Manoj Colambage in Sunday Observer, 19 May 2019, where the title is “The Bulathwatte Bewilderment”
The reinstatement of an army intelligence official implicated in attacks on journalists has given rise to serious concerns for the safety of media personnel and witnesses who testified against the officer and his platoon.
Army Intelligence Major Prabath Bulathwatte has been back in the spotlight after Army Commander Mahesh Senanayake stunned civil society in a television interview last week, announcing that the officer, who was interdicted for allegedly running the white van squad responsible for a slew of attacks against journalists, had been reinstated into a team under Senanayake’s command to combat radical Islamic terrorism.
According to the army commander, the arrest and interdiction of Bulathwatte for the 2008 abduction and torture of journalist Keith Noyahr led to intelligence failures due to Bulathwatte’s purported role in monitoring Zahran Hashim, one of the suicide bombers who attacked the Shangri-La hotel on April 21, and is believed to have masterminded the coordinated Easter suicide bombings that have claimed over 250 lives.
Bulathwatte was arrested in February 2017 when the CID unearthed evidence that he had led the team that abducted Noyahr in a white van on the night of May 22, 2008 and tortured him at a Dompe safehouse. Nohayr believed that he would be killed, according to his statement to the CID, until a senior officer had telephoned his assailants and ordered that he be released. The CID has charged that this telephone call was one placed by then Director of Military Intelligence Amal Karunasekara to Bulathwatte, who they allege was torturing Noyahr at the time.
While senior military officers were quick to make the case to the army commander in the aftermath of the Easter attacks that Bulathwatte was a critically underused intelligence asset in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism, evidence has since emerged that raises questions about the sincerity of that claim.
At around the same time that Bulathwatte’s reinstatement was being debated within the army, former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa called for the government to issue blanket immunity from prosecution for intelligence officers involved in apprehending and interrogating terrorist suspects. “If they cannot do it, I will do it when the next government comes to power.”
Rights advocates were alarmed that Rajapaksa’s promise of immunity was a barely concealed dog whistle to the recently empowered officers embroiled in the white van terror that took place during his reign – that their legal troubles would be over if the former defence secretary came to power.
Prabath Bulathwatte joined the army on July 15, 1996, according to military documents seen by Sunday Observer. He completed officer training and received his commission as a lieutenant on June 20, 1998. He was assigned to a Military Intelligence group and progressed unusually slowly through the ranks. Eventually he was promoted to the rank of Captain, where he led a military intelligence platoon in Jaffna under the 2nd Military Intelligence Corps, which is the division of Military Intelligence in charge of the Northern Province.
In 2007, Bulathwatte’s military intelligence platoon, while still assigned to Jaffna on paper, was secretly moved to Colombo, and took up quarters in the Tripoli army camp in Maradana. The Directorate of Military Intelligence procured a ‘safe house’ for the platoon north-east of Colombo on a one-year lease, and the group began surveillance of local and foreign journalists, according to a military source.
In 2018, the CID filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court setting out the evidence that led to the arrest of Bulathwatte and several members of his platoon for the abduction and torture of Keith Noyahr. According to the affidavit, a member of Bulathwatte’s platoon had leased a remote safe house in Dompe, named “Baduwatte Wallawwe”, from March 2008 to March 2009. Two additional members of Bulathwatte’s team had witnessed the lease agreement, a copy of which was produced to the Supreme Court by the CID.
According to the CID, the lease agreement for the ‘Baduwatte Wallawwa’ had been signed on the instructions of Bulathwatte, and the money to pay the utility bills and the lease was provided by the Directorate of Military Intelligence.
When the CID interviewed Keith Noyahr in December 2016, he recounted his movements around Colombo, and his subsequent abduction outside his home. “It was when he alighted from the car to open the gate, that a few persons who came in a white van abducted him.” Noyahr said he was then driven to a remote location, his arms and legs tied to a pole and taken into a house where he was hung by his arms and beaten.
One member of Bulathwatte’s team, who was a caretaker at the “Baduwatte Walawwa”, told the CID that he witnessed Noyahr being brought into the safe house by Bulathwatte and three other members of his platoon. The victim “had been blindfolded and his hands and legs were tied on to the opposite ends of a metal pole.”
