attend then-PM’s meeting, knowing that there had been bomb explosions, to which the response was in the affirmative.
He was then asked as to what his thoughts were when the former President, while being overseas, asked him not to attend the meeting in question.
The former Defence Secretary replied: “My thoughts were on the sorry state I was in. There had been no delegation of powers to the Prime Minister or anyone else before leaving the country. It was a situation of anarchy. I was intent on attending that meeting. But since I cannot disregard the President’s order, I didn’t attend it. By this time, I too had convened the IGP, the commanders of the Tri-forces, the Chief of the Defence Staff and all intelligence heads to the Defence Ministry. The Prime Minister came to the meeting unannounced and asked me to continue the meeting and he would wait in my office. I explained the matters discussed at the meeting to the PM. Removal of bodies was discussed. He was there for about 10-15 minutes and left.”
The Additional Solicitor General then asked, “Would the talks on removal of bodies been necessary, had the measures taken on the 21st of April were taken on the 20th when there was forewarning of an attack the next day?”
In response Fernando said, “I cannot answer that. They would have achieved their targets even if we had imposed police curfew the day before. Zahran was already at the Shangri-La Hotel on the 20th of April. All this information was with the intelligence units. This is why 200 suspects connected to this were arrested within 2 weeks of the attack. I’m not saying this to wash my hands off of the responsibility. Once the bombers strap the bombs on, there’s nothing that can be done. They have to be stopped before the bombs are strapped on.”
The Additional Solicitor General asked the witness, “Did you know that the attacker at the Kingsbury Hotel, Mubarak had gone home and returned on the night of the 20th. On that night, Zahran and Ilham left the hotel and returned. Had the police curfew been imposed, wouldn’t checks have been conducted at roadblocks? They could have been arrested easily, couldn’t they?”
To this, the former Defence Secretary responded, “I don’t know about ‘easily’ but an arrest could have been made.
When the chairman of the PCoI asked the witness if Zahran and other make bombs in Wanathawilluwa for sale, he responded in the negative.
President’s Counsel Anil de Silva who represented ex-President Maithripala Sirisena asked the witness as to why he claimed that the former President’s address to the nation is an indictment.
Fernando responded, “He made the most violent statement possible by a Head of State. The establishment code contains the measures to be taken, in the event of an error made by the Secretary. Instead of doing that, the ministerial secretary and the department head were made culprits. I must especially mention that President Maithripala Sirisena had a dream of becoming a President for a second time. He was prepared for that, but the Easter attacks became a black mark. Two political sacrifices had to be made for that. Pujith and I were ruthlessly made culprits in this and he washed his hands off.