Image: Azad Maulana & Pillaiyan.
(by D.B.S. Jeyaraj /Daily Mirror)
Hanzeer Azad Maulana was the main whistle-blower featured in the Channel 4 documentary. Azad Maulana made some startling revelations against former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, State Intelligence Service head Maj-Gen Suresh Sallay and Rural Road Development State Minister Chanthrakanthan known widely as Pillaiyan. Gotabaya, Suresh and Pillaiyan have denied the allegations.
Maulana has been accused of concocting a false story to help him gain political asylum abroad. He reportedly fled Sri Lanka more than a year ago and sought asylum in a European country. In this second part, the focus will be on how and why Azad Maulana left Sri Lanka and became a refugee in the West.
It must be emphasised at the outset that all allegations made by Azad Maulana are yet to be verified and authenticated. Moreover, they have been denied as falsehoods by those whom the allegations were levelled against especially Maj-Gen Salley. The charge made against Sallay by Maulana hinges around an alleged meeting at Karadippooval in Puttalam between the intelligence chief and Zahran Hashim the National Thowheeth Jamaath (NTJ) leader and livewire behind the Easter bombings.
Maulana’s allegation as stated in the documentary is essentially conjecture and inference based on that meeting.
However, it must be said in fairness to Suresh Sallay that he has denied being in Sri Lanka at the time the meeting allegedly happened. If that is substantiated by Sallay, Azad Maulana’s main allegation would become a “terminological inexactitude”. His credibility would be eroded thereafter.
It is against this backdrop that this column delves into the reasons for Azad Maulana to flee from Sri Lanka and the mode he adopted in seeking refuge abroad. I have not been able to converse with Azad Maulana so far but have been communicating with several informed sources ranging from residents of his village Maruthamunai to activists from International non -governmental organizations familiar with all aspects of his case.
I have also read extracts of a lengthy statement reportedly made by Maulana to several NGOs and selected media personnel.
This article’s second part- therefore is pieced together from information provided by multiple sources. Again it must be noted that this is basically Azad Maulana’s version of what transpired. This narrative goes against the grain of positions adopted by persons like Suresh and Pillaiyan.
Pillaiyan’s Indispensable Aide
As stated earlier in the first part of this article, Mohammed Hanzeer alias Azad Maulana had bourgeoned into being an indispensable aide to Pillayaan. He was Pillayaan’s personal secretary as well as spokesperson of the TMVP. Maulana being reasonably proficient in Tamil, English and Sinhala was the interpreter cum translator on whom the monolingual Pillaiyan relied upon when dealing with certain political leaders, Govt officials, and security and intelligence services.
Pillaiyan trusted the “Muslim” Hanzeer more than several of his “Tamil” deputies. This was resented by some.
When the Sri Lankan intelligence was paying Rs 35 lakhs every month to the TMVP, it was Maulana who collected it regularly on behalf of the TMVP. Large sums of TMVP money were also deposited at times in Hanzeer’s personal bank account.
When Pillaiyan was incarcerated for more than five years over the killing of Batticaloa MP Joseph Pararajasingham, it was Azad who visited Pillaiyan every Saturday with Court permission. Maulana conveyed what was happening within TMVP circles to Pillaiyan and also passed on Pillayaan’s instructions to party members. Maulana also coordinated all legal work regarding Pillayaan’s case.
Hanzeer is married to Fathima, a relative of his from Panadura. They have a daughter Ayesha and a son Mubarak. The family resided in Ebenezer Place, Dehiwela.
In addition to his duties as Pillayaan’s aide, Maulana also dabbled in commercial pursuits like cycle assembling and wholesale distribution of drinking water. Utilising his political connections, Azad was also a “peddler of influence”. Maulana’s monthly income was reportedly in seven digits.
Everything was hunky-dory for Hanzeer until the fateful Easter Sunday bombings of April 2019. According to Maulana’s testimony, he was remorseful when it became known that Zahran and other NJT operatives were responsible for the heinous attacks on Churches and Tourist Hotels.
As Hanzeer claimed in the Channel 4 film, he had purportedly arranged a first meeting between Sallay and Zahran. He also claimed that Suresh Sallay had telephoned him on the day of the bombing and asked him to transport someone from the Taj Samudra Hotel. Hanzeer could not do so as he was in Batticaloa then. It was learnt later that the person at Taj Samudra was the bomber who died in the Dehiwela hotel explosion.
When he met Pillaiyan in jail after the bombings, the TMVP Leader had supposedly told him to keep quiet about all this and to speak to no one about it.
In 2019 November Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected President. In the aftermath of the bombings, the electorate yearned for a strong man to keep the country safe.
In the aftermath of the April 2019 Easter bombings, the political grapevine had been buzzing about suspected links between the National Thowheed Jamath bombers and high officials in Sri Lanka’s intelligence services. Popular gossip was about a possible nexus between Govt officials and the Islamic bombers. It was rumoured that the Easter attacks were a conspiracy to bring Gota to power. Conspiracy theories are galore in Sri Lanka and there were few takers for this then.
