Cardinal’s Candid Comments and and the Bathiudeen Brothers Brouhaha

By D.B.S.JEYARAJ

All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) leader and ex-Cabinet Minister Rishad Bathiudeen is a prominent Sri Lankan politician who is very often in the news for the wrong reasons. The 48-year-old Bathiudeen hailing from Dharapuram in the Mannar District is an engineer by profession. Known widely as Rishad, he was first elected to Parliament from the Northern Wanni electoral district in December 2001. He has been consistently elected as Wanni MP since then in 2004, 2010 ,2015 and 2020. Rishad has also served continuously from January 2007 to November 2019 as Cabinet Minister in the governments of Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena.Currently his party the ACMC has 4 MP’s and 169 Local Authority Members.

Rishad Bathiudeen was arrested by the Police at 3 am on Saturday April 24th 2021. Prior to Rishad Bathiudeen’s arrest at his residence on Bullers Road(Bauddhaloka Mawatte) in Colombo 7, his brother Riyaj Bathiudeen was arrested at his house in Colombo 6 by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the Police.Shortly before his arrest, the ex-cabinet minister tweeted “ The CID has been standing outside my house in Baudhaloka Mawatha since 1.30 am today attempting to arrest me without a charge. They have already arrested my brother. I have been in Parliament, and have cooperated with all lawful authorities until now. This is unjust.”

A video in Tamil was also posted on Rishad Bathiudeen’s official Facebook in which the Sarong clad Wanni district MP said that the Police refused to answer when queried whether the Speaker of Parliament Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena had been informed that the MP was going to be arrested. . “I’m a Member of Parliament and a leader of a political party. If I’m to be arrested, they must first inform the Speaker,” emphasised Rishad.

Rishad Bathiudeen on the morning of arrest

He also said there was no response when asked whether the Police had an appropriate arrest warrant to take him into custody.Bathiudeen also stated in the video that he was being arrested in the holy month of Ramazan when people of the Islamic faith engage in a 30 day fast during daytime.

The ACMC leader kept repeating in the video that he was totally innocent and that he along with his brother were being penalised unjustly.He also reiterated that there was a conspiracy to silence him to prevent his speaking out on behalf of the Muslim people in Sri Lanka.

Aiding and Abetting

Later Police Spokesperson DIG Ajith Rohana told the media that the Bathiudeen brothers were arrested at their residences.

“They were arrested by the CID on the charges of aiding and abetting the suicide bombers responsible for the 2019 April 21s Attacks,” said DIG Ajith Rohana.The Criminal Investigations Department had recorded statements from witnesses and collected circumstantial as well as scientific evidence, he added.

Riyaj Bathiudeen

Further investigations will continue under the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act(PTA) ,he said. It is learnt that both the Bathiudeen brothers have been detained for 72 hours under the PTA.

Meanwhile Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekara told the “Sunday Times” that the former minister and his brother were arrested following a long-running joint investigation by the CID and the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID). He claimed that there was evidence that the suspects had maintained links with the Easter Sunday suicide bombers and aided and abetted them to amass funds to carry out their activities.While police have already forwarded eight files on the eight suicide bombings carried out on that day to the Attorney General, Weerasekara said suspects were still being taken into custody from time to time as more evidence emerged.

Some hours after the arrest, a statement was issued by Rushdhie Habeeb, Attorney-at-Law. Habeeb stated that he had been authoried by the families of the Bathiudeen brothers and the All Ceylon Makkal Congress to issue the statement on their behalf. Here are some relevant excerpts-

“We have been instructed by the members of the family of Hon. Rishad Bathiudeen MP and his brother Reyaj Bathiudeen and the All Ceylon Makkal Congress to issue this statement to the media conveying their shock and surprise on the sudden and unannounced arrests by officers of the CID, pass midnight on Saturday 24th April 2021 from their homes.”

All Ceylon Makkal Congress

“At the outset we have been asked to appeal to the members, well- wishers and the island-wide voters of the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC), a registered political party with four elected Members of Parliament and 169 members of local authorities, to stay calm and continue the fasting in this holy month of Ramazan.”

“We are instructed to state that if the CID had noticed the two of them, they would have appeared at the CID, as they had done many times in the past, both as party noticed as well as complainants. There was no need to have demonstrated, any show of force to the rest of the family or to those around.We understand that no reasons for the arrest had been given at the time of their arrest by those who conducted the mid-night raid. We are shocked that those representing the democratic state should begin this process in violation of the law which requires the persons arrested to be informed of the reasons at the time of the arrest or to uphold the principle of the presumption of innocence.”

