Sri Lanka’s largest drug bust is causing uncertainties over the future of Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne, and in a sense, the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The latest call for his resignation has come from hardline members of the Buddhist clergy Sihala Ravaya. On Thursday, they laid a five-hour siege on Premier Jayaratne’s Office on Ernest [...]


As drug probe deepens, pressure mounts on PM

More shocking details emerge but identity of international heroin kingpin remains a mystery Rapp's visit to Jaffna, meeting with Bishops and explosive tweet suggest political bomb from Geneva Big questions as to "will John jump?" as main parties prepare for two provincial council polls

Sri Lanka’s largest drug bust is causing uncertainties over the future of Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne, and in a sense, the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The latest call for his resignation has come from hardline members of the Buddhist clergy Sihala Ravaya. On Thursday, they laid a five-hour siege on Premier Jayaratne’s Office on Ernest de Silva Mawatha (former Flower Road). They demanded that he resign from the post of Minister for Buddha Sasana. 

Ven. Akmeemana Dayaratne Thera, President of the organisation, told the Sunday Times, ” Though our protest drew an apology through one of Premier Jayaratne’s officials, we are not satisfied. If the President made a derogatory comment about one of the leading Buddhist monks in the country, even he should apologise personally. If such an apology does not come in the next few days, we will continue our protests.”

The threat was despite a second letter signed by Premier Jayaratne and delivered to Ven. Dayaratane who was with some 75 members of the Buddhist clergy taking part in the protest. The letter said, “Prime Minister and Minister of Buddha Sasana Affairs D.M. Jayaratna addressing a meeting in Gampola on January 1, 2014 had no intention of causing disrespect to the most venerable monks by using the word ‘Cheevaradhariya’ (persons with robes). If the most venerable monks feel that some disrespect has been caused, the Prime Minister wishes to express his deep regrets.”

It is alleged that the remarks were used derogatorily at Venerable Omalpe Sobitha Thera, leader of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). The head of a party which is a partner of the UPFA Government called for the resignation of Premier Jayaratne. This is after it transpired that his office facilitated the clearance of a container which carried the largest heroin haul to be brought into Sri Lanka.

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) also has called for the Prime Minister’s resignation. Its parliamentarian Anura Kumara Dissanayake told the Sunday Times, “The Government should hold a full inquiry into allegations that the Prime Minister’s coordinating secretary issued a letter to clear a consignment which was later found to be carrying drugs. We see that his remaining in office is a hindrance to an impartial and proper inquiry. He should temporarily resign until the inquiries are over.”

However, at least officially, investigations into Sri Lankan history’s biggest detection of heroin have not extended to the Prime Minister. Firstly, he is not under any Police investigation. Secondly, and most importantly, the buck has stopped with his son, Central Provincial Council member Anuruddha Jayaratne, who is also his private secretary.

The son has told detectives of the Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB) that it was he who introduced Jamal Qasim, a Pakistani national (now in custody) to Keerthi Sri Weerasinghe, Premier Jayaratne’s coordinating secretary. He has also claimed in a statement that he asked Keerthi Sri Weerasinghe to issue a letter seeking concessionary demurrage rates for a specific container imported into Sri Lanka. It was the one that contained the drugs. That was when Jamal and Sri Lankan partner Mohamed Kamil turned up at the Jayaratne residence in Gampola for breakfast one morning in August last year. Kamil and his driver Rilwan are also now in remand custody.

According to Anuruddha Jayaratne, Jamal and Kamil came to their residence for the first time. They were brought there by Tharanga Vittachchi, a ruling UPFA member of the Gampola Urban Council. Tharanga has told the Narcotics detectives that he developed a friendship with Jamal after he met him in Bahrain four years ago. Whilst at breakfast, Jamal had used his smart phone to video and take still pictures of the breakfast meeting. Kamil used the same phone to video and photograph Jamal with Premier Jayaratne and his son. Under arrest, he was to swipe his mobile phone panel time and again to show PNB detectives the high company he kept and to assert that he was above board.

However, some startling revelations came to light later inside a remand block at the Welikada Prison. Two sleuths from Pakistan’s Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF), a bureau of the Government, interviewed Jamal for eight hours. An Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) from the PNB was also present. They confirmed that Jamal had two previous convictions in Pakistan as a drug trafficker.

The last sentence he served was four years in jail. It has come to light that another Pakistani national, though not present in Sri Lanka when the heroin detection was made, is also involved. The Pakistani ANF team is to question him when they return home. Even more shocking is the finding that the real king pin behind what is suspected to be an ‘international drug ring,’ linking several countries including Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, is still at large and his identity unknown. The Pakistan ANF officers left Colombo to unravel the network in their country but left behind a stirring cloud of dust that shrouded many issues.