In March 2021 during a debate in Parliament opposition MPs Anura Kumara Dissanayake (JVP) and Manusha Nanayakkara (SJB) made several allusions about top intelligence officials being implicated in the Easter bombing conspiracy. In April 2021 the then SJB Parliamentarian Harin Fernando made several sensational disclosures in Parliament about the alleged involvement of a high intelligence officer in the April 2019 attacks.
Harin Fernando was careful not to mention names explicitly, but it was inferred that the references were to Major-General Suresh Sallay the head of the State Intelligence Service (SIS). Sallay had been earlier the chief of Military Intelligence. He served as Minister Counsellor in Sri Lanka’s High Commission in Malaysia after the Sirisena -Wickremesinghe Govt gained power in 2015. In 2019 Suresh Sallay went to India for a course in Defence studies and was in New Delhi when the Easter bombings took place.
In October 2021 there was an international webinar held over Zoom about the Easter Sunday attacks, The Catholic Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith and the well-known catholic Clergyman Fr. Cyril Gamini participated in the discussions. Some of the comments made alluded to the alleged involvement of Maj-Gen Suresh Sallay in the bombings. Subsequently, Gen. Sallay filed a defamation lawsuit against Fr. Cyril Gamini alleging that some of the remarks made by the clergyman had tarnished his (Sallay’s) reputation.
Some days after the Webinar, Gen. Sallay telephoned Hanzeer Azad Maulana and wanted to meet him. According to Maulana, Sallay had played video clips of the Parliamentary speeches by Harin Fernando and other opposition MPs to Hanzeer. He had also shown clips of the Webinar comments by Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith and Fr. Cyril Gamini.
The SIS director had then allegedly told Hanzeer “Only you, I and Pillaiyan know about my meeting Zahran and other NTJ members. Did you reveal this to others? Why are the MPs and Catholic priests making these accusations linking me with the bombers?”
According to Hanzeer, he had denied telling anyone else about the Puttalam meeting. Sallay had then checked Hanzeer’s cell phone. After about three hours of verbal interrogation, Sallay allowed Hanzeer to leave.
Azad Maulana says he was deeply disturbed and distressed by this ordeal. He had never seen Suresh Sallay being so angry and tough. Hanzeer telephoned Pillaiyan in Batticaloa and told him of what had happened. The TMVP leader had told him not to worry and that he was coming to Colombo the following day and would meet Sallay and sort it out. Pillaiyan arrived in Colombo the next day.
It had been the usual practice for Hanzeer to accompany Pillaiyan when he went to meet Sallay. But on this occasion, Pillaiyan met Sallay without Hanzeer. It was through Pillaiyan’s driver Amalan that Hanzeer got to know Pillaiyan had met Sallay. Pillaiyan later told Hanzeer that Suresh Sallay was suspicious of him (Hanzeer) for leaking information about the purported Zahran meeting.
After a few weeks, Pillaiyan had asked Azad Maulana to come to Batticaloa for a meeting. Before his departure, Hanzeer says he got a call from a Muslim friend in an intelligence unit. He had warned Maulana that there was a plot to kill him through a bogus “accident” in Batticaloa and advised him not to go.
Maulana had told Pillaiyan that he had fallen sick suddenly and could not come to Batticaloa.
Escape from Sri Lanka
Azad Maulana was now worried about his life being in danger from the TMVP and/or intelligence. He decided to escape from Sri Lanka. Realizing that delaying his departure from Sri Lanka could endanger his life, Azad Maulana went to India first.
His intention was to seek a humanitarian visa from Switzerland. Switzerland grants humanitarian visas to individuals on the following grounds.
* The individual’s life and physical integrity are directly, seriously and tangibly endangered in their home country or country of origin.
* The individual is clearly in direct danger and not merely at risk because they belong to a potentially endangered group.
* The individual no longer has any other options and their situation requires the urgent intervention of the Swiss authorities.
Mohammed Hanzeer alias Azad Maulana flew to Europe and sought political asylum. It is learnt that an international human rights organization based in Geneva, a Sri Lankan journalist cum human rights activist living in Europe and a self-exiled former Sri Lankan Govt official were of great assistance to Azad Maulana in relocating to Europe.
A Sri Lankan Muslim doctor now living in Pakistan also helped.
After moving to Europe Azad Maulana went to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and made a detailed statement to a panel from the OHCHR Sri Lanka Accountability project. He took five days to testify. The Project mandate is “to collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve information and evidence and to develop possible strategies for future accountability processes for gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka, to advocate for victims and survivors, and to support relevant judicial and other proceedings, including in Member States, with competent jurisdiction”.
Apart from the OHCHR, Maulana has also made statements to several other Human rights organizations and international NGOs. He has also been interviewed by many law enforcement institutions and intelligence agencies.
It is learnt that though Maulana fled from Lanka in a hurry he took along with him much “material evidence” relating to several war crimes, crimes against humanity and human rights violations. What was revealed in the Channel 4 film was only the tip of the iceberg.
Impressed with evidence
A senior NGO official who had interviewed Maulana told this column that he was impressed by him.
“I can tell you I am very impressed with the evidence that Hanzeer has. I met and interviewed him and find him very credible, though, of course, we need to verify and seek more corroboration,” he said.
Original Caption: How and why Azad Maulana fled to Europe/ Daily Mirror
D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at [email protected]