“Having taken him to the living area of the house, the said suspects had assaulted him with clubs and bare arms,” the cooperating witness had said.
Meanwhile, Nohayhr’s family and colleagues were scrambling to locate him. One of Noyahr’s colleagues informed then Cabinet Minister Karu Jayasuriya of the abduction in a telephone call at approximately 11:19 PM. Jayasuriya immediately telephoned President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the call being connected at 11:26 PM.
In a parallel effort, the editor of his newspaper, Lalith Alahakoon, called then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, also at 11:26 PM. According to Alahakoon’s statement to the Dehiwala Police, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had dismissed the claim that Noyahr had been abducted and alleged that the journalist had fled his family due to a domestic dispute.
During the seven-minute verbal squabble between Alahakoon and Rajapaksa, from 11:26 PM to 11:33 PM, Karu Jayasuriya had spoken to President Mahinda Rajapaksa and threatened dire political consequences if Keith Noyahr was not immediately and safely released and returned to his family. Following the call, the President appears to have scrambled to reach Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Calls made from the President’s exchange to the Defence Secretary’s cellphone could not connect because the latter was still on the phone with Alahakoon. The President’s office then called the Defence Secretary’s aide de camp, Colonel Jayantha Ratnayake, trying urgently to reach Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
It was 11:39 PM when the President succeeded in reaching the Defence Secretary and sought his urgent support to secure Noyahr’s release. For reasons best known to him, no sooner his call with the President concluded, the Defence Secretary called Chief of National Intelligence Kapila Hendawitharana, a call lasting 47 seconds.
Hendawitharana then immediately telephoned Director of Military Intelligence Amal Karunasekara in a call that lasted just over one minute. Karunasekara telephoned Bulathwatte, whose cell phones, according to records produced by the CID, were in the Dompe area when he took the calls. Noyahr told the CID that he believed he was to be killed after his interrogation was complete, and that his abductors had asked him where we would like his body to be buried.
The journalist believes it was the telephone call received by his abductors, which the CID alleges was received by Bulwathwatte from Military Intelligence chief Karunasekara, that saved his life. The CID attributes the move to a directive by President Rajapaksa to the Defence Secretary to ensure Noyahr’s release. President Rajapaksa was questioned by the CID at his official residence on Wijeyarama Mawatha. When asked by the media afterwards whether he was implicated in any wrongdoing, the President quipped that it was not a crime to have secured Keith Noyahr’s release.
An analysis of the movements of Bulathwatte and his platoon by the CID using mobile telephone tower records showed that this team had followed Noyahr throughout the day of the abduction. Bulathwatte and his team had followed Nohahr from his newspaper office in Maradana, to the Colombo University arts faculty, to the Jayaratne funeral home in Borella, to Queens Café in Bambalapitiya, to the Laugfs supermarket in Wellawatte and finally to his home in Dehiwala where he was abducted.
Telephone records also show the abductors travelling from the Dehiwala abduction site through Kohuwala and Ranala before finally reaching the ‘Baduwatte Wallawwa’ safe house in Dompe where a member of their platoon told the CID they witnessed Noyahr being dragged out of the van and hung in the house exactly how he himself described.
The CID have also located the white van allegedly used to perform Noyahr’s and several other abductions. The van was owned by a cousin of Bulathwatte who also lived in Dompe, and whose family has admitted to visiting Bulathwatte and his team at the “Baduwatte Walawwa” safe house with food and supplies.
In addition to the overwhelming evidence against Bulathwatte and his team in the Noyahr abduction case, the CID have also named the team as suspects in the January 2009 assault on newspaper editor Upali Tennakoon. According to the CID, telephone tower records indicate that Bulathwatte’s team was surveilling Tennakoon around his residence in Imbulgoda, Gampaha.
The CID has also told the Mount Lavinia Magistrates Court of evidence that a member of Bulathwatte’s platoon was complicit in the procurement of mobile telephone SIM cards that were used to coordinate the January 2009 murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge. The CID was assigned the investigation into the Wickremetunge murder in late 2009 by order of the Mount Lavinia Magistrates Court.
