Five months after the historic presidential poll, the presidency and the Government seem to be drifting without direction. With a truncated 19A in his pocket, President Maithripala Sirisena is trying hard to bag the 20A. It is not easy, though he has asked a ministerial team to give shape to an electoral reform package through constitutional [...]


Sirisena and Govt. embroiled in disputes and deadlocks

President wants 20A before dissolution; but UNP and JVP call for immediate elections -- Ranil to challenge relief given to Gotabaya by two-member SC Bench; seeks review by Fuller Bench

Five months after the historic presidential poll, the presidency and the Government seem to be drifting without direction. With a truncated 19A in his pocket, President Maithripala Sirisena is trying hard to bag the 20A. It is not easy, though he has asked a ministerial team to give shape to an electoral reform package through constitutional amendments. With growing displeasure among parliamentarians of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and their allies, will he succeed in receiving a two thirds vote remains a critical question. He is not unmindful of the obstacles ahead. Yet, he needs more time before he could dissolve Parliament notwithstanding the great anxiety of the United National Party (UNP) to see an early poll. The UNP believes it would deliver an inevitable victory for it. But for Sirisena and his close advisors, other than the 20A, there are a number of other developing concerns. That is not to mention the fact that ceding a win for UNP on a platter would force him to face accusations of ‘betraying’ his own party. These and other factors are compelling him, like the weathercock, to change positions every now and then.

Just last week, as revealed in the front page lead story of the Sunday Times, Sirisena chose to dissolve Parliament if political parties are unable to reach accord on electoral reforms. He did not wish this issue to remain protracted. Ahead of the presidential poll, there was a promise to his backers that he would do dissolve parliament soon after the new Government’s 100 Day Programme of Work ended. That was how the UNP set its deadline for the dissolution on April 23. That has passed by and the UNP remains the dominant partner in the Government for 25 days more now. Referring to the 100 days, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe then drew an analogy, saying he was living on oxygen. “Anytime now, someone will trip on the tube,” he told the Sunday Times yesterday. He was of course jokingly underscoring the need for early polls. He said President Sirisena only received a mandate for the 100-Day Programme of Work and had to call elections for a new Government. “We are not afraid to face the people,” he added.

Meetings with parties
Just the Saturday before last, a delegation from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) led by its leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, met Sirisena for talks. The next day (Sunday) he told a news conference the President had assured that the next elections would be held under the existing proportional representation system. He said the President had told his delegation he could not delay dissolution and would do so if he found that no agreement could be reached on the electoral reforms. However, official spokesperson Rajitha Senaratne told Thursday’s news briefing, “There is no final decision regarding parliamentary elections being held under the existing PR system. The priority is to pass the 20th Amendment.” Not only that. He said that both, the Right to Information Bill and the National Audit Commission Bill too would be presented to Parliament. Only time will tell whether Senaratne was spelling out the official position or that was, like in the past, his own rhetoric. In any case, his remarks contradicted Premier Wickremesinghe’s position that Parliament would not sit again and dissolution was round the corner. Hence, he told a media delegation this week that the Right to Information Bill would not be presented.

In the days that followed, Sirisena chaired two meetings. One was on Sunday evening at his Wijerama Road residence. Representatives of political parties in Parliament other than the UNP and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) were present. There he reiterated that parliamentary elections would be held under the existing PR system. On Monday evening, he met leaders of all political parties at the Presidential Secretariat. He, however, did not speak about polls. He discussed electoral reforms. He had recommended the SLFP’s proposals in a memorandum to the Cabinet of Ministers. There was no accord. He urged those present to submit their own proposals or observations to him before noon on Wednesday. He studied them after pushing back the ministerial meeting for 6 p.m. On Wednesday evening, after a lengthy exchange of views, the ministers decided on a nine member subcommittee. It comprises Sarath Amunugama, Lakshman Kiriella, Kabeer Hashim, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Rauff Hakeem, Palani Digambaram, Gayantha Karunatilleke, S.B. Dissanayake and Rishard Bathiudeen.

