Ranil nominates Sajith for post of Opposition Leader, but not likely to give up party leader’s post; Committee to formulate strategy   Foreign Relations Ministry insists alleged victim should give a statement at CID headquarters; staffer ready to make statement The note verbale from the Ministry of Foreign Relations arrived in the offices of Colombo-based [...]


Swiss embassy case: Subtle move to embarrass new Govt.

By Our Political Editor

Foreign Relations Minister Dinesh Gunewardena, State Minister Susil Premajayantha and Secretary Ravinatha Ariyasinha addressing the media to explain the issues involved in the alleged abduction of Swiss embassy staff member. This came after Mr. Gunewardena met Colombo-based envoys.

Ranil nominates Sajith for post of Opposition Leader, but not likely to give up party leader’s post; Committee to formulate strategy

Foreign Relations Ministry insists alleged victim should give a statement at CID headquarters; staffer ready to make statement

The note verbale from the Ministry of Foreign Relations arrived in the offices of Colombo-based diplomatic missions in the morning last Thursday.

More formal than an aide memoire and less formal than a note, in third person and unsigned, this was an invite for the first meeting between heads of missions and Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena. The subject was the raging controversy between Berne (Switzerland) and Colombo (Sri Lanka) over the alleged abduction of a local female staffer of the Swiss embassy here.

The Swiss government has now agreed to make available the local staffer to make a statement to the CID. However, there is a dispute over where such a statement would be recorded since Berne is not in favour of her visiting the CID headquarters on the fourth floor of the New Secretariat building.  The Swiss authorities want the recording of the statement to take place at their Embassy. The government has taken up the position that she should visit the CID offices since all other Sri Lankans are made to do that. The matter is now under discussion.

Even if he is still to become familiar with diplomatic jargon and began with a preamble that “I summoned you for…,” Gunawardena won plaudits from some diplomats for his delivery. There was no prepared text, nor did he refer to any notes. It was impromptu. First, he assured those present that the government would respect diplomatic immunity and ensure their safety. There was no question about it. Then he went on to articulate the government’s position over the alleged abduction of a female local staffer at the Swiss Embassy. She was aide to the embassy’s migration officer, a Swiss national.

PM will probe files found in Temple TreesFiles containing deals of former Cabinet ministers found at Temple Trees will be investigated, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa told the Sunday Times. He was commenting on the box story in these columns last week headlined ‘New PM finds bombshell files at Temple Trees’. The report said, “Whether it came by chance or otherwise remains a billion-dollar question. However, there is little or no doubt about its authenticity.”

Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa

Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickeremesinghe

Premier Rajapaksa said the files contained alleged irregular transactions by ministers and were found by helpers cleaning the Temple Trees premises for occupation by him and his family. There was one file for each minister, and he was now studying them. He declined to say whose names were in the files saying, “you will know when the names come out.”

Our report last week added: “Helpers cleaning the premises found a neatly packed set of files. Did then Premier Wickremesinghe forget to take it along? The files contain alleged wrongdoing in tenders and other procurement deals and contains names of local and foreign agents as well”. Last Tuesday, the United National Party (UNP) said in a statement:

“The attention of the Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickeremesinghe has been drawn to the news items of December 1 the Sunday Times and in December 2 Lankadeepa which stated the Prime Minister had files related to transactions of former cabinet ministers.

“The news item states the files were prepared by Mr Wickremesinghe. This news is baseless and false. Mr Wickeremesinghe during his term of office was not engaged in preparing files. The office staff and the office of the prime minister were entrusted with official documents that are only relevant to the Prime Ministerial post.

“All of those documents have been properly documented at Temple Trees and Prime Minister’s office.”



However, referring to her as the “so-called victim,” Gunawardena said she had not made any statement so far to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) about her allegation. The Sunday Times (Political Commentary) revealed last week that she complained that five persons in a white Toyota Corolla car had allegedly abducted her. She also claimed, through her ambassador, that she was blindfolded, bound by a rope and sexually molested. This was when she refused to answer questions on how the CID’s Chief Inspector Nishantha de Silva, who fled Sri Lanka, obtained migrant visas for him and his family.

New details, made known to Foreign Relations Minister Gunawardena by Swiss Ambassador Hanspeter Mock, spoke of her having gone to St Bridget’s College in an Uber taxi. It is when she walked out that she had been bundled into a vehicle, taken away and dropped off two hours later. Detectives did track down her identity and went to her residence. Neither she, nor her family members were present. They are now living in the embassy premises, Gunawardena revealed. Detectives found that the details that have emanated so far do not tally. For example, no Uber taxi was in the vicinity of St Bridget’s College around 5 p.m. on Monday (November 25) evening. An analysis of telephone calls made on her mobile telephone also did not match.