On January 18, 2010, the CID recorded a statement from Nuwara Eliya mechanic Pitchai Jesudasan, whose National Identity Card (NIC) had been used to procure five SIM cards that were used by Lasantha Wickrematunge’s killers to coordinate the assassination. Jesudasan told the CID that he could not have purchased the SIM cards, bought in November and December of 2008, because his NIC was taken from him by army officer Kannegedera Piyawansa in June 2008.
Piyawansa was a member of Bulathwatte’s military intelligence platoon. When the CID sought to question Piyawansa, their investigation was halted and handed over to the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID). On the same day they questioned Jesudasan, January 18, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa wrote to the Foreign Ministry asking that a military intelligence officer posted in Thailand be immediately recalled and that Bulathwatte be sent in his place.
When this fact first surfaced in April 2017, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, through a statement issued by his Viyathmaga organisation, denied any role in Bulathwatte’s appointment, and stated that the appointment itself was to Germany and not to Thailand. Records reviewed by Sunday Observer give lie to both claims. A letter by Rajapaksa to the Foreign Ministry reproduced on this page makes clear that the Defence Secretary did indeed instruct that Bulathwatte be posted to Thailand.
Earlier this year, Lasantha Wickrematunge’s daughter Ahimsa chastised the diplomatic posting by Rajapaksa in an article written to mark the tenth anniversary of her father’s murder. ““For some reason, the defence secretary himself was in a mighty hurry to send this Major abroad, in violation of the presidential elections regulations that were in place with the polls barely a week away,” she wrote.
The usual custom for appointments of military officers to diplomatic postings is that as a vacancy arises, a suitable officer is nominated by the army to the defence ministry with a copy of the officer’s curriculum vitae (CV). However, in the case of Bulathwatte, no request originated from the army, according to military sources. Indeed, Rajapaksa’s letter to the foreign ministry was copied to the army commander, requesting that the army forward a copy of Bulathwatte’s CV.
After Sarath Fonseka was defeated in the 2010 Presidential Election, the diplomatic posting for Bulathwatte was cancelled. The TID arrested Bulathwatte’s subordinate Piyawansa, as well as the mechanic, Pitchai Jesudasan, who had given evidence against him. Jesudasan mysteriously died while detained in remand custody. Piyawansa was given a promotion, paid his salary and given several million rupees in loans by the army while he was in remand custody. This was in violation of army policy, which requires the interdiction of personnel arrested on criminal charges and the stopping of their pay and promotions.
In 2017, after analyzing all of this and other evidence, the CID moved to arrest Bulathwatte and several members of his platoon, charging them initially with the attack on Noyahr, and later also with the attack on Upali Tennakoon.
It was five months after Bulathwatte’s arrest, in July 2017, when then Maj Gen Mahesh Senanayake was appointed army commander by President Maithripala Sirisena. The new commander moved swiftly to assess the legitimate needs of the Military Intelligence directorate and repair the reputation of one of the army’s most elite units, which by then had been mired in allegations of orchestrating the abductions, tortures and murders of several journalists. Aside from the allegations against Bulathwatte’s platoon, a separate Military Intelligence team led by Colonel Shammi Kumararatne had been arrested for their alleged role in the abduction and murder of cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda on the eve of the January 2010 presidential election.
General Senanayake reminded military intelligence officers repeatedly that only a few of their number had been accused of atrocities and that by and large the directorate had distinguished itself during the war against the LTTE, and that the many thousands of personnel who joined the DMI in the years since should not feel a need to defend misdeeds that took place before their time and damaged the reputation of the army and its elite intelligence unit.
At no point during Senanayake’s restructuring of Military Intelligence, or even thereafter until the aftermath of the Easter attacks, was he informed of Bulathwatte’s purported role in monitoring the terrorist outfit of Zahran Hashim prior to his arrest.