During the ministerial discussion another significant fact emerged. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera was to stress on the need to hold elections by July. He has during interactions with counterparts of other countries briefed them on measures for a credible investigation into alleged war crimes during the final stages of the separatist war in May 2009. Such a mechanism was to be in place with a new Government in office, just ahead of the next sessions of United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. There, the three member Committee’s report into the probe on alleged war crimes is due to be presented. It was delayed by the United States, the main sponsor of the resolution on Sri Lanka and its backers, at the request of Samaraweera. Minister Rajitha Senaratne was to shoot it down. “We cannot dance to their tune,” he charged. He said there was no need to listen to the United States or western powers. He wanted the polls delayed.

This week Samaraweera told Colombo-based diplomats that he appreciated the understanding shown by the international community in February, “by allowing Government time until the September sessions of the Human Rights Council, to carry out consultative processes and take steps to address the setting up of necessary independent, credible, domestic processes to deal with issues pertaining to Missing Persons, and Accountability.”

That Senaratne has the ear of President Sirisena is no secret. That he uttered those words meant dissolution of Parliament and elections will not be rushed through. Sirisena himself gave a forewarning when ministers discussed electoral reforms. He said 20A would not be passed as an Urgent Bill. He said it would follow normal procedure. It was the UNP, in a hurry to exploit the fracture within the SLFP that wanted to rush it through and face the polls. In Sirisena’s remarks lies something important. The 20A is sure to draw petitions, before the Supreme Court particularly from smaller political parties, including those representing minorities. They would argue on the grounds that some of the reforms, now being hotly discussed, though finality is still to be reached, would require a referendum.

Such a possibility in fact emerged when the ministerial subcommittee met for the first time on Thursday night. A formula under discussion was the selection of 196 MPs on a District Proportional Representation (DPR) system and 59 on a National Proportional Representation (NPR) system. Discussions saw arguments between Minister Hakeem and two Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) stalwarts General Secretary Patali Champika Ranawaka and the Ven. Athureliya Rathana Thera. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader suggested an equal system of 125 each on both systems. Hakeem charged that the JHU was urging the SLFP to carry through the electoral reforms unilaterally — a claim which Minister Ranawaka denied. “The proposal we are discussing is one hundred per cent PR,” he declared. The UNP had also sent in its own proposal urging that the existing 225 seats be retained in the reforms. It wants 125 elected on ‘First Past the Post’ system and the remaining 100 on Proportional Representation. Hakeem told a UNP colleague, “they are trying to introduce a system that would be advantageous to their own candidates” and added “this is not a mixed system.” Views were also expressed that the JVP would literally become extinct if reforms under discussion were carried through. It was pointed out that it was unwise. The JVP had staged two rebellions earlier.

20th Amendment a puzzle
Leave alone the most discerning Sri Lankan voter, even some of the subcommittee members could not grasp the detailed nuances of proposals under discussion. Hence formulating a draft, to be turned into a Bill, has become a difficult task. That was even after obtaining a detailed copy of Sirisena’s proposals from Presidential Advisor Tillekeratne Ranaviraja, now Ambassador designate to France. Hence, the subcommittee has now lined up a meeting tomorrow (Monday) night with both President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe. That is a prelude to the formulation of a draft electoral reform package to be discussed on Wednesday by ministers. However, Hakeem will not be there. He is going to Saudi Arabia as Special Envoy of Sirisena for a meeting with the Saudi royalty. In the midst of political issues Sirisena is reaching out to wealthy Arab countries. The subcommittee meeting ended inconclusively at around 10 p.m. Thursday night.