Minister Gunawardena told the envoys that even Ambassador Mock had agreed there were discrepancies in the sequence of events spelt out by “the so called” victim and later conveyed to him. In the light of this, a statement from the local staffer became inevitable if the government were to unravel more facts related to the case, the minister asserted. Therefore, he said, a Colombo Magistrate had issued two orders – preventing the “so called” victim from leaving Sri Lanka. The other was ordering her to make a statement. That was in keeping with Sri Lanka’s laws.

Gunawardena noted that it was well within the right of any sovereign government to uphold the laws of the country. “The local staffer does not enjoy diplomatic immunity. Hence, there was no legitimate way in which she could leave the country in an air ambulance, or otherwise even if she or her family has been assured asylum. Our laws do not permit that”, he said. Gunawardena lamented that the incident had received the attention of the international media and the social media in such a way that there was an organised campaign against the government. This is no different to what prevailed in the period ahead of the presidential election.

He complained that a “lot of mudslinging” was going on against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He warned it was causing irreparable damage to the country. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa termed the incident a “plot to embarrass the government.”  Even if he did not say it, a high-level probe is now under way. Those remarks are noteworthy in the light of other developments explained later.

Germany’s Ambassador Joern Rohde told the meeting though he “would not go into the merits of the incident”, he would wish to say that Swiss Ambassador Mock was an honest person and there was no reason to doubt what he said, or says. He described him as a “thorough professional.” He has said that the female staffer is not in a right condition to make a statement. He then asked whether the Swiss government has been informed of Sri Lanka’s position.

“We have shared our views with our Ambassador. He has conveyed them to Swiss authorities,” the minister said. Ambassador Mock is away in Berne. His deputy, Raoul Imbach followed Ambassador Rohde in speaking. He sought the government’s assistance to prevent “a lot of Swiss bashing that is going on.”  He was alluding to the criticism against Switzerland and a protest outside the Embassy premises at Colombo’s R.G. Senanayake Mawatha (former Gregory’s Road). Ambassador Rohde’s view was shared by many Colombo-based diplomats who met to discuss the issue. A few of them also called at the Foreign Ministry to raise issue.

The Swiss dilemma

In fact, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Germany, Karunasena Hettiaratchi, had a meeting with top Foreign Ministry officials in Berne last Monday morning. Since Berne had previously sent at least two demarches, (a petition or protest presented through diplomatic channels), the focus was on a Swiss request to send an air ambulance and a medical team to evacuate the local staffer, according to a diplomatic source. However, the source said, Ambassador Hettiaratchchi replied that all medical facilities were available in Sri Lanka. He said there was no barrier to her seeking treatment, locally.

He had pointed out that the government only wanted to ensure the local staffer made a statement to the CID so her complaint through Ambassador Mock be probed comprehensively. The Berne Foreign Office was also livid that reports over the alleged incident “have been leaked” to the media – a position which Ambassador Hettiaratchchi, strongly denied. He said the government had no hand in it. He noted that in this modern age of technology, the media had their own way of finding matters out. Though he did not say so, the first report of the alleged abduction appeared in a Tamil website the day immediately after the incident on November 25. There ended the Colombo-Berne official dialogue, at least for the time being.

It is creditable that Foreign Relations Minister Gunawardena and Foreign Secretary Ravinatha Ariyasinha lost no time in acting swiftly to set the government’s position right. Though the Swiss government may have its own reasons, justifiable or otherwise, in not making the local staffer available to record a statement, the duo made unequivocally clear the official position of the government. This is in marked contrast to the previous administration where a senior Foreign Ministry official was penalised for raising issue.

This was for doing her duty in asking armed forces commanders to comment on the draft of the Acquisition and Cross Services Agreement (ACSA) with the United States. For this action, on the grounds that it caused a delay, she was transferred back to the Foreign Office from the Ministry of Defence where she was on secondment. Earlier, there was a marked hesitance by both ministers and officials to say the right thing in the country’s interest in instances where foreign governments were involved. This was ostensibly on the grounds that it would offend them and draw a punitive response. Even if their voices were drowned in the international arena by vicious propaganda, commendably the minister and his secretary set the record right without fear.

In any country, particularly in the West, the need for a victim to make a statement to the Police under such circumstances is imperative. This is common knowledge even among film fans. In crime and other scenes, there are visuals of Police visiting a victim in hospitals to record statements from their bedside. They are even afforded armed protection there. Obviously, there is a crisis of confidence. For some reason, Berne has not been willing to accept this reality nor state what it is. After all, when the alleged victim was called upon to testify only two days after the ‘incident.’ In that while, her trauma had reportedly taken a toll on her to the point she could not speak. Of course, the counter argument brought out by some diplomats is the fear entertained by the Swiss authorities that the victim may resort to some untoward act.

