Rishad’s fall from Rajapaksa grace

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Wanni District Parliamentarian, ACMC Leader and former Cabinet Minister Rishad Bathiudeen

United National Party Leader and National list MP Ranil Wickremesinghe has expressed concern over the continued detention of Wanni District Parliamentarian, All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) Leader and former Cabinet Minister Rishad Bathiudeen. 

Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has been a MP without a break since July 1977, said in Parliament on 4 October that Bathiudeen should either be prosecuted if there was any evidence regarding his involvement in the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks or released if there was no evidence against him.

Bathiudeen was arrested and detained by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) on 24 April under the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act No. 48 of 1979 as amended for investigations into his alleged involvement in the Easter Sunday bombings of 21 April 2019. In a further development the Colombo Magistrate’s Court also remanded Bathiudeen in September 2021 in connection with the death in July 1921 of a 16-year-old girl working as a domestic aide at his residence. Incidentally Rishad was under detention when the death occurred.

Ranil on Rishad’s detention

According to newspaper reports, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who raised the issue of Rishad’s arrest and detention with the speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, had further stated: “The Attorney General has indicted all individuals connected to the Easter Sunday terror attacks and the Government has confirmed this too. Bathiudeen is in jail. If there is evidence that he was involved in the said attacks, then indict him too. The authorities are however also saying that he is being held for fear that he may pressure a separate ongoing legal investigation. That is a serious claim against a MP and if there is sufficient evidence to prove this, then the AG must present it.”

The former Prime Minister also pointed out that the continued detention of MP Bathiudeen was not a question of just one Member of Parliament, but a question of parliamentary privilege. “If a Parliamentarian is under custody, there must be charges. It will take about a month or two to examine them. An MP arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has now been detained under suspicion that he might interfere in the investigation. We might be arrested next for helping a person in their case,” Wickremesinghe told the Speaker. All members of Parliament were at risk of losing their privileges next time if they did not act properly, he added. 

Ranil Wickremesinghe requested the Speaker to write to the Attorney General and ask him whether he has any evidence to prosecute MP Bathiudeen. He pointed out that the MP continued to be detained on the basis that he may influence the witnesses and if there is any evidence it should be presented to justify this claim. Responding to Ranil, the Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena reportedly stated that he had also inquired from the Attorney General regarding the reason for the arrest of MP Rishad Bathiudeen.

Rishad Bathiudeen’s background

Rishad Bathiudeen is a prominent Sri Lankan politician, who has very often been embroiled in controversies. The 48-year-old Bathiudeen hailing from Dharapuram in the Mannar District is an engineer by training. He holds a National Diploma in Technology (NDT) in Civil Engineering from the University of Moratuwa and is also a member of the Chartered Institute of Engineering (C.I.E.) in the UK. 

Known widely as Rishad, Bathiudeen 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 four MPs and 169 Local Authority members.

Rishad and Riyaj arrests

Rishad Bathiudeen was arrested by the Police at 3 a.m. on Saturday, 24 April. Prior to Rishad Bathiudeen’s arrest at his residence on Bullers Road (Bauddhaloka Mawatha) 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 Bauddhaloka Mawatha since 1:30 a.m. 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.”

After the arrest, the then 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 21 April 2019 attacks,” said DIG Ajith Rohana. The Criminal Investigations Department had recorded statements from witnesses and collected circumstantial as well as scientific evidence, he added.

Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekara told the Sunday Times at the time of the arrests that the former Minister and his brother were taken into custody 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.

Rishad Bathiudeen and his brother have been under detention for over 150 days. They are being held incommunicado. They are yet to be charged in court for any ‘terrorist’ offence. Efforts to obtain legal redress have been unsuccessful so far. Proceedings regarding a Fundamental Rights petition filed on behalf of Rishad at the Supreme Court got delayed due to four Supreme Court Judges recusing themselves at different times for different reasons and also because of the COVID regulations affecting the functioning of courts. An appeal by Rishad that he be kept under restricted detention at his residence was also rejected by the Defence Ministry.

Case of Hishalini Jude Kumar’s death

While Rishad was being detained by the TID, Hishalini Jude Kumar, a domestic aide aged 16 who was employed in the Bathiudeen residence, was admitted to the Colombo National Hospital on 3 July with burn injuries. She died on 15 July while being treated at the Intensive Care Unit. 

Police arrested Shehabdeen Ayesha, wife of Rishad Bathiudeen, her father Mohammed Shehabdeen, and Ponnaiah Pandaram alias Shankar, the broker who brought the girl to the MP’s residence, in connection with the death of the 16-year-old girl. Subsequently Rishad Bathiudeen was also charged in the case. Later Rishad’s wife, father-in-law and the broker were released on bail.

However, Rishad Bathiudeen was refused bail in this regard when the bail application was taken up before Colombo Additional Magistrate Rajindra Jayasuriya last week. According to a news report in Daily FT, Deputy Solicitor General Deleepa Pieris had objected to bail saying that even though Bathiudeen was not in his house at the time the incident took place, he was answerable as the chief occupant of the house. The DSG had said that if Bathiudeen was granted bail, he could intervene with the inquiry and the witnesses.