The delay in the formulation of an electoral reform package acceptable to all parties, which may sometimes be fraught with the prospects of a Supreme Court veto on grounds they would require a referendum, does give even more time for Sirisena. One is to deal, perhaps in his own way with his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has literally thrown the gauntlet at him. During a face-to-face meeting with Sirisena, Rajapaksa demanded that he be made the Prime Ministerial candidate and head of the party’s nomination board among others. A source close to Sirisena said he wants to ensure investigations against Mahinda Rajapaksa, his family and allies against whom there is evidence for alleged corruption and misrule, are proceeded with until court cases are initiated. This is in accordance with the pledges made during the presidential election campaign, the source said. With that, the source pointed out, Sirisena expects to weaken Rajapaksa’s campaign against him, win over supporters of the SLFP and prepare them for polls. This will no doubt be one of the biggest challenges for Sirisena. This is amidst apprehensions with regard to a few cases where Sirisena loyalists believe Government leaders were back tracking.

There was great disappointment in this regard after the ruling given by a two member bench of the Supreme Court (SC) on a fundamental rights petition filed by former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Whilst Justice Bhuvenaka Aluvihare withdrew, two SC judges — Eva Wanasundera and Sarath de Abrew –ruled that Rajapaksa should not be arrested until his fundamental rights plea is heard to a conclusion. They put off hearing for October 6, a postponement of almost five months. The former Defence Secretary has challenged the legality of the newly set up Financial Crime Investigation Division (FCID) alleging that he was being politically persecuted and faced imminent arrest.

Concern over SC ruling
The ruling incensed the presidency and the UNP-dominated Government. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told the Sunday Times, “My lawyers have advised me that the ruling is wrong in law. They have opined that in accordance with constitutional provisions two judges cannot issue a stay order. They can only issue notice. In this instance, the other side was not even heard before the stay order was given. I have advised my lawyers to meet the Attorney General and make representations. We will not telephone judges or give directives. When justice is denied, we will follow the proper course. Even the Police, I learn, are going to make representations to the AG.” He said there were also others “who were getting worked up because there is a credible investigation on corruption now.” Leading legal counsel had a discussion on Friday to file a motion in the Supreme Court calling for a fuller, five-judge bench to review the Supreme Court order. The lawyers are representing the Prime Minister and all members of the Cabinet of Ministers who are among those cited as parties to the fundamental rights case. The motion is to be filed on Wednesday. A similar motion is also to be filed on behalf of the Police. It is not immediately clear whether this would be done by the Attorney General’s Department or by private counsel representing them. Police Chief N.K. Illangakoon, B.R.S.R. Nagahamulla, Director of the CID and DIG Ravi Waidyalankara, head of the FCID have also been cited as parties.

This is while the JVP, which gave strong tacit support for Sirisena at the presidential elections, declared that Parliament should be dissolved immediately. “President Sirisena cannot get anyone to agree to electoral reforms. The National Executive Council has ceased to exist after 100 days,” JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake told the Sunday Times. He added, “No one knows who is the Leader of the Opposition. The Speaker has not given recognition so far despite many requests. Ranil Wickremesinghe has no right to continue as Prime Minister. A new Government has to come in after parliamentary elections.”

This week’s events make clear that the presidency as well as the Government is reacting to events every week with key players making contradictory remarks on official positions. Thus, they are without a direction with hydra headed approaches to important issues. Little wonder, the people, ill informed about the many probes, are confused and an opposition is accusing the rulers of a continued witch-hunt. Even the yahapalanaya or good governance seems to have no direction.