Members of President Mahinda Rajapaksa's official entourage to Palestine stand in line as President Mahmud Abbas shakes hands with UNP parliamentarian John Ameratunga whilst Sajin de Vass Gunawardena (Monitoring MP) and External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris look on. Photo credit: Sudath Silva, Presidential Secretariat.

Most important among them is the fact that any crook, drug dealer or criminal could inveigle their way into the residence of a dignitary who is constitutionally second in command of the country’s leadership. That is bad enough. If he is to be believed, this dignitary’s son directs his father’s coordinating secretary to issue a letter without so much as checking the antecedents of the persons involved. And that letter says, “I would be much thankful to you on behalf of the Hon Prime Minister that if you could take appropriate action to grant a waiver of duty and concession of SAGT charges on the above container which has been imported by Rohaan Impex at No T-30, Maligawatte, Railway Quarters, Colombo 10. “According to Mr Kamil the proprietor of Rohaan Impex for not having them a proper knowledge of import procedures as this is the first container they have imported to Sri Lanka and they are at the starting point of their business. Also, I wish to bring to kind notice that they are not in a position to bear the amount of higher duty and other charges.”

The letter addressed to the Manager of South Asia Gateway Terminal (SAGT), it has now come to light, led to a 15 per cent discount being granted on demurrage charges. This is money that was deprived to the Treasury of Sri Lanka. And that is for the container said to contain synthetic grease but was later found to include 261 Kgs of heroin. This is the largest quantity of heroin in a single consignment ever detected in Sri Lanka. PNB officers linked to the investigation tried to deliberately downplay the detection by claiming that the street value “was around Rs. 6.5 million.” Whether this is the result of political pressure is not clear. However, narcotic experts at the Customs say this carries a street value of a staggering Rs. 2.4 billion, Leslie Gamini, Director Legal Affairs and Spokesperson of the Customs told the Sunday Times. The Customs is more conversant with cross border smuggling of narcotics and prevailing street value in view of their liaison with counterparts in other countries.

US Ambassador for War Crimes Stephen Rapp and US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Michele Sison with Ananthi Sashitharan in Jaffna.

Quite clearly Anuruddha Jayaratne has usurped his father’s authority as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka in directing the issue of that letter. On the other hand, if not legal, it is the moral responsibility of the incumbent of that high office to have discerned whether any visitor, no matter what their credentials are, should enjoy all the courtesies — and the authority of the Office of the Prime Minister. If indeed convicted drug traffickers have abused such courtesies, whose responsibility is it? Can coordinating secretary Keerthi Sri Weerasinghe, a former SLFP organiser for Ampara, or Central Provincial Councillor Anuruddha Jayaratne absolve themselves by simply saying they “take the responsibility?” Detailed investigations into these aspects have not taken place. As is clear from its name, the Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB) conducts probes into issues related to narcotic substances. Thus, a detailed probe, among other aspects, into whether the drug runner spent for Anruddha Jayaratne’s political campaign for public office as a member of the Central Provincial Council during the recent elections remains a key question. Readers will recall that Anuruddha Jayaratne topped the ruling UPFA list and made a claim for the Chief Ministership of the Central Province.

The sequence of events leading to the detection has received wide exposure. However, some aspects are not yet known. To place matters in context, here is a brief account. As far back as March 2012, Police Chief N.K. Illangakoon had been briefed by Senior Superintendent Kamal Silva, Director of the Police Narcotics Bureau, that a container carrying 250 to 300 kilogrammes of heroin was to be smuggled into Sri Lanka. They had been tipped off. The Police Chief had ordered the PNB to exercise greater vigilance. They mounted surveillance on suspected targets. Two months later, an Inspector attached to the Special Branch (the intelligence arm of the Police which functions under the IGP) tipped off the PNB about the suspicious activities of two Muslims who were posing off as businessmen. They were staying in a not so rosy Maradana hotel which carries the name of a French perfume. The SB officer had said the duo had links with suspected drug dealers in Pakistan. They had been planning to import ‘grease.’