“The Easter Sunday Attacks Commission headed by a Honourable Judge of the present Supreme Court had gone into all the complaints and allegations made against the two of them. They had heard and recorded the evidence of the complainants, the investigators and several others. They had heard the two, who were accused of allegations of aiding and abetting a suicide bomber.”

“The Commissioners had heard in evidence and by affidavit that Hon Rishard Bathiudeen, in his then capacity as Minister had refused to grant an appointment to meet the Minister, to one of them who had sought the appointment, at a time when no one in the country knew that he would turn out to be a suicide bomber later on. They had also received the evidence that Minister Bathiudeen was sent a letter of demand by the future bomber claiming damages for refusing the appointment and for not granting the meeting he had requested.”

Commission Found No Evidence

“Having evaluated the evidence, the Easter Commission found no evidence of any one of the Bathiudeens having aided or abetted the suicide bombers in the Easter Sunday bombings. Their arrest without any justifiable material is in violation of the rule of law.”

“We are instructed to state that the arrests are politically motivated. The ACMC supported the present opposition at the last Presidential and General Elections. The ACMC is today a part of the country’s opposition. The ACMC also represents a predominant share of the Muslim community.”

Interestingly enough references to the Bathiudeen brothers figured at a press conference conducted by the Catholic Church last week.A joint press conference was held by Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, Bishop of Chilaw Most Rev. Valance Mendis and the Bishop of Galle Most Rev. Raymond Wickremesinghe on 19 April. It was about the 2nd anniversary of the Easter Sunday bombings on April 21st.

According to a news report in the Economy Next website, the Cardinal was asked at the press conference whether he was satisfied with the progress of inquiriesinto the Easer Sunday bombings . The Cardinal had replied that political wheeler-dealing appeared to be obscuring efforts to bring perpetrators to justice. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith referred to the manner in which the Government secured the support of Muslim legislators to ensure a two-thirds majority for the 20th Amendment and warned that the Government should not take him for a fool.

Tell it to the Chinese with a Ponytail

“A few days before seven Muslim MPs voted for the 20th amendment, (former minister) Rishard Bathiudeen’s brother was released from custody……… When I raised this issue, the government said there was no connection (to the 20th amendment)…….. But, we saw the way they voted. Especially, to support a person who came to power saying he did not want the votes of Muslims. There is a saying “කොන්ඩය බැඳපු චීනුන්ට කියන්න “ (tell it to the Chinese with a ponytail) Do they think we are “කොන්ඩය බැඳපු චීනු” (Usually a derogatory term referring to a dimwit)

According to the news report the Cardinal had gone on to say that ad hoc arrests and releases would not inspire confidence in the investigations into the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks that killed 269 and wounded over 500 people. However, he had said the church was willing to give more time for the authorities to identify all those behind the attack and bring them to justice.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith was referring to Rishad Bathiudeen’s brother Riyaj being arrested in Mid -April 2020 under the PTA and detained for five and a half months before his release in early October. When Riyaj Bathiudeen was arrested there were media reports alleging that his arrest was in regard to several telephone conversations with Inshaf hmed Ibrahim who was the suicide bomber who targeted Cinnamon Grand Hotel. Riyaj Bathiudeen’s wife wrote a letter to Dr.Deepika Udagama who was the Chairperson of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission at tht time. In that letter Fathima Bathiudeen explained that her husband who was a businessman had several telephone conversations regarding commercial matters with Inshaf Ibrahim whose family were the leading Spice exporters in Sri Lanka.

The then Police Spokesman SSP Jaliya Senaratne explained the reason for Rijad’s release thus -“A person is arrested only after a reasonable suspicion has arisen regarding an investigation. As soon as the suspicion was nullified, the suspect was released. That is what happened to Riyaj Bathiudeen.”Jaliya Senaratne’s reasoning was not acceptable to many including Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Colombo convened a press conference on October 3rd 2020 where he aired his misgivings and doubts candidly. According to media reports the Cardinal said he was “astounded and dismayed” that a powerful Muslim politician’s brother detained under special laws for his alleged part in the Easter Sunday attacks has been set free. Cardinal Ranjith said he could not comprehend how a person who the “police said had dealings with the Easter bombers, did business with them and engaged in discussions with them is suddenly found to be entirely innocent and released unconditionally.” The Catholic prelate queried openly whether the government was cutting a “political deal” with Rishad Bathiudeen to get his support for the controversial 20th Amendment to the Constitution and therefore releasing his brother Rijad from detention.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith

The Cardinal’s allegation had a quick and unexpected response from the Country’s Executive President himself. On Oct 4, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa posted on his Facebook account the following “ensuring national security is the first and foremost responsibility of my government. I emphasize that our government has not entered into any political deal with Parliament member Rishad Bathiudeen”. President Rajapaksa further said “I am not prepared to hand over the power of arresting or arbitrarily releasing people to politicians, as happened in the past. I assure my citizens that I will not forsake the trust that they have placed in me and I will most certainly continue to work towards strengthening the trust we have built.”