Counsel M.M. Saheed appearing with Prasad Silva, Charith Wijesinghe and Evon Nirasha for Bathiudeen stated that his client would not interfere with the witnesses or with the investigations and sought grant bail on whatever conditions the Court may deem suitable. The Magistrate refused bail and ordered the Prison Superintendent to produce Bathiudeen in Court on 14 October.

Rishad Bathiudeen has also been the target of an ongoing media and social media campaign. Earlier it was about his alleged links and involvement with the Easter Sunday suicide bombers. After the death of the young girl working as a domestic aide the focus shifted more to that incident. 

Rishad and family members were attacked viciously. Some media organs with a notorious reputation for anti-Muslim tirades were in the forefront in this exercise. Much of the stuff dished out was being sourced to the Police. Rishad was being subjected to a ‘trial by media’ (and social media).

Deserted by his party MPs

The unkindest cut of all perhaps was the desertion of Bathiudeen by his party MPs. The All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) Leader seems to be suffering a revolt by fellow MPs of the party. 

The ACMC has four MPs including Rishad in the present Parliament. When the 20th Amendment vote was taken last year, two MPs from the Makkal Congress supported the amendment from the Opposition. Another MP from the ACMC voted for 20 A at the committee stage.

At the no confidence motion vote against Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila this year, the three MPs from the ACMC voted against. Moreover none of the three MPs have overtly protested against the detention of their Party Leader. The three ACMC Parliamentarians seem to have hitched their wagon to the Basil star and are apparently oblivious to the plight of their leader.

Even though his MPs have let him down, most of his party rank and file are with Rishad. Most ACMC seniors, ex-MPs and Local Authority members too remain loyal to him. They conduct press conferences at times and communicate with the media occasionally about Rishad’s situation.

Popular leader with a controversial past

Rishad Bathiudeen is the single most popular Muslim leader in the Wanni electoral district. At the 2020 elections, Bathiudeen won the highest number of preference votes in the Wanni, exceeding even those of Tamil MPs from the electoral district. Some other ACMC stalwarts too enjoy substantial support in their areas though they failed to get elected in the 2020 polls.

The ACMC therefore is capable of launching powerful protests in the Muslim majority regions of the north and east in support of Rishad despite the ‘betrayal’ by party MPs. However they have not done so for three reasons. 

Firstly, there is the prevailing COVID pandemic which is not conducive for mass demonstrations. Secondly, Rishad has been arrested in connection with the April bombings. Most Muslims in Sri Lanka feel insecure because any Muslim can be arrested under the PTA f or alleged links to Jihadi terrorists, hence a crackdown on demonstrators, after portraying them as “terrorist suspects” cannot be ruled out. Thirdly, Bathiudeen himself would like to prove his innocence and be exonerated by the legal system.

Rishad Bathiudeen has had a controversial past. His entry into Parliamentary politics was due to his being elected Wanni District MP from the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). His rise was due to his turning against SLMC Leader Rauff Hakeem. Bathiudeen exploited the Kumari Gunasekara suicide incident to sling mud at Hakeem. Rishad broke away with a few MPs and formed the All Ceylon Muslim Congress. It was later changed to All Ceylon Makkal Congress. 

Relationship with Rajapaksas

Bathiudeen was first appointed as Cabinet Minister in 2007 by the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Thereafter, Bathiudeen had cultivated cordial relations with all prominent members of the Ruhunu Rajapaksa clan. It was opined then that Rishad enjoyed a special relationship with Basil Rajapaksa. 

There were allegations that Rishad was involved in much questionable activity by utilising the ‘Uthuru Wasanthaya’ (Northern Spring) project. There was much friction between Rishad and the former Mannar Bishop Rayappu Joseph. Rishad’s name also figured in incidents like the disappearance of Pattani Razeek and threats being issued to the Mannar Magistrate Judeson. 

No concrete action was taken against Rishad regarding the many allegations against him then. He enjoyed immunity under Rajapaksa rule. Today the situation is changed because Rishad Bathiudeen has fallen from Rajapaksa grace. Bathiudeen is in a beleaguered state. 

While there are some who may feel that Rishad has got his comeuppance, there are many who may opine that Bathiudeen is receiving unfair treatment. Had Rishad been penalised for any of the offences he allegedly committed during the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government, people may have felt justice was being done. However many are doubtful whether justice is being done in the case of Rishad, under the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Government. 

“Justice must not only be done, but must also be seen to be done” was the dictum laid down by the then Lord Chief Justice of England Lord Howart in the 1924 case of Rex v. Sussex Justices. It is a very valid aphorism applicable at all times.