Intelligence veterans interviewed by Sunday Observer are divided on the veracity of these claims. Some point to Bulathwatte’s remarkably slow progress through the ranks of the army to suggest that the officer has skeletons in his closet or has repeatedly failed to pass promotion exams.
Typically, army officers who are commissioned as lieutenants are eligible for promotion to the rank of captain after five years, and thereafter to major within three years. Majors are eligible for promotion to the rank of lieutenant colonel after three years, making the path from first commission to the rank of lieutenant colonel around thirteen years long.
Bulathwatte, however, was commissioned in 1998, has been in the army for almost twenty years and has not been promoted since reaching the rank of major in 2011, a whole thirteen years after receiving his commission. Even this promotion was a temporary one, only confirmed by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa on September 19, 2014, according to military records reviewed by Sunday Observer. According to a retired senior military intelligence officer, promotions can be denied for reasons ranging from disciplinary inquiries to failure to pass promotion examinations with some officers losing out on promotions due to a lack of cadre vacancies. The same retired officer said that Bulathwatte was “an excellent intelligence officer” and praised the decision of the government to reactivate him.
Other officers point to precedent for promoting and rewarding talented officers in military intelligence. Former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa had done so many times in the past. In 2005, the Military Intelligence Director was Brigadier Kapila Hendawitharana, who was sidelined as he did not see eye to eye with army commander Sarath Fonseka. Gotabaya Rajapaksa recognized his talents, hand-selected him to be the next Chief of National Intelligence and widely expanded the powers of that office, as Hendawitharana was fast-tracked for promotion to Major General.
Another military intelligence officer, Suresh Sallay, who played a key role in dismantling the LTTE’s international arms trafficking and money laundering operations, was fast-tracked from the rank of Major to Brigadier in less than ten years, ultimately becoming Director of Military Intelligence in 2014.
Bulathwatte, however, received no such recognition in the decade he served as Major. His arrest was also not marked by the level of public outcry that followed the arrest of two other military intelligence officers, Warrant Officer Premananda Udulagama and Colonel Shammi Kumararatne.
Kumararatne was arrested in 2015 for his alleged role in the Eknaligoda murder, and his arrest sparked an uproar within the military due to his recognition within the ranks as a highly capable intelligence officer. Similarly, Udulagama was arrested in 2016 for allegedly abducting and threatening to kill Lasantha Wickrematunge’s family driver if the latter implicated Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the Wickrematunge murder. Udalagama’s arrest too was widely protested. A former military intelligence officer even hung himself in a bid to secure his release.
No such uproar met the arrest of Bulathwatte in 2017. His purported talents were not highlighted until after the Easter attacks, which were followed swiftly thereafter by the announcement of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidential candidacy and his pledge to grant immunity to intelligence officers.
Instead, it was the reinstatement of Bulathwatte that has received widespread condemnation. The Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA) in a statement, strongly condemned the move, calling out Bulathwatte as the leader of a “shadowy military intelligence unit” implicated in widespread attacks on journalists.
“We believe that his reinstatement as an active intelligence officer will spark fears about ongoing sensitive investigations relating to crimes against journalists and media institutions,” the SLWJA said.
The international Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued a similarly strong statement expressing alarm at the role assigned to Bulathwatte. “Promoting to active duty an intelligence officer who has been implicated in the killing of one journalist and the torture of two others severely undermines Sri Lanka’s claim that it is fighting impunity for crimes against journalists,” said CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Steven Butler in Taipei. “Instead, the move creates new threats to journalists in Sri Lanka, who are not safe to do their jobs.”
Lasantha Wickrematunge’s daughter Ahimsa, responding to questions sent by Sunday Observer also expressed grave concerns. She said the move “sends terrible message” to army officers, especially in military intelligence, who are not marred by allegations of atrocities.
“The allegations of serious criminality against Maj. Bulathwatte only came to light because of the bravery of several civilian and military witnesses, who risked their lives to come forward and expose what was allegedly a team dedicated to spying on, terrorising, torturing and murdering journalists at the whim of political masters,” Wickrematunge said. “I am sure many military personnel, including military intelligence personnel, distinguished themselves with bravery, sacrifice and professionalism during and after the war, by targeting real threats to national security, not unarmed journalists.”