If there was a need, though not ideal, even the Swiss-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) protection could have been sought by Berne to help her make such a statement and enter hospital thereafter. The ICRC is well respected for its role though the issue of making a statement to the CID is an internal one. This was why the ICRC was accepted to play a role when the separatist war was raging. As things stand now, the question is for how long the local staffer and her family members could remain closeted in the embassy premises without making a statement. At some point, they would have to emerge.

For the Swiss Ambassador Hanspeter Mock, that is the key dilemma. The dispute will not be resolved until the local staffer makes a statement. The stalemate could continue. Mock is no stranger to Sri Lanka. He was one of the key players when former President Maithripala Sirisena foisted Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister and thus ousted the then incumbent Ranil Wickremesinghe. The Supreme Court was to later hold that the act was unconstitutional. In the interim period, Mock played a key role shuttling between three sides — Maithripala Sirisena, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Basil Rajapaksa — trying to reach an ‘amicable’ settlement. He held the view that the replacement of Wickremesinghe and the dissolution were not correct and was outspoken about it. This is not to say he took sides, but to make clear that he was quite conversant with the different dynamics in Sri Lanka. In such a situation, the only logical likelihood for the current imbroglio is the presence of a trust deficit between Colombo and Berne.

Nishantha de Silva affair

Apart from the imbroglio over the local staffer of the Swiss Embassy, the issue has brought to the fore much deeper nuances on what has been going on. This is over Chief Inspector Nishantha de Silva, head of the Organised Crimes Division in the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), the man at the centre of the issues with Switzerland. He has won asylum in that country.  Earlier, on a directive from the then President, Maithripala Sirisena, he was transferred to the Negombo police division in November, last year. However, President Sirisena himself cancelled the transfer later after an appeal was made to him by one of his ‘advisors’ on the grounds that Chief Inspector was handling ‘very important cases.’ The transfer order was immediately cancelled by the Police Commission. Though the Commission itself has been established to obviate political interference, it has become politically susceptible thus obviating the need for such a mere rubber-stamping body is another issue.

The core of such CID investigations or cases was either directly or indirectly linked to Gotabaya Rajapaksa when he was Defence Secretary.  If those at the highest levels of the former government were hesitant in pursuing these cases — a matter raised many times at Cabinet meetings –, it has come to light that a group, outside the Police, operating together with Chief Inspector Silva and other officers were working in the opposite direction. They had been privy to statements made to the CID by different parties and had received advice on the steps they should take. This is how some outlets and social media have carried verbatim accounts, it has come to light. In many cases they were unable to find evidence. This is besides a senior CID officer giving regular briefings to two ministers of the former government on the important cases they were probing.

In this backdrop, the departure of CI de Silva does raise a few questions, both over him and the CID. It is common sense that an applicant for a visa, particularly for migratory purposes, is not issued over the counter, like how one could buy a stamp from a post office. It is a lengthy process and shows that it has been under way for a period. His stock in trade has been material pertaining to his investigations, more importantly those revolving around Gotabaya Rajapaksa and military officers who served when he was Defence Secretary. Thus, a coterie from the CID, once the premier investigative agency in the country, together with those outside, the government believes, were involved in a conspiracy. Amazingly, top levels at the CID remained unaware or were under pressure. So much so, two days before his departure, CI de Silva was able to return his service pistol and motorcycle without an eyebrow being raised. How come his supervising officers did not know? Details are unfolding of how those inside and out of the CID helped him.

The latest complaint against CI de Silva came from A.J.M. Muzzamil, from this week the Governor of the North Western Province (NWP). It related to an incident after the April 21 Easter Sunday massacres. He had received a telephone call from a relative, a widow, who had discovered that her late husband, a game hunter, had left behind a box of shotgun cartridges. She had found it when cleaning his cupboard. Muzzamil, a former Mayor of Colombo and till recently Governor, Western Province, had sent one of his aides, to the Bambalapitiya Police Station. He had told them about the cartridges.  Thereafter, a Police officer on a motorcycle had accompanied him to the residence where the cartridges were kept. The officer took charge of it, and it was assumed that the matter had ended.

The next thing, Muzzamil said, was, “Chief Inspector Nishantha de Silva arresting my aide.” He was detained for one month under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. “CI de Silva would come to his cell in the CID even at midnight hours and tell my aide that he would be released if he makes a statement that the cartridges belonged to me. He would also telephone his distraught wife at home at late hours and tell her to ask her husband to implicate me if she wants her husband released. They both refused,” said Muzzamil. He was incarcerated in custody. He has now given an affidavit giving details.

