Sri Lanka’s Right to Information (RTI) Commission has ordered the release of key documentation relating to the ‘missing’ findings of the Commission of Inquiry Report into the death of Sri Lanka Muslim Congress founder and Minister M.H.M. Ashraff and fourteen others on September 16, 2000 in a Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) Mi-17 helicopter crash.
The report of the one-man Commission of Inquiry constituting Former Justice L.K.G. Weerasekera had been appointed by the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga to probe the crash. His report has been ‘missing’ after the relevant files were sent by the Presidential Secretariat to the National Archives in 2007. As the RTI Commission inquiry conducted on Monday revealed, the report was also ‘missing’ in the files forwarded to the National Archives by the Secretary of the Commission of Inquiry in 2002.
The Commission released Extracts of Pages 69, 70 and 71 of the report relating to the recommendation of Rs. 8 million to be paid as compensation to certain parties. These were the only available pages of the report in the 2007 file. The released information also included a minute made on the file by the Presidential Secretariat claiming that the crash was not due to a willful act or an explosion or any explosive device. The crash was attributed to act or acts of omission, lack of due diligence and duty of care amounting to negligence on the part of the crew.
In their ruling, the RTI Commission Chairman Mahinda Gammampila and Commission members Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, S.G. Punchihewa and Selvy Thiruchandran, directed the release of information citing the overriding public interest attaching to a report of a statutory commission. (http://www.rticommission.lk/web/images/pdf/Basheer%20Segudawood.pdf ).
Commenting on the submission by the National Archives Director General Nadeera Rupesinghe that these were confidential records under the Archives law, the Commission referred to Section 4 of the RTI Act which gave priority to the RTI Act ‘in the event of any inconsistency or conflict between the provisions of this Act and such other written law.’ It was observed that the Public Authorities in question had not raised a specific exemption under the RTI Act itself in respect of not disclosing the Report except to say that the Report was ‘missing.’
The Commission also called for the release of the ‘list of documents’ that were contained in the file sent by the Secretary to the Commission of Inquiry to the Department of National Archives on 24.01.2002. The documents themselves were considerable in number and stored in boxes kept in the Archives.
The RTI Commission pointed out that the Department of the National Archives was the custodian of ‘all records’ of Commissions of Inquiry under the Commissions of Inquiry Act (1948) read with Section 11 of the National Archives Law (1973).
The Report of such a Commission would constitute a primary ‘record’ under and in terms of the said law. Hence the Department may properly call upon the depositing body or individual (effectively the Secretary of such a Commission) to inquire if the Report had been sent to the Department in accordance with the law.
Accordingly, the National Archives was directed to ascertain from the Secretary of the Commission of Inquiry as to whether the Report of the said Commission had been handed over to the Department in 2002. It was also directed to check the actual contents of the relevant boxes where the original documents were stored in the National Archives and to ascertain if the Commission of Inquiry Report is contained in those papers.
The Order was issued following a Right to Information appeal filed by former Minister Basheer Segu Dawood to the RTI Commission after his information request under the RTI Act was declined by the Presidential Secretariat earlier this year on the basis that all available files had been sent to the National Archives and that the Report was ‘missing’. It is unclear as to when the Report had ‘disappeared.’ As informed by the National Archives on being noticed to appear before the RTI Commission with all available files in its custody on Monday; the notation of the documents received at the time did not contain a reference to the actual Report.
The files also included reference to President Chandrika Kumaratunga promising that she would publish the report as a Sessional Paper. However, the report was not published and was not made available even informally to the public leading to controversy surrounding the reasons for the crash which, Air Force sources stated, had occurred despite no indication of bad weather in the area.
The RTI Commission inquiry on this issue will continue.