Christmas lost in the mail
By Mahangu Weerasinghe and Asif Fuard
An estimated 50,000 letters may have been pilfered by postal workers intercepting them for foreign currency over the past couple of years, the Criminal Investigations Department revealed.

Many kith and kin of those working abroad may have not received their mail during Christmas or other festive seasons. Many were unaware that their mail was being pilfered in Colombo by the postal workers who were supposed to deliver them safely to their houses. Detailed investigations by a special CID team has revealed that the pilfering was mainly in search of currency notes. In the process not only letters with currency notes but others without currency too had been affected.

Thushari Halpita of Negombo who has friends in European countries is among those who have been losing their mail. "My friends send me cards, letters and small parcels, and for the last few months I have not been getting some of them," said Ms. Halpita. "They send things like chocolates and books - nothing fancy at all," she said.

"Since last year, the amount of mail I get from abroad has been cut down severely. I have not received around fifteen or twenty letters and cards this year," she said. "I did receive a parcel or two but they all came with broken seals."

"In one instance I was asked to come to the Negombo post office and was handed a parcel wrapped in cellophane - they said the seal had been broken in Colombo," said Ms. Halpita.

Her family had also previously complained to the Negombo Postmaster about the problem.

Udayangani Kumari of Katana too has suffered because of the mailbag thefts. "I have had no letters from my sister for more than six months," she said. "My sister has been in Japan for over twelve years and we never had a problem with missing letters until last year," explained the Katana resident. "She always sends us a bit of Christmas money around the end of November, but we did not get any money last year," she said.

"Now with the earthquake in Niigata where she lives, we do not know what has happened to her. Phones in the area are out and we can't reach her", explained Ms. Kumari.

A letter from her sister was found in the pile seized by the CID earlier this week.The CID Special Investigations Unit has so far apprehended sixteen suspects including three Postmasters, in connection with the spate of mailbag robberies during the past two years.

ASP Mewan Silva who directed the investigations under the supervision of DIG Lionel Goonetilleke told The Sunday Times that they carried out the first raid following a complaint by the Post Master General mid last month. He had complained about the recovery of two mail sacks found near the Fort Railway station.

"We immediately fingerprinted all the documents which were in the bags," said Mr. Silva. After narrowing down the suspects list, the CID had simultaneously searched the residences of the four main suspects who lived in Piliyandala, Angoda, Katunayaka and Wellampitiya.

"At all four places we found evidence including letters, postal bags and even foreign mail bags," said ASP Silva. After interrogating the four suspects, the CID also managed to apprehend a further twelve suspects.

ASP Mewan Silva explained that the thieves had used three main techniques to steal the mail. In the first method, the thieves stationed a man on the Post Office lorry that picks up mail from the Katunayake airport. Afterwards, when the mail has been loaded, the man opens the letters and parcels. After the search the man reportedly reseals the mailbags and exits the lorry. The second type of theft takes place at the Central Mail Exchange itself. "The cells with the foreign mail is not locked," said the ASP. "So the thieves, who pilfer letters from the mailbags and reseal them before they are checked by their superiors the next day," said Mr. Silva.

The third method is where the mail sorters themselves slip mail into their clothes while going through the mail. "They later go outside the mail room and open the letters," said ASP Silva.

"These pilferers earned around 20,000 rupees a month from this racket," said the CID officer. He said that three Postmasters and four K.K.S officers had been caught along with the rest of the crowd who were all porters.

They may face up to seven years of Rigorous Imprisonment under Section 167 of the Penal code. "We have evidence that this has been taking place for around two years," said ASP Silva.

"Four cell phones were also seized along with the stolen parcels," the CID Officer said. "We have found more than fifty thousand opened letters as well," said Mr. Silva.

"The cash stolen from the letters include Dollars, Lira, Euro and Pounds," explained the officer. The CID is currently investigating the possibility of others being indirectly involved.

"We suggest that in future the Postal Department uses more secure methods of transporting the mail," said ASP Silva. He suggested that the mail be sealed in one big mail bag instead of several smaller ones.

"Although the Postal Department is said to have held an initial inquiry into the thefts earlier, it failed due to lack of evidence," said Mr. Silva. Investigations were carried out by the CID’s ASP Mewan Silva, OIC IP Senaratne, SI Rodrigo and RSI Nishantha under the guidance of DIG Lionel Goonetilleke.

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