A team led by Inspector Neomal Ratnajeeva was assigned the task of a detailed probe. The team observed the Sri Lankan duo meeting up with Jamil and another Pakistani national. The latter was later identified as Sardar Ahmed Khan. The PNB moved court and obtained a warrant for his arrest. Based on that, the Interpol Headquarters in Lyons, France, issued a red notice on him. Such notices stipulate that the persons concerned are wanted by national jurisdictions for prosecution or to serve a sentence based on an arrest warrant or court decision. Weeks before the detection of heroin, he had obtained photographs from a studio to extend his visa. He had thereafter left for Pakistan hoping to return.

With the surveillance over, Inspector Ratnajeeva and his team confronted Jamil. He had said he came to Sri Lanka originally to buy a tea plantation. He had also imported a container load of grease. Customs had detained it and sought certification from the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) to clear the cargo. He was awaiting the completion of that inquiry. Later, when the CPC said it had nothing to do with synthetic grease, they had obtained a letter from the Industrial Technical Institute.

PNB Chief Kumar Silva wrote immediately to Customs asking them to inform him before the container load was released. That letter was the sole cause for the busting of the heroin smuggling attempt. If he did not write that, the heroin would have been smuggled in. Customs officer Gnanaraj telephoned Silva on August 29 to say the importer in question has completed procedures. He said in view of the letter, he was calling to say they were now ready to release the container. Customs had asked Kamil and Jamil if the containers were tampered with during the period they were on Sri Lankan soil. They had answered in the negative. Silva urged that Gnanaraj to hold back the consignment for a day. Then the containers were opened in the presence of PNB officers, Jamil, Kamil and Rilwan by Customs officials. They found the heroin concealed in polythene and immersed in synthetic grease containers. The Government Analyst who took over the 261 kilogrammes was to remove the polythene packing and re-weigh. Without the wrappings, it came to 241 kilogrammes. When questioned after the find by PNB detectives, Jamil said he had only helped a friend from Pakistan to bring the container for Kamil. He denied any knowledge of the drugs. However, the Pakistani Anti-Narcotic officers called his bluff. They have reason to believe that Kamil as well as Sardar Ahmed were traffickers working for a drug baron yet to be identified.

It took a partner of the UPFA, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) to raise issue over the massive drug bust. The quantities seized, PNB detectives say, are marketed after they are mixed with other chemical substances available in the local market. Thus the street value almost doubled. The main opposition United National Party (UNP), however, was unable to articulate its position except for its now Political Campaign Secretary, Mangala Samaraweera defending Premier Jayaratne.

That was on the grounds that issuing a letter to seek a demurrage waiver was nothing unusual since Samaraweera as Minister of Ports had received a number of similar letters and acted on them. The strategy here was to make out that senior members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the majority partner in the UPFA, have now become targets of their leaders. In the process, the larger issue was completely ignored. Much to the UNP’s chagrin, it led to belief in sections of its grassroots level cadres that their party was offering tacit support to the UPFA. Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe sought to clear the air regarding the UNP’s official stand on the matter. Addressing the party’s Buddhist Front he said the UNP supports investigations against all those involved in the heroin trade. Details of his speech appear on Page 4.

The situation has been made worse for the UNP this week by the UNP’s Chief Whip and Gampaha District parliamentarian, John Amaratunga, well known for his flirtations with the UPFA Government. He is in the news again, for the wrong reasons. He was a member of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s official entourage during his visits to Jordan, Palestine and Israel. Video footage and photographs showed him with President Mahinda Rajapaksa and other members of his delegation shaking hands with foreign leaders.

UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake told the Sunday Times, “John Amaratunga sought permission from our leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to visit the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem (in Palestine). External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris had also spoken to our leader regarding this invitation. He has said that President Rajapaksa would also be visiting there for a ceremony.”

It is not clear whether Amaratunga pressured UPFA leaders and ensured that External Affairs Minister Peiris spoke to Wickremesinghe. If indeed he was interested in going, he could otherwise have paid Rs. 270,000 to Superlink Travels, a firm specialising in pilgrimages to the Holy Land and gone on a six-day tour. This package tour was on offer until recently. Perhaps Amaratunga felt the VVIP company was better and did not involve any cost on his part. The expenses were borne by the State and the host governments concerned.

Attanayake said Amaratunga was “told specifically not to take part in any other official functions other than visiting this place of religious importance. We are aware that television and print media reports have said that he has taken part in other events. There were video footage and photographs,” he said. Attanayake said leader Wickremesinghe telephoned Amaratunga when he was abroad after seeing these reports and sought clarification. He had replied that he would hold a news conference upon his return and explain details.

