Ashraff crash: Not an explosion but maintenance negligence

Segu Dawood obtains report 18 years later from Right to Information Commission.

The Air Force Mi 17 helicopter crash that killed the then Minister M.H.M. Ashraff was not due to an explosion but “negligence or omission” on the part of the maintenance crew, a Commission of Inquiry has ruled. The Commission headed by former Court of Appeal Judge L.K.G. Weerasekara was appointed to investigate the September 16, 2000 crash in which the then Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Ashraff died.

The Mi 17 helicopter crashed at Urakanda, close to Bible Rock facing Kadugannawa. Apart from Mr Ashraff, 14 others died in the crash. The commission said: “There is no evidence to support a finding that the death of the late minister Mr Ashroff was by a willful act of anyone or group. “There was no evidence to suggest that the crash was due to an explosion or by any explosive device either by the Government Analyst, the Judicial Medical Officer and his assistants and even before the Court of inquiry,” the report said.

The commission’s warrant was to probe “Whether the crash of the aircraft was due wholly or partly to any act of negligence attributable to any agency or instrumentality of the State, Public Officer, Members of the Armed Forces or other person or persons acting individually or in concert.” According to the commission’s findings, on the afternoon of September 15, 2000, Mr Ashraff had asked the Air Force Commander personally for a flight to Kalmunai to be arranged for him. He had made the request after attempts by his wife and the secretary failed.

However, it has been disclosed during the commission’s investigation that by that afternoon, the ill-fated helicopter was still being repaired. The commission has noted that it was “inconceivable” that the Air Force Commander would have allocated such an aircraft without any checks, had he not been informed of this fact. This is because the commander is provided with a document every morning detailing a list of serviceable aircraft by the entry ‘serviceable to fly.’

The helicopter which crashed had been marked as ‘serviceable to fly’ at 8.30am on September 15, when it was actually not so, thereby misleading the commander, the commission has found. The Commission findings were not made public, but former Minister Basheer SeguDawood made an application under the Right to Information Act and sought the report from the Presidential Secretariat. But he was informed that the report was not available.

Mr SeguDawood, had then appealed to the Right to Information Commission and sought the intervention of the Commission.

The Commission intervened and obtained the copy for Mr SeguDawood.

How the RTI Commission got the report

A certified copy of the Report of a Commission of Inquiry (COI) into the death of Sri Lanka Muslim Congress founder and former Leader M.H.M. Ashraff, was released by the Right to Information Commission on Tuesday to former Minister Basheer SeguDawood following an appeal lodged by him.

The COI report had been commissioned by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga in 2001 following the sudden death of Mr Ashraff and others in the helicopter crash. The report was finally located in the custody of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) following the Presidential Secretariat writing to the CID on the direction of the RTI Commission. This came after an inquiry was initiated under the RTI Act. The Commission consists of Mahinda Gammanpila (Chair), attorneys Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, SG Punchihewa, Dr Selvy Thiruchandran and Justice Rohini Walgama.

Mr SeguDawood’s RTI request to the Presidential Secretariat last year had not been successful as the Secretariat had responded that the COI Report was not to be found in the relevant files sent by it to the National Archives during 2007. On his filing an appeal to the RTI Commission, it was discovered during the appeal hearing that the files only contained three pages of the COI Report (page 69, 70 and 71) relating to the payment of compensation.

Noting that the inability to ascertain the whereabouts of the COI Report was a matter of grave public concern, the RTI Commission then embarked on an inquiry. The National Archives was directed to inquire from the Secretary to the Ashraff Commission while the Presidential Secretariat was directed to ascertain the whereabouts of the report from the named public authorities to whom a copy of the report had been sent at the time, including the CID and the Government Printer.

The Ashraff Commission Secretary had affirmed that the report with other documents had been handed over to the National Archives on 24.01.2002 and also to the Presidential Secretariat. The Director General of the National Archives maintained in response that the accession list of the documents by the Archives upon the handing over of the said documents did not contain a reference to the said report.

However, as detailed in its Order (http://www.rticommission.lk/web/images/pdf/01032018/RTI-Commn-Basheer-Segudawood-Jan-16th-Order-27-Feb-2018-01032018.pdf) the CID had responded to the Presidential Secretariat by forwarding a copy of the COI Report certified as a true copy on 26.03.2003 by the then Senior Assistant Secretary to the President, W.J.S. Karunarathne. Earlier, the Commission had also released the Gazette Notification dated 22.08.2001 on the appointment of the one man Commission of Inquiry Justice L.K.G. Weerasekera on Mr SeguDawood’s complaint that he could not locate the gazette relating to the appointment in the Parliament Library.

In other updates relating to appeals on the Commission website this week, it had also ordered the RTI release of the draft law on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This was in the wake of the Ministry of Social Empowerment, Welfare and Kandyan Heritage declining to provide a copy on an RTI request filed by Dr Mario Gomez, Executive Director of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) on the basis that the draft had not been finalised as yet. The Ministry had stated that it would be made available once gazetted.

On the matter coming up before it on appeal, the Commission pointed out that the definition of information in Section 43 of the RTI Act specifically includes ‘draft legislation’ within its ambit. (http://www.rticommission.lk/web/images/pdf/01032018/Mario-Gomez-v-Ministry-of-Social-Empowerment-01032018.pdf). Ordering that the draft be provided to the appellant, it was further observed that draft laws are required to be presented before the public in advance and before a Bill is gazetted in many neighbouring countries as well as globally in order to obtain feedback on its contents. The Order notes that this is a beneficial process leading to public consensus around the framing of legislation.

- By Chris Kamalendran | Sunday Times

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