The Curious Case of Sarah Jasmine
By Buddhika Samaraweera
In the aftermath of Easter Sunday 2019, following the suicide attacks at hotels and churches, the detonation of a bomb at a house in Dematagoda, an explosion at another house in the Sainthamaruthu area, and the arrest of several others linked to these incidents, the people of Sri Lanka slowly regained some confidence that such a disaster would not be allowed to happened again.
However, it may only be a false sense of security we are lulling ourselves into. A suspect directly connected to the Easter Sunday attacks has fled the country, with the support of none other than a Police officer.
Vigilance pays off
Following the Easter attacks, the security forces published photographs of suspects in the Media, attempting to enlist the support of the public to discern their whereabouts. As a result, there was a great deal of interest among the people in making sure that such a disaster did not happen again and they maintained a state of vigilance.
In September 2019, a person (hereafter referred to as Nizar) leaving for work around 3.00 a.m. noticed a suspicious cab parked near the village of Mankadu on the Batticaloa-Kalmunai main road.
The butter-coloured cab, parked near the ‘Beach Road’, aroused Nizar’s suspicion, and as a result, he slowed his vehicle a bit to observe the scenario. Despite it being early in the morning, a woman dressed in the traditional Muslim garb approached the parked vehicle, and as she passed beneath a lamp post, her face appeared familiar to Nizar.
He gradually recalled that she was a Tamil girl that lived near his home in the Mankadu village several years ago, and he had only recently seen her face again – in a photograph published by the Media in connection with the Easter Attacks. His heart beginning to race from the realisation, he kept spying on her activity, and noticed two men walking behind her towards the cab.
As she got into the back seat of the vehicle, Nizar decided to investigate further, driving a short distance towards Batticaloa before turning around to park closer to the cab. Driving closer, he was shocked to see a Police officer attached to the Kalawanchikudi Police Station, whom he knew well, sitting in the cab’s front seat.
As he knew him well, Nizar opened his door to go speak to the man in the front seat, but no sooner did he open the door than the vehicle sped off towards Batticaloa, doubling his suspicions. But he was now too late; Nizar decided not to chase the vehicle and report to work instead.
Ten months after this incident, on 6 July 2020, Chief Inspector of Police (CI), Arjuna Maheenkanda of the Criminal Investigations Department (CID), currently attached to the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) probing into the bombings on Easter Sunday, received information about Nizar’s suspicious encounter. He left for Batticaloa with a group of PCoI officials on 8 July to investigate, and met Nizar.
Dead woman walking
What they discovered was shocking, to say the least. That morning, Nizar had unwittingly witnessed one of the perpetrators of the Easter Attacks – Pulasthini Rajendran alias Sarah Jasmine, the wife of Atchchi Muhammadu Muhammadu Hastun, who detonated a suicide bomb at St. Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya on 21 April 2019.
Although it was initially assumed that Sarah was killed in the explosion at the Sainthamaruthu area on 26 April 2019, this was proven wrong, when the team led by CI Maheenkanda discovered that Sarah was not killed in the explosion and that she had fled the country.
CI Maheenkanda testified before the PCoI that there was ample evidence that Sarah had fled to India by sea in September 2019. He also said that the officer attached to the Kalawanchikudi Police Station, who Nizar had seen in the suspicious vehicle, had been identified as Abubakar, the Officer-in- Charge (OIC) of the Kalawanchikudi Police Transport Division, who was recently arrested by the Colombo Crimes Division (CCD).
He also noted that the other two people with Sarah were identified as the husband of her aunt and his brother. One of them had been arrested by the Police, while it was revealed that the other had gone abroad. CI Maheenkanda further stated there was ample evidence she had escaped by boat to India from the Mannar area, and it had been discovered that she was assisted by a powerful person in the area. The security forces also uncovered information on several houses where Sarah was suspected to have lived, and are conducting further investigation in that regard.
All this information began to come forth after the recent revelation by the Government Analyst’s Department that blood samples taken from the explosion in the Sainthamaruthu area, believed to have been Sarah’s, did not match the blood samples obtained from her mother, Kavitha Mahendran Rajaratnam.