In a further development, more than 80 MP’s belonging to the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna signed a letter addressed to both President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Rajapaksa. The Govt MP’s demanded that the released Rijad Bathiudeen be re-arrested immediately. They also emphasized that no political deals should be struck to garner a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

Bargain With Bathiudeen

All this speculation about a political deal being struck with Rishad Bathiudeen was over the 20th Amendment to the Constitution that was passed in late October last year. With some of the minor parties in the Govt showing signs of “dissent” ,there were doubts whether the Govt could get the two-thirds majority necessary for a Constitutional Amendment. Against this backdrop there were many rumours that a bargain had been entered into with Bathiudeen whose ACMC had 4 MP’s in Parliament with one each from the Wanni, Anuradhapura, Amparai and Puttalam districts . When Cardinal Ranjith gave voice to those suspicions publicly, President Rajapaksa responded through Social media to allay such doubts..It appeared that there was going to be no deal with Rishad Bathiudeen.

Nevertheless when the 20th Amendment vote was taken, Six Muslim MP”s from the Muslim Congress (SLMC)led by Rauff Hakeem and the Makkal Congress(ACMC) led by Rishad Bathiudeen supported the amendment from the opposition.Another MP from the ACMC voted for 20 A at the Committee stage. Only SLMC leader Hakeem and ACMC leader Bathiudeen voted against the 20th amendment totally . This bizarre voting pattern of the Muslim parties led to much excitement in a nation noted for its fascination for conspiracy theories. It is indeed noteworthy that both the SLMC and ACMC have not taken effective action against its MP’s for flouting Party discipline and voting with the Government despite the facade of an “inquiry” being conducted. Currently both Hakeem and Bathiueen seem to be leaders without followers in Parliament. The four SLMC and three ACMC Parliamentarians seem to be “in”but not “of”their respective parties.

Deal or No Deal?

This state of affairs too has given rise to renewed suspicion that a deal had indeed been cut. This question of “deal or no deal” has once again been aired publicly by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith through his candid comments followed by the Brouhaha caused by the arrest of the Bathiudeen brothers.

ACMC leader Rishad Bathiudeen’s arrest and detention under the PTA has come in for heavy criticism by several Muslim and Tamil political leaders. Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauff Hakeem MP issued a statement expressing sadness at the manner in which Rishad and his brother Riyaj were arrested. He also condemned the arrest. Tamil Progressive Alliance leader Mano Ganesan MP was critical of the arrest in a post on his facebook. Ganesan asked whether Rishad Bathiudeen was a member of the underworld to be arrested in this manner. It remains to be seen as to what the Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa has to say about the arrest. Bathiudeen campaigned for Premadasa at the Presidential elections and contested on the SJB ticket at the Parliamentary elections.

Despite the reasons given for the arrests by the Police spokesperson and public security minister , one is not sure of the real motives behind the arrest. Obviously both Rishad and Riyaj would have voluntarily submitted themselves for interrogation by the CID or TID if the Police had noticed them. This sudden “arrest by night “grandstanding seems totally unnecessary. It is unclear as to why the arrests were made in this way. Was it a knee jerk reaction to the Cardinal’s assertion that he was not a “Kondhaya Bandhapu Cheenu”?

Whatever the reason the arrest by night grandstanding certainly leaves much to be desired. Already the Gotabaya Government has been severely faulted for the way it is alienating the Muslim people of Sri Lanka. It is an issue that has been raised even within the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

Political Witch Hunt

Whatever his flaws, Rishad Bathiudeen is the leader of a party that represents a sizeable number of the Muslim people.The Govt may be able to win over MP’s elected from the ACMC through carrot and stick methods. However the people who voted for them are not so fickle and would remain steadfast loyalists of the party for quite a while. The Govt would do well to avoid creating an impression that Rishad Bathiudeen and his brother are targets of a political witch hunt.

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com

This Article was written for the “DBS Jeyaraj” Column in the “Daily Mirror” of Apr 26th 2021. It can be accessed here:

http://www.dailymirror.lk/opinion/Cardinals-Candid-Comments-and-the-Bathiudeen-Brothers-Brouhaha/172-210584