ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, January 28, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 35

Court-martial of Southern Naval Area Commander

By Chandani Kirinde

The court-martial of the most senior military officer since the northern insurgency broke out in 1981, took place this week when Manil Mendis, Commander of the Southern Naval Area was charged with not taking adequate precautions and counter-measures to protect the Galle harbour from a terrorist attack in October last year.

Cdre. Mendis, an individual subject to ‘Naval Law’, is being charged with not protecting the naval base, ships, craft and personnel at the Galle harbour whilst performing the duties as Commander of the Southern Naval Area, despite the availability of prior reliable information and repeated instructions from Naval Headquarters. An act prejudicial to good order and naval discipline.

Scene following the abortive attack on the Galle harbour.

He has also been charged for failing to obtain the approval of the Commander of the Navy prior to leaving SLNS Dakshinas despite specific instructions of the Navy Commander for him to proceed and stay at SLNS Dakshina due to a possible terrorist attack on the Galle harbour.

Thirty-nine witnesses have been listed in the case now proceeding before Judge-Advocate Commodore Palitha Fernando, who has been specially commissioned to hear the Court-Martial.

A Bench comprising Rear Admiral T.M.W.K.B. Tennekoon (President), Rear Admiral D.N. Dharmaweera, Commodore R.R. Wijesundera and Commodore W.M.L.T.B. Illangakoon (spare member) has also been appointed.

Navy Commander Vice Admiral W.K.J. Karannagoda and Rear Admiral T.S.G. Samarasinghe, Director General of Operations (DGO) of the Navy gave evidence this week.

During the preliminary hearings defence objected to the appointment of the officers constituting the Court by the Navy Commander who was himself appearing before it as a witness.

However , Judge Advocate Commodore Fernando who is advising the Court , said he would advise the Bench to treat the Naval Commander as they would any other witness and not as the Commander of the Navy.

The defence team alleged that there was malicious intent on the part of the Navy Commander to Court-Martial Cmndr Mendis as the latter had been a member of a board responsible for selection of naval officers to whom medals for gallantry were to be made in 2002. Vice Admiral Karannagoda who was the commander at the time, had appeared before it, but had been denied a medal.

The Court was told that there had been an exchange of words between the two men over this issue and Cdre. Mendis had written to the then Navy Commander informing him of what had transpired.Vice Admiral Karanngoda when questioned on the incident told Court he was unaware that a letter had been sent by Cdre. Mendis to the former Navy Commander. He added that he did not recollect the incident. The defence stated that a signal sent from Navy Headquarters at 9.15p.m. on October 17th, 2006 -the day before the attack regarding the sighting of six suspicious heavily laden fibre glass dinghies (FGD) fitted with out-board motors (OBM) presumed to be more than 40 HGP proceeding towards Yala from Panama area that morning, was received at the Galle Naval base at 4.30 am the next day.

The signal contained information regarding the sighting of six suspicious FGDs close to Butawa. It warned of possible targets saying that the possibility existed that the LTTE was preparing to attack naval craft and a merchant vessel chartered by the Government of Sri Lanka operating in the area.The signal also warned all concerned to be extra vigilant and take adequate security measures to counter such attempts.

During the course of his evidence, the Navy Commander said that all necessary information had been forwarded to the Galle Naval Base, but Cdre. Mendis had left the camp and gone to Boossa without his permission despite there being a heightened threat of an LTTE attack.

The defence however argued that there was no specific warning of a threat to the harbour or camp. It alleged that what was highlighted, was a “possible attack " on a merchant vessel carrying goods which was set to sail on the night of the 17th from Colombo to Trincomalee.

This vessel was stopped from sailing that night because of the warning. Defence claimed the warning of the sighting of suspicious boats came on the afternoon of the 17th. They claim that Cdre. Mendis informed Naval Headquarters that the only Dvora Fast Attack Craft (FAC) available to them was under repair and had asked for the despatch of two FACs for their use.

Two Dvoras had been despatched on the night of the 17th, but they had been despatched direct to Butawa by-passing Galle, as the last sighting of the boats had been at Butawa.

Defence argued that if Naval Headquarters had had definite information that the Galle harbour was to be targeted, they queried why the Dvoras were sent to Butawa. Defence claimed that the FACs would take at least two hours to reach Galle even at top-speed.

Commanding Officer (CO) SLNS “Dakshina” G.A.J. Perera who gave evidence on Friday maintained that he was aware only of the first sighting of suspicious boats at Panama and not of the second sighting at Butawa. He said that Cdre. Mendis had come to the camp round 12.00 midnight on the 17th and had remained until around 5.15 a.m., at which time he had left camp.

He added he had toured the camp along with Cdre. Mendis to check with the preparedness of the sailors on duty. He said he was unaware of any direct threat to the camp or to the port.

He said he was aware that there was a sailing signal when the two Dvoras were despatched from Colombo, but was unaware of its contacts. This signal had said the FACs were proceeding towards Butawa to search for the suspicious boats sighted there. The Captains of the Dvoras and the men in charge of sending signals have been included as witnesses, to inquire why they failed to check if the crucial signal had reached Galle. Mr. Denzil Gunaratna PC, with Mr. Upali Senaratna, Mr. Buddhika Jayasinghe and Ms. Udayanthi Seneviratna are appearing for Comdr Mendis.

Cdre. Shavindra Fernando with Lieutenant Cdre. Weerasinghe are appearing for the prosecution.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.