CI Saman Weerasinghe attached to the CID testified before the Commission on 22 July, where he confirmed that the said report had been received by the CID. He also carried out investigations into the explosion that took place on 26 April 2019 at a house in the Sainthamaruthu area. He said that this investigation was being carried out by the Ampara Police, before being taken over by the CID around 13 May 2019.
Responding to a question by the Additional Solicitor General (ASG) as to whether those who died in the attack had been identified, he said that the Police had identified a total of 17 bodies at the scene. The remains recovered included those of NTJ Leader Zaharan Hashim’s father (Mohammad Qasim), mother (Abdul Sattar Umma), his brothers (Mohammad Qasim Rilwan and Mohammad Qasim Mohammad Zeini) and sister (Mohammad Qasim Hidayah), he added.
Possibly a double-agent?
Meanwhile, an official attached to the State Intelligence Service (SIS) testifying before the PCoI recently, said someone within the NTJ’s inner circle was likely to have been the source of the information received by the Indian intelligence that had sent a prior warning before the Easter attacks, and further said that investigation units were looking into whether Sarah had been the one to provide this information to the Indian agency.
The witness elaborated that the woman in question was a Tamil, born in the Thetativ area of Kalawanchikudi and that she was later converted to Islam by Abdul Razik, General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Thowheed Jama’at (SLTJ). Razik also got her married to Hastun, the suicide bomber that attacked St. Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya.
The SIS official revealed that Sarah carried two national identity cards, the first of which was registered as ‘Pulasthini Mahendran’ under the number 965672702V, and the second as ‘Sarah Jasmine’ under the number 199656702702. When asked whether she was thought to still be at large, he replied that although the SIS initially believed she was killed in the explosion in the Sainthamaruthu area on 26 April 2019, it was later revealed that she had not been present at the time of the explosion, and security forces now believe she had fled to India.
Accordingly, he had sent officers to search for Sarah and submitted a special report on the matter to the SIS Headquarters on 31 May 2020. He added that he had learned that the special report on Sarah was later discussed at the National Security Council (NSC).
The PCoI also asked him how the Indian intelligence agency could have obtained such accurate information on 4 and 20 April last year regarding the Easter Sunday attacks. In response, the witness said someone within the NTJ’s inner circle was likely to have given information regarding the plans for the Easter attacks to the Indian intelligence agency.
Recalling that he had questioned about 97 people affiliated with Zaharan’s organisation after the attacks, he said it was only Zaharan’s wife and one of his close associates, Nawfer Moulavi, who knew of the attacks beforehand.
The witness emphasised that the attacks was planned in secret and known only among the suicide bombers led by Zaharan, adding that an outside party could only have obtained information about it from someone directly involved.
The ASG then asked the witness whether Sarah had any information about the attacks, to which he noted that Sarah was aware of all the details of the attacks, based on statements made by Zaharan’s wife, who is currently in CID custody.
According to him, Zaharan’s wife and Sarah had met at an NTJ safehouse in Nintavur after the attacks, on 23 April, where Sarah had shown the photographs taken during the swearing-in of the suicide bombers to Zaharan’s wife.
Members of the PCoI also questioned the witness as to whether the Indian intelligence agency would have provided security to aid Sarah’s escape after the operation. He replied that if they had made her join a terrorist organisation to obtain information, they would have also planned for her safety after the operation concluded, including her extraction.
Meanwhile, addressing a Media briefing held recently, Police Media Spokesman, SSP Jaliya Senaratne stated that there was insufficient evidence to prove Sarah had fled to India. He further stated that although two suspects had been arrested for allegedly aiding her, they had not divulged any information thus far. However, an officer attached to the Sri Lanka Police stated there was ample evidence she had fled to India. Thus, we have conflicting views from the same institution regarding this matter.
It is the responsibility of not only the Police but all the security forces to reveal the truth to the people, who desperately hope that a disaster like Easter Sunday attacks will never happen again. In particular, the security forces have already been able to uncover that Sarah had fled to India through the Mannar area.
Over the years, information has come to light about several individuals and groups who have migrated from India to Sri Lanka and from Sri Lanka to India by boat, especially through the Mannar area, so it cannot be assumed that Sarah lacked access to such resources.
Thus all security forces will need to make an effort to uncover the truth behind the issue of Sarah Jasmine and bring her back if she is found to be hiding in India, as this will be a key step in the investigation into the Easter attacks, and ensuring that those tragic events are never repeated.