“I therefore met (then) President Maithripala Sirisena and told him what has happened. In my presence, he telephoned Senior DIG Ravi Seneviratne, who is in charge of the CID, and explained the matter. Later, the President asked me to meet Seneviratne at 9 a.m. the next day,” Muzzamil said. He added, “The DIG met me in his office. From his intercom, he telephoned CI de Silva. He later told me he would sort the matter out in a few days. He said there were some more statements to be taken.” He lamented that “CI de Silva was more powerful than the DIG. That day, I realised that the CID was in a very sorry state of affairs. When I later told this to (former) President Sirisena, Muzzamil said, he replied “eygollo ohama thamai. Kiyana deyak karanney nehe.”  or they are like that. They don’t do what is told. That shows even the President’s words were ignored. He said, “This government should clean up the CID. It has become a powerful outfit, more powerful than the government, to fix people. I am pursuing legal action in addition to what the authorities will do over my complaint. Muzzamil said the President told him that he did cancel the transfer of CI de Silva from the CID upon a request made to him.

A government source said the re-vamping of the CID would get under way to “return the institution to its original status as a professional outfit.” Already, another arm of the Police Department, the State Intelligence Service (SIS), the premier intelligence arm of the country, has seen its first change. Moved out is Director Nilantha Jayawardena who stands accused of not informing those concerned about the April 21 attacks. He has been transferred to Police Headquarters pending a posting. The SIS had prior information of an imminent attack before Easter Sunday. Replacing him as Director of the SIS is Brigadier Suresh Salley, who was earlier in the Directorate of Military Intelligence. This is the first time a person from outside the Police has been named. Brig. Salley was transferred by the previous administration to the Sri Lanka Embassy in Malaysia. Thereafter, he was sent by Army Headquarters for a yearlong course at New Delhi’s National Defence Academy. There his thesis was adjudged the best amng foreign students. Brigadier Salley, still a serving Army officer, will function under retired Major General Jagath de Alwis, the Chief of National Intelligence (CNI). The latter was an officer in the Gajaba Regiment, President Rajapaksa’s regiment whilst in the Army.

The role of the SIS during the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government came in for severe criticism. There were accusations that the premier body was long used mostly to spy on those perceived to be against the government including politicians, government officials and journalists. There have also been instances where it has gone beyond its brief. One such case is when an officer was seconded to serve in a cell in the Finance Ministry during the political crisis in October last year. This cell, shocking enough, was among a group that was handling the campaign against the ouster of then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe. What is not clear is whether the arrangement was official or informal. The request for the nomination of an SIS staffer had been made by a Co-ordinating Officer in the Finance Ministry, a political appointee.

Sajith as opposition leader

The re-vamping of the SIS comes at a time when there are important changes in the political sphere. UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe named his deputy Sajith Premadasa as the Leader of the Opposition. It came at a meeting of the UNP parliamentary group at Sri Kotha, the party’s headquarters in Pita Kotte on Thursday. The process appeared to be double quick. Within hours of Wickremesinghe proposing Premadasa’s name, UNP General Secretary Akila Viraj Kariyawasam wrote to Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. He said; “At the UNP Parliamentary Group meeting held on 5-12-2019 at the UNP Headquarters, it was decided to appoint Sajith Premadasa, MP as the Leader of the Opposition. Accordingly, we request to recognise Sajith Premadasa as the Leader of the Opposition.” The same day Speaker Jayasuriya confirmed Premadasa as the Opposition Leader.

Kariyawasam’s letter to Speaker Jayasuriya makes an erroneous reference. He said that the “UNP parliamentary group meeting …. it was decided….” There is no question of the group deciding on such a matter. The nomination of Premadasa is the sole prerogative of the party leader and not a matter left in the hands of the party’s parliamentary group to decide upon. In fact, after the rout the UNP suffered at the 1970 parliamentary elections, then UNP leader Dudley Senanayake nominated J.R. Jayewardene to be the Leader of the Opposition. Senanayake remained as leader of the party.

Nevertheless, a majority of UNP parliamentarians who spoke at the meeting on Thursday urged Wickremesinghe to hand over the party leadership too to Premadasa. Here are brief comments made by them:

Ranjith Madumma Bandara: When we are moving towards an election there should not be an Opposition Leader and another as party Leader.  There should be quick decisions unlike when we decided on our candidate for the presidential election. We need to quickly call for a Working Committee meeting and take a decision and have our annual party convention.”