Revealed: Sri Lankans among those maintaining Swiss bank accounts
Sri Lankans were among them — royalty, actors, politicians, corporate executives, old wealth families, international outlaws and businessmen — who had secret Swiss Bank accounts. Their records at the HSBC Private Bank Suisse not only show their inner workings but provide a rare glimpse of the super secret Swiss banking industry. The documents, including those of some 40 Sri Lankans, was obtained by the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) from the French newspaper Le Monde. Collaborative projects that followed with a team of journalists from 45 countries unearthed bank accounts maintained by criminals, traffickers, tax dodgers, politicians, businessmen and celebrities.The ICIJ is a global network of more than 190 investigative journalists in over 65 countries. They collaborate on in-depth stories. Membership in the organisation is peer recommended. Founded in 1997 by the respected American journalist Chuck Lewis, ICIJ was launched as a project of the Washington-based Centre for Public Integrity. Their style of watchdog journalism focuses on issues that do not stop at national frontiers: cross-border crime, corruption, and the accountability of power. Backed by the Centre and its computer-assisted reporting specialists, public records experts, fact-checkers and lawyers, ICIJ reporters and editors provide real-time resources and state-of-the-art tools and techniques to journalists around the world. The Sunday Times Consultant Editor Iqbal Athas is the only Sri Lankan member of the ICIJ.

The ICIJ said that among the many grim stories, at least one was ironic. People on the most wanted list of Interpol, the international police agency, such as diamond dealers Mozes Victor Konig and Kenneth Lee Akselrod, are among the HSBC account holders – and so is Elias Murr, who is President of the board of Interpol’s Foundation for a Safer World, an organisation aimed at fighting terrorism and organised crime. Murr, who was a prominent businessman before entering politics, was interior minister of Lebanon in 2004 when an HSBC account owned by him was held through a company called Callorford Investments Limited. By 2006-2007, the account would contain US$ 42 million.

The secret files covering up to 2007 associated with more than 100,000 individual and legal entities from more than 200 nations. It’s not illegal in most countries to maintain offshore accounts. Some who are named in the files may have had some connection to a Swiss bank account, such as a power of attorney, while not owning the money in the account or owning only a share of it. Being identified as an HSBC Private bank account is of itself no indication of any wrongdoing. However, in Sri Lanka, the permission to open a foreign bank account requires the approval of the Central Bank. The Exchange Control Act (Section 6 AA) states:

“(1) No person in, or resident in, Sri Lanka shall, except with the permission of the bank,-
(a) open an account with any bank or institution doing any kind of banking business outside Sri Lanka (hereinafter referred to as a ” foreign bank”;
“(b) continue to maintain, or operate on, an account which has already been opened in any foreign bank; or
“(c) close an account with any foreign bank.
“(2) Where an account maintained by a person in, or resident in, Sri Lanka with any foreign bank is closed, such person shall not dispose of the funds to his credit at such foreign bank at the time of closing of such account, except in accordance with such directions as may from time to time be given to him by the Central Bank.”

A high ranking official at the Central Bank said that the question of granting permission for secret offshore accounts, which are to avoid taxes, does not arise. “Such accounts are a ruse to dodge taxes,” he said. As our front page story today reveals, the largest amount for the period 2006-2007 was in the name of the family of Edmund Wijesuriya Balasuriya. Together with his wife, daughter and three sons, their names are connected to accounts totalling over US$ 16 million or exactly $ 16,325,742. He is described in HSBC documents as “Director/Owner of a Shop of Games.” According to a HSBC document, on October 6, 2005 Balasuriya reportedly met a Bank official in London where the HSBC headquarters is located. It has branches in 74 countries. The document notes “the conversation covered our ideas concerning the family structure and I mentioned that he might consider a Delaware Trust if they wish his sister to be brought into the structure…”

Here is a breakdown of the family accounts listed in their names in HSBC documents: Mr and Mrs Balasuriya together are shown as holding a balance of US$ 10,668,094, daughter Lakshmi Fernando U $ 1,989,370, son Rohan US$ 1,975,594, three sons Mahendra, Lakshman and Asoka each held US$ 1,975,319. Referring to Lakshman, the HSBC document adds: “The family own hotels, a gem stone business and are now going into properties. They are very well connected in Sri Lanka. They operate from many towns in Sri Lanka and asked why bankers only seem to visit Colombo. He mentioned that many of the affluent family in gem stone business live in towns well to the south of Colombo and Kandy has many affluent families. He indicated that he was no longer visited by the UBS (Union Bank of Switzerland) which would indicate that the lady who left Barclays after us was no longer covering the region.”