Amaratunge told Wickremesinghe that he took part only in social functions and receptions which were attended by President Rajapaksa and did not take part in the official talks he held with the leaders of those countries. He had also dismissed reports of any plans to join the Government. Amaratunga returned with President Rajapaksa’s entourage on Friday. “Aanduwa House full. Mama aanduwata yanney nehe (The Government is ‘house full.’ I am not joining it),” he told the media upon arrival as if to trivialise the whole issue. That remark seemed to boomerang on him. He is not going to join the Government only because it was “house full.” Rajapaksa preferred he remain and do their bidding from the Opposition, said a political observer close to Rajapaksa who did not chair the weekly meeting of his ministers on Thursday in view of his pre-dawn arrival. It will take place tomorrow.

UNP leader Wickremesinghe told his party’s Working Committee that Amaratunga had asked for his permission to attend a ceremony at the Church of Nativity in Bethelehem. He had said he had been invited by the Government and wanted to take part in it as a Catholic. “I allowed him to travel. Otherwise the Catholic community would accuse me of preventing Amaratunga from travelling overseas for a religious purpose,” he said. Ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), Wickremesinghe said, External Affairs Minister Peiris had telephoned him and asked to nominate a person to travel with a ministerial delegation to invite heads of government. He had politely declined the offer. If indeed the UNP leader’s decision to allow Amaratunga to “attend a religious event” is deemed correct, the move, without doubt, reflects a serious duplicity in the party. Some receive favoured treatment whilst the others do not. Lesser fortunate UNPers are taken to task, even dismissed from the party, for matters which are trivial. This is particularly in the light of Amaratunga being the Chief Opposition Whip, the person who is tasked to enforce discipline among opposition party MPs in Parliament. One MP who did not wish to be named said, “We still follow two sets of rules. We are disgusted because we cannot explain this kind of thing to our voters. They think we are with the Government.”

In October 2010, Amaratunga caused a furore after accepting a UPFA Government invitation to visit New York. President Rajapaksa was going there for the UN General Assembly. It was not a religious visit. This raised a controversy within the UNP. Later, Amaratunga thanked External Affairs Minister Peiris for the invitation in a speech he made in Parliament on October 7, 2010. He said he had asked the Opposition Leader (Wickremesinghe) whether to accept that invitation, but was told to decline it. Hence, he returned the air ticket and obtained a fresh one saying he would pay for it. Though Amaratunga said he would adduce proof to the party that such a payment of some Rs . 350,000 for the ticket would be made, he did not do so, said a high ranking UNP member.

The only difference in the on-going issue is the fact that Amaratunga succeeded in getting a UPFA Minister (EAM Peiris) to lobby his case and made personal appeals to Wickremesinghe. Yet, as General Secretary Attanayake points out, he did not heed the party’s call not to take part in other official functions.
A reiteration of his “continued loyalty and commitment” to the party may see the end of the issue, according to him and the party hierarchy. Yet, at the grassroot levels of the party it will remain a sore point. It will only rekindle fears that the party, contrary to all lofty claims, has one foot in the Government and trying to fight it with the other. That, no doubt, translates into minus votes and President Rajapaksa must be laughing all the way to the vote bank.

That such a development comes at a time when their National Leader Wickremesinghe has been gearing the party machinery for a strong political struggle is no doubt worrying the party seniors. At the party’s annual convention in December he asked members to roll up their sleeves and prepare to oust the Rajapaksa Government. Instead, Amaratunga has put on his jacket, fastened his seat belt and taken a freebie from the Rajapaksa Government.

It was only last Wednesday Wickremesinghe named a set of members to be responsible for different tasks. Mangala Samaraweera, as Political Campaign Secretary, Wickremesinghe said, would be responsible for the party’s political campaigns, mass communications, media and propaganda. Whilst General Secretary Tissa Attanayake would look after administrative and management matters of the party, he said. Leadership Council Chairman Karu Jayasuriya would be responsible for monitoring progress and planning. Three others who have been given new responsibilities, he added, are Rosy Senanayake (in charge of the Lak Vanitha Womens Movement), Harin Fernando (plantation sector) and P. Harrison (the farming sector). Relatively young Kegalle District parliamentarian Kabir Hashim has been picked as the new Chairman of the party succeeding the septuagenarian Gamini Jayawickrema Perera. The new assignments, to some degree, decentralises the role of the party’s General Secretary though none of the powers he enjoys in terms of polls and other laws have been removed. He was earlier responsible for political campaigns, planning and monitoring activity among many other tasks. Wickremesinghe told the Sunday Times, “We have to prepare the party machinery for an overall mass agitation.”

