The COI findings are out. Minister for Home Affairs sorted out the blame portion and pointed out three factors leading to the great embarrassment – unprofessional unalert guards, an open inviting window and a maybe a low fence or at least a fence that could be surmounted. Tomorrow, the PM would deal with the delicate issue of responsibility.
As I have stated before, blame and responsibility are not necessarily the same thing. The entire account of the events which led to the escape is unbelievable. At least the government is open about how the escape took place. Their unprecedented candour is appreciated but there is still a need for reckoning. Will the political masters be equally forthcoming tomorrow about responsibility in the escape? I hope they carry the onus. With great power comes great responsibility, as the cliche goes.
21 April 2008 1547 hrs
SINGAPORE: A confluence of three critical factors led to security lapses that resulted in Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) detainee Mas Selamat Kastari’s escape from detention in February.
This was the conclusion of the Committee of Inquiry (COI) on Mas Selamat’s escape from the Whitley Road Detention Centre on 27 February this year.
The findings of the three-member panel were presented by Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng in Parliament on Monday afternoon in a Ministerial Statement.
First, there was a physical security breach as the ventilation window in the toilet – from which Mas Selamat made his escape – did not have grilles.
Second, the guards watching Mas Selamat allowed him to close the door of the urinal cubicle when they should not have done so.
And third, there was a physical weakness in the perimeter fencing outside the Family Visitation Block, where the toilet was located, which made it easier for Mas Selamat to get out of the detention centre’s premises.
On the day of his escape, Mas Selamat was escorted by two Gurkha guards and a Special Duty Operative – who is an Internal Security Department (ISD) officer – from his cell to a locker room to change into civilian clothes for his family’s visit.
At the locker room, the guards lost sight of him when he stood behind a column of lockers to change. He was then escorted to the Family Visitation Block, where he used a toilet, renovated in 2007, to shave and comb his hair before meeting his family members.
He then entered a urinal cubicle, closed the door and turned on a water tap inside the cubicle. One guard stood outside the cubicle door, while the other was outside the main toilet door.
After a while, the guard outside the cubicle felt Mas Selamat was taking too long. But instead of checking, he alerted the second guard outside the toilet, who alerted the female Duty Operative.
The Duty Operative then alerted a male Assistant Case Officer, who ran in, kicked open the door and found Mas Selamat gone. The ventilation window in the cubicle was left open.
Mr Wong said the delay by the guards and their failure to keep Mas Selamat in sight was the second most critical security failure which led to the terrorist’s escape. By this time, 11 minutes had lapsed since he first entered the toilet.
The COI found that during renovations in 2007, grilles had not been fixed to that particular toilet window due to a misunderstanding between the ISD and the contractor.
The superintendent of the centre, who was alerted to this weakness in May 2007, asked the contractor to saw off the window handle as a security measure instead, which Mr Wong said was a bad judgement on the superintendent’s part.
In addition, the CCTV coverage of the area was being upgraded to add motion-detectors, but the cameras were not yet operational.
While there is no conclusive evidence as to how he had escaped from the centre after that, the COI believes Mas Selamat may have climbed onto the roof of an enclosed staircase which converges with the perimeter fencing. He could then have jumped over the fencing out of the centre.
The COI also believes that the JI leader had planned his escape over time.
DPM Wong said: “Prior to his escape, during previous family visits, Mas Selamat had partially closed the urinal cubicle door on some occasions.
“On 5 February 2008, he had closed the urinal cubicle door completely and turned on the water tap. The COI believes that these actions by Mas Selamat could have been done to test how the guards would react. This could also have helped him prepare for his actual escape attempt.
“This planning had not been noted by the guards, possibly because the guards are frequently rotated to avoid over familiarisation or fraternisation with detainees.”
The COI – comprising Mr Goh Joon Seng, a retired High Court Judge; Mr Tee Tua Ba, a retired Commissioner of Police; and Dr Choong May Ling, Deputy Secretary of Security at the Home Affairs Ministry – was given full access to all information in its investigations of Mas Selamat’s escape.
This included highly classified and sensitive information on operational systems and processes, as well as access to interviews with ISD intelligence and field personnel.
The committee submitted its report on 10 April and Mr Wong said he is “satisfied” that it has “held nothing back” in its conclusions and recommendations.
He added that in view of the keen and valid interest of MPs and the public, an Executive Summary has been released on the COI’s findings.
In response to a question from opposition non-constituency MP Sylvia Lim, Mr Wong said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is expected to make a ministerial statement in Parliament on Tuesday on government responsibility for Mas Selamat’s escape.