Ajith P Perera: I thank our leader Ranil Wickremesinghe for appointing Sajith Premadasa as the Opposition Leader. I also request Wickeremesinghe to appoint a party leader before Christmas.”

Thalatha Athukorala: Leader Ranil Wickeremesinghe made a good decision by naming our presidential candidate the Opposition Leader. Now, there is only one issue, the party leadership, remaining to be resolved. I request our leader to resolve that issue as well. Our view is that Sajith Premadasa should be the party leader and opposition leader. We do not have anything against Ranil Wickremesinghe but for a long-time, people wanted the leader of the party to be fielded as the candidate for presidential elections but many times we were unable to do that. The people need a party and opposition leader who can win an election.  Therefore, we should listen to what people want and give them what they want.

Ravi Karunanayake: It was because of our faults that we lost the presidential election. We should build new teams and develop our party. Wickremesinghe announced at the meeting that he would appoint a five-member committee to formulate within weeks a new strategy for the party to win the upcoming parliamentary elections. He said once the report is ready, the party members should meet again to discuss the report and act immediately.

Premadasa’s leadership

During the presidential election, Premadasa did demonstrate strong leadership qualities and was assertive. He checkmated his close colleagues for striking the wrong note at public meetings. He also exuded a high degree of arrogance. However, the post presidential election period has seen a different portfolio of the man. His close associates, including former cabinet ministers, were both disillusioned and livid. It began with the conduct of the campaign where they complained it was taken over by newcomers like Tissa Attanayake, former General Secretary, and Shiral Lakthilake, senior advisor to then President Sirisena.

Then came another issue. Behind-the-scene moves were underway to foist Premadasa as leader of the opposition after the defeat at the presidential polls. Party leader Wickremesinghe consulted senior members and hinted that he would cede the post to Premadasa, but only after they discussed matters. However, Premadasa was not contactable. He did not answer his telephone and kept in touch with a few via SMS. The former ministers who supported him were furious. One of them, who did not wish to be named, said “that conduct was a poor display of leadership qualities. He should have faced Wickremesinghe and sorted matters out. It took us a great deal of spade work to get him out. He was sulking and that does not augur well for a UNP leader. Whatever are his faults, Wickremesinghe was not like that. This mood shifts can cause issues for us in the future too.” Premadasa took up the position that he was ill.

On the other hand, it is no secret that Wickremesinghe had to let go of the office of Leader of the Opposition. Most MPs were not in his favour. The insurmountable pressure from his own party MPs was the cause. He is sure to face more pressure in the coming weeks and months over the leadership of the party. Until then, he will stick to his post and fight. No matter how much bitter criticism he faces from a pro-Premadasa faction of the party, he would prod along. He has asked that group to spell out what they want the party seniors to do, and more importantly, what their own plans are.

After the presidential election, when Wickremesinghe met President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on November 19, he expressed his desire to continue with the government with him as Prime Minister. He said he wished to make Sagala Ratnayake as the Minister for Law and Order. However, President Rajapaksa replied it could not be done since the SLPP backed alliance would like to form a government. Now, there is still a golden streak for him in this journey over political thorns. The government is to launch a probe into what they call abuse in funds belonging to the Central Cultural Fund under the Ministry of Cultural Affairs – a portfolio held by Premadasa under the previous government. Government sources say about Rs 1.2 billion had been ‘abused’, but Premadasa has said there was no wrongdoing.

If indeed the government claims turn out to be true, Premadasa will not only have a lot to answer but would suffer serious damage to his reputation. That naturally turns the tide in Wickremesinghe’s favour. To Premadasa, that is a Sword of Damocles hanging over his head. Another dilemma for Premadasa besides UNP leader Wickremesinghe is the availability of funds, or the lack of it. The Premadasa campaign has cost dearly and some of those who provided goods and services have not been paid yet.

By virtue of his office as leader of the opposition, Premadasa also becomes a member of the Constitutional Council.

The government also wants to have a new Speaker of Parliament. The present incumbent Karu Jayasuriya is to be asked to step down. However, those in favour of Jayasuriya have pointed out that the government may find it difficult to foist another Speaker due to the lack of a majority in Parliament. Backchannel moves are now under way.

The developments within the UNP, with just two months to go after prorogation of Parliament ends for a general election, will mean its campaign will be a rougher journey. Two UNP stalwarts who staunchly backed Premadasa — Mangala Samaraweera and Malik Samarawickrema — have said they would retire from politics. With cracks within the UNP now widening, despite the appointment of Premadasa as the Leader of the Opposition, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)-backed alliance already has a broad edge. That is the second gift that is waiting to fall on Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s lap.

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