In accordance with the second resolution adopted at the party’s annual convention on December 21 last year, the UNP Working Committee endorsed a proposal to appoint a special committee to build a wider opposition force. It will function under the party national leader Wickremesinghe. This resolution said it was “preparing promotional programmes and recruitment programmes required for a membership drive.” The Leadership Council also met on Friday to finalise the list of party organisers countrywide.

If the Premier Jayaratne issue embarrassed the Government and Amaratunga joining President Rajapaksa’s entourage embarrassed the UNP, there were other issues too. One emerged when Stephen J. Rapp, the visiting US Ambassador-at-large for War Crimes, and US Ambassador Michele Sison visited the North. On Thursday, the US Embassy tweeted as follows:

The tweet was accompanied by a photograph of the two Ambassadors on the playground of St Anthany near Puttumatalan in the Mullaitivu District. Diplomatic circles in Colombo opined that it was a ‘formal signal’ that the United States would call for an ‘international probe’ into alleged war crimes at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The message is coming from the very place where they claim such acts took place, said one diplomatic source adding that it is a “formal claim they have their evidence.” That clearly showed that the US stance has hardened like that of Britain and the upcoming resolution would be of a punitive nature unlike the previous condemnatory ones.

However, UPFA leaders were incensed. Just minutes after the tweet was posted, and pro-government protestors demonstrated outside the US Embassy, the Army responded with a strong denial but there was stoic silence from the Ministry of External Affairs — the state organ that has to speak out on matters of foreign policy. Plans by External Affairs Minister, G.L. Peiris who returned with President Rajapaksa after a tour of Jordan, Palestine and Israel to summon Ambassador Sisson to his Ministry in the coming week, has been dropped. The UPFA Government was to convey its displeasure and seek answers to the question on how the US Government had made up its mind that the Army killed those in the grounds in question even before an “international probe” which the US claims it wants to conduct through the UNHRC, has got under way.

Both Rapp and Sison visited the Uthayan newspaper in Jaffna. They were the third to do so after British Prime Minister, David Cameron and Damien Murphy a staffer in the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Rapp asked reporters what they thought of the situation now. He told them that the US would introduce a third resolution calling for an “international inquiry into war crimes” but added “that it would be a difficult task.” He was perhaps alluding to the need to obtain support of member countries of the UN Human Rights Council. On Tuesday, Rapp met a delegation of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in Colombo where he also declared that a new resolution with elements calling for an “international probe” would be introduced. The report received wide coverage on BBC, foreign media outlets and websites on Tuesday itself.

Ambassadors Stephen Rapp and Michele Sison from the spot where they tweeted.

The two Ambassadors also met the Bishop of Jaffna, the Rt. Rev. Thomas Savundranayagam and Bishop of Mannar the Rt. Rev. Rayappu Joseph. The meeting took place at the Bishop’s House in Jaffna. Bishop Jospeh handed over a set of documents to the duo on alleged war crimes. The US duo also separately met Ananthi Sasitharan, wife of LTTE’s Trincomalee Political Wing leader Elilan who she claims was arrested by security forces and went missing thereafter at the conclusion of the ‘war’ with the LTTE in 2009.

On Friday, Ambassadors Rapp and Sison met Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem, External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. An official of the Office to Monitor/Combat Trafficking of Persons in the Department of State in Washington DC is also in Colombo now. The visit of
Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Desai Biswal will now not take place tomorrow as previously expected by government officials and new dates are yet to be determined.

There was a mix up in these columns last week. It was reported that Western Provincial Council Minister Udaya Gammanpila challenged Education Minister Bandula Gunawardena for a public debate on the latter’s announcement that the Grade V scholarships would be abolished. What happened was that Gammanpila telephoned Gunawardena, his one-time lecturer in economics, to say that his party the JHU would oppose his move. Gunawardena ended up inviting Gammanpila for a debate (sangvaadaya). It took place on a private television channel on Tuesday night. Gammanpila was a student at Ginigathhena Primary School and was a beneficiary of the Grade 5 scholarship. He gained entry to D.S. Senanayake Vidyalaya in Colombo and later won a scholarship to enter Monash University in Melbourne from the Australian Government. There he learnt computer science and became an Assistant Lecturer in four years.

This week’s developments clearly show that the UPFA Government would have its hands full coping with a hardened US-sponsored resolution and issues at home including Southern and Western Provincial Council polls. It is not easy for the UNP either. It is continuing to face an identity crisis with its top members having a field day flirting with the UPFA Government whilst its national leader Wickremesinghe wants the party cadres to take to the streets. At least on that front, there are no woes for the UPFA.

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