Connected to two accounts is the name Subramaniam Surendran. He is described in trade circles in Colombo as a businessman who had dealings with the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB). Two different accounts were listed. The balance in one was US$ 6,564,952 and the other US$ 69,665. His wife, Charlotte Ranjitha, described as a ‘housewife’ in documents, is listed as holding in another account a sum of US$ 6,495,287. Surendran’s profession is described in documents as an “agent” and had on occasions dealt with the Bank through an authorised intermediary. He has also assigned his wife as the beneficiary.

Under Anura Leslie Perera from Bandarawela, believed to be a lawyer representing an account holder, is listed a balance of US$ 1,692,959. Documents reveal that he operated from an address in Nicosia and was in touch with the HSBC on the telephone. Vaswani Aruna Rajendra, though with a Sri Lankan address, operated from Perth, Western Australia. He held a balance of US$ 1,384,149. Three members of the Hirdaramani family, known in Sri Lanka for their textile business, are listed as holding balances as follows: Nikhil Kishore US$ 817,446, Vinod Kishore US$ 646,243. He held this together with Leena Vinod. Another account held by Leena Vinod also had the same balance of US$ 646,243. The names mentioned and those of others appear in the table given here. Also given in a table are those who have closed their account together with the period they were operated.

Among closed accounts is one in the name of Lalith Bhupendra Kotelawala who holds Sri Lanka’s highest honour – the title of Deshamanya (Pride of the Nation).” He is the Chairman of Ceylinco Consolidated. The Golden Key Credit Card Company, a member of his group, crashed leaving thousands of depositors in despair. He opened the HSBC account on December 21, 1988 and closed it over eight years later, on March 3, 1997. He was awarded the Deshamanya title in 1994 when his secret account was still in operation. The Sunday Times found that he had not declared this offshore account either to the Department of Exchange Control or the Department of Inland Revenue. Similarly, Daya Ranjit Senanayake, his onetime deputy had also opened an account and later closed it on the same dates but made no disclosure.
When the revelations from the ICIJ came, the HSBC first requested them to destroy all the data. However, after being informed of the full extent of the reporting team’s findings, they gave a final response that was more conciliatory, telling ICIJ “We acknowledge that the compliance culture and standards of due diligence in HSBC’s Swiss private bank, as well as the industry in general, were significantly lower than they are today.” The written statement said the bank had “taken significant steps over the past several years to implement reforms and exit clients who did not meet strict new HSBC standards, including those where we had concerns in relation to tax compliance.” The bank added that it had re-focused this part of its business. “As a result of this repositioning, HSBC’s Swiss private bank has reduced its client base by almost 70 per cent since 1997,” HSBC said.
The response to the Swiss leaks investigation was swift and global. HSBC officials were summoned to appear several times before the public accounts committee in the UK; countries including Brazil, Argentina, Belgium and France started or deepened official inquiries into the matter; and many other countries requested the so-called Falciani files from the French Government and have started to recover tax money lost to their national treasuries. The data were originally smuggled away by a HSBC employee turned whistle-blower Herve Feliciani and handed over to the French authorities in 2008. Le Monde obtained material from the French tax authorities. The ICIJ put a team of journalists from multiple countries to sift through the data and unravel startling details. Among facts that came to light was how former and current politicians from Britain, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Kenya, Romania, India, the Philippines and Algeria held offshore accounts.
“Banks play an essential role in keeping criminals and kleptocrats of the financial system,” Marina Walker Guevara, Deputy Director of the ICIJ told the Sunday Times. She said, “HSBC Geneva failed to live to those high standards in the past and as a result a whole range of bad actors were able to hold accounts alongside people who had done nothing wrong.”
In 2013 the ICIJ exposed secret accounts of those holding them in the Singapore based Portcullis TrustNet including a group of Sri Lankans.

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