The growing perception that Rishad Bathiudeen is getting a raw deal is resulting in a groundswell of sympathy for him. Many persons who disapprove of Bathiudeen too feel that something is not right. This opinion is mostly prevalent among members of the Muslim community. There are many who opine that Bathiudeen is the target of a political witch-hunt. This is easily discernible when reading Muslim run websites in Tamil or social media comments and exchanges. Rightly or wrongly there is a viewpoint gathering momentum that Rishad Bathiudeen’s current predicament is due to his falling from Rajapaksa grace.

Letting down the Rajapaksas

Why and how did this fall take place? In order to understand this clearly, it is necessary to delve briefly into the past. When Mahinda Rajapaksa announced an early Presidential Election in November 2014, his hitherto trusted deputy Maithripala Sirisena devoured an egg hopper dinner with Rajapaksa and defected to the Opposition the next day. Sirisena became the Common Opposition candidate at the Presidential Election. 

Although a handful of ministers and MPs crossed over with Sirisena, Bathiudeen was not one of them. There were three ACMC Parliamentarians then, namely, Rishad Bathiudeen, M.L.A.M. Hizbullah and Hunais Farook. It was Hunais Farook who jumped ship first by joining the UNP on 26 November 2014. 

Rishad however stayed put. He even got his confidante Sihabdeen Ameer Ali appointed as a National List MP replacing Mahinda loyalist A.H.M. Azwer. This was on 12 December 2014 and it was presumed by many that Bathiudeen had steadfastly hitched his wagon to the Rajapaksa star. Ten days later on 22 December 2014, Rishad Bathiudeen announced at a media briefing that he was quitting the Rajapaksa Government. This in turn split the ACMC with Hizbullah and some Provincial Councillors remaining loyal to Mahinda. 

Rishad Bathiudeen quitting the Government was seen as an act of betrayal. So much so that Mahinda Rajapaksa addressing an election meeting in Eastern Akkaraippattu condemned Rishad and described his action as sheer treachery using the Tamil phrase “Pachchai Thuroagam”.

Mahinda was defeated and Maithripala became president. Rishad Bathiudeen got the same portfolio he held under Rajapaksa in the new Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government. The ACMC contested the 2015 Parliamentary Poll as part of the UNP-led UNF and got five seats – four elected MPs and one National List MP. Although Rishad was a Minister in the ‘Yahapalana’ (Good Governance) Cabinet, there was much speculation that the enterprising politician hailing from Dharapuram in Mannar was maintaining a line of communication with Basil Rajapaksa. 

Letting down the Rajapaksas again

Fast forward to 26 October 2018, the day on which former President Maithripala Sirisena and his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa engaged in an anti-constitutional power grab. The then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe commanding the confidence of the House was removed from office by President Sirisena who appointed Mahinda as premier in his place.

Since Rajapaksa did not have a majority at that time, Parliament was prorogued by the President. This provided the Sirisena-Rajapaksa duo some time to cobble together a majority in Parliament. Hectic ‘horse trading’ for the support of honourable Members of Parliament was underway. Government MPs were ardently enticed through various incentives to cross over. 

One of the names bandied about then as a potential side-switcher was Rishad Bathiudeen. There were great expectations that Rishad Bathiudeen and his party would shift loyalties again. It was hoped that the ACMC crossover would help encourage more ‘gembas’ (frogs) to jump to this side and help tilt the balance. Some even expected the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress led by Rauff Hakeem to follow suit. Given the competitive intensity of intra-Muslim politics, it was thought that pressure within Muslim Congress ranks would compel Hakeem to throw in his lot with Maithripala-Mahinda if and when the ‘Makkal Congress’ crossed over. 

This however did not happen. For reasons best known to them, neither Rishad nor his party MPs deserted the Wickremesinghe-led UNF Government in 2018. Unable to form a majority in the House, Sirisena violated the Constitution by dissolving Parliament and scheduling fresh elections. This was challenged in Court by Parliamentarians. The Supreme Court ruled conclusively and that was the end of the 52-day Maithripala-Mahinda ‘illegitimate’ regime. Ranil was restored to his rightful position then.  

Rishad Bathiudeen and the ACMC continued to remain in the ranks of Ranil Wickremesinghe. Subsequently, Rishad’s ministerial responsibilities increased and he became Minister of Industry and Commerce, Resettlement of Protracted Displaced Persons, Co-operative Development and Vocational Training and Skills Development. Two other ACMC Parliamentarians – Sihabdeen Ameer Ali and Abdullah Maharoof – were State Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Rural Economic Affairs and Deputy Minister of Ports and Shipping respectively. 

Therefore, it could be seen from a Medamulana perspective that Rishad Bathiudeen had let down the Rajapaksas twice in the recent past. The first was in 2014 when Rishad crossed over to support Maithripala Sirisena at the 2015 Presidential Elections after having enjoyed the powers, perks and privileges of cabinet minister office for seven years. The second was in 2018 when Bathiudeen refused to cross over from Ranil’s side to Mahinda’s during the 26 October power grab attempt.

Viewed against this backdrop, Rishad Bathiudeen’s troubles at this point of time seem to indicate that he has indeed fallen from Rajapaksa grace.

(D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at [email protected])

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