She however praised Army Commander Mahesh Senanayake, who has publicly taken credit for the decision to reactivate Bulathwatte. “He is a professional soldier who knows from his own bitter experience the kinds of things that happened before 2015,” Wickrematunge said. “He may have been misled, and I hope he reconsiders his position.”
Army Commander Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake responds to questions by journalists on reinstatement of Major Prabath Bulathwatte
Q: In an interview with a leading television channel recently you mentioned that the country’s intelligence services had collapsed in the recent past. You were a senior officer in the Army at the time as well. Are you also not responsible for this? Has the military intelligence apparatus actually collapsed?
A: Rather than a complete collapse, what had happened was the weakening of the military intelligence. What is meant by this is, certain individuals are positioned by the Army to gather information and investigate into various extremists and other elements in areas. When one of those officers become suspects of an ongoing legal case as the Army Commander I have to relieve him from these duties and post him elsewhere. This is then becomes a setback for military intelligence when another officer has to be placed there instead of him. The investigations and information gathering may not be as effective as before. This is what I meant when I said intelligence services suffered a setback and weakened as a result.
But this does not in any way mean that the loss of this one person led to the collapse of the whole military intelligence. It was just a mere set back, especially in the Eastern province.
Q: You are claiming there was an intelligence failure. But what we have seen is that you had excellent intelligence information on the perpetrators. It appears that rather than an intelligence failure, what has happened is the failure to act on intelligence. So how can you claim there was a setback when it came to military intelligence?
A: I was talking about one particular incident and an area. But I agree there was no failure of intelligence but rather a failure in intelligence sharing. Intelligence that other authorities had on what would take place in the country was never shared with the armed forces.
Q: But isn’t it the job of military intelligence to know what other intelligence units are doing?
A: That is why whenever I talk about intelligence, I say that we have failed in corporation [SIC]. But we have since made many arrests. That is because we had an operation, a program and we were continuing to monitor some people. But what I am referring is in particular to the incident that happened on April 21. If other officials shared the intelligence information on the attacks with the armed forces then these incidents would not have taken place.
Q: Talking about MI, in recent times intelligence officer Major Prabath Bulathwatte who is linked to the kidnapping of journalist Keith Noyahr and one of the main accused in the case has been reinstated to active service in the MI once again. This has caused much concern among media personnel. But was it the removal of such officers that contributed to the weakening of the MI?
A: I must correct you. Major Bulathwatte has not been reinstated to the MI. He works near me under my direct supervision. Everyone knows the official task carried out by him in the Eastern Province. Accordingly, the need to use him in the service of the country has arrived now. Legally there is no bar to engage his services for the Army. He has been a salaried Army officer for the past two years. Then in this operation, at least when we arrest an individual I need someone capable of identifying this suspect. That is why I have called that officer from where he was stationed to work under me in this situation.
Q: When you say he is working under your direct supervision are you giving us assurance about him?
A: Clearly I am. As the Commander of the Army, I assure that people about decisions and actions being taken by me. I am doing this for the good of the people. Not to absolve him from the allegations against him or to help him escape from investigations. That is not possible. Based on this incident no one in the Army can evade past allegations. They will not be absolved by the Army, myself or the law. If you want to know something about a thief, you must ask another thief.
Q: Local authorities are now getting the help of foreign intelligence agencies. But if someone who is accused of murder and facing allegations in connection to several cases has access to sensitive information while working directly under you will these agencies share any information with us because this individual will be able to influence witnesses and intimidate witnesses?
A: That may be their perception of this. When I say he is working under me that doesn’t mean he has similar access that the Army Commander would have. I task him with something to do and he does it under my supervision. That does not mean he has access to command, control or work with the Directorate of Military Intelligence. If so I would have positioned him in the DMI.
Q: What is the assurance that you can give that he will not be in a position to influence, intimidate or harass the witnesses who have testified against him, especially those in the Army?
A: As the Army Commander I will give you that assurance now that Major Bulthwatta nor any other Army Officer who is being used for this particular operation to bring peace to this country will not have powers to work against anyone.
