The Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe administration assumed power in January 2015 pledging, not only to eradicate corruption, but to hold to account anyone who had squandered or stolen public resources. Cases were opened by the dozen. Yet, convictions can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The Sunday Times trawled through four years of records, [...]


Cases galore, convictions rare in Yahapalana Govt.’s anti-corruption sham


The Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe administration assumed power in January 2015 pledging, not only to eradicate corruption, but to hold to account anyone who had squandered or stolen public resources. Cases were opened by the dozen. Yet, convictions can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Charges were filed against Wimal Weerawansa and Namal Rajapaksa and they were remanded and released on bail

The Sunday Times trawled through four years of records, from 2015 to 2018, to look at the investigations that were launched. Below are some from the first year alone. The flood later slows to a trickle. But behind each case are funds and human resources wasted to, ostensibly, fix a system that today remains fundamentally the same. The same actors–the accusers and the accused–are running the country.

An explosive start

In January 2015, the ‘Yahapalana’ Government’s key leaders said the Central Bank’s former Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal and associates must answer allegations of stock market, bond market and Employee Provident Fund (EPF) manipulations. It didn’t take long for the tables to turn. Action was never taken against Mr. Cabraal in any Court of law.

An anti-corruption watchdog led by Patali Champika Ranawaka, Maithri