Q: Commander if he is not involved in the intelligence can you tell us what exactly he is doing if it is not an intelligence task, he is an intelligence official, what then…?
A: He is my staff officer
Q: So he has access to all the confidential stuff?
A: Not really. In your organization if the top man has an office assistant does it mean he has the same kind of access as his boss? This particular requirement of Bulthwatta may be only for a few weeks or months. I will give that assurance as well. I will not need him for a long length of time. But I have to use his expertise in some particular area.
Q: But the real concern is that a lot of foreign governments, in fact you can see today a lot of statements coming from foreign governments expressing themselves just about the .. that they are reluctant now even to give you equipment fearing that it will be used or abused to intimidate witnesses.
A: I have to look after the country. Safety of the Sri Lankans before anybody gives me the equipment. They have never given us the equipment. So it is my responsibility to fight with what I have. By the time the equipment reaches here, if they think just because of Bulathwatte the country should not be supported there is something wrong with the system.
Q: Why is it then, you are an army of 200,000 people you are depending on one individual?
A: That’s why I simply said the expertise of a particular area, he was the one who was handling or monitoring some of the people. So I have to use him. And it is my responsibility. I do not have to get the approval from anybody for that. And nobody in this country should tell me what I should do. I am not telling you but.. what I started telling is I should be able to use the best sources available for the army to fight this. That is why I am given a responsibility. Otherwise all the questioned you asked up to now would have never happened. Today expect for the 10th year anniversary these questions will be never raised if there was peace. Now I have to bring the peace past as fast as possible. So I have to use everybody.
Q: People have trust in you. If there are requests made to you with regard to the arrests of suspects, what are the connections between these people and the suspects. Is there an inquiry into this?
A: It is good that the public has trust on the army. These people also have the right to make those requests. It could be in his village, a voter or a relative and if they know me it is not wrong to ask. But influencing me or if I am told not to arrest a person and release him, then there is a problem. Nothing of the sort has happened till now. All they asked was this is who and who what can be done about it. So I gave the answer, to call me after one and half years.
Q: You have told the Indian media that a group of people connected to the 21st attacks have gone from Sri Lanka to Tamil Nadu, India. But the Indian government has denied this yesterday. What is the truth about it?
A: Truth is spoken by my side. We are investigating into it. We are receiving information regarding it. We are making arrests. And through that it is confirmed. I said what was confirmed. Zaharan Mouvlani had gone to India clearly. I only spoke about this. That he went to India. I have said in India he has gone to Bangalore, Kashmir. They are still there, I think. It is upto India to look into it. To state what I find is up to me.
Q: Isn’t the Army tainted by bringing Bulatwatte back? UN has said not to take people like this as it is bad. What is your personal view about this.
A: I told before too, my main objective is to solve this country’s issue, and not to solve a world issue. I respect the world. I have decided at this time if he has a talent that I have to use it. He was not given a responsibility or powers. He does what I ask him to do. I did not know that Bulathwatte was more important to this country than Zaharan.
We are on operation. At this particular time I need a batsman who can bat now. I don’t want a baller. I don’t want a fielder now. I have very limited overs to play. For you.
Q: He is facing charges because he has done it.
A: That is what you think. It’s like this. If a soldier has done something wrong it is the people who have given the orders. So I request kindly from all of you to go and find out who gave the orders to him. Not the person. In today’s context whenever a soldier takes an action I am responsible. I have the army commander and my staff here. I have a very strong team. We take the leadership, this leadership is responsible to the actions. What he does within the law. So during that time if something had happened that is their problem.
Q: Are you targeting the allegation at Sarath Fonseka?
A: He was not the one in that instance. What I say is I have deployed so many soldiers in this land. If one of them shoot and do something that is on my command. I can’t say he just shot. I take responsibility for that. And I will go and arrest people. I am the one who sign for that. After 2- 10 years a corporal will not have to go to jail. I am the one who will have to go to jail. I am ready for that. That is my responsibility. The team leader has to take responsibility; he can’t later wash his hands off it. I am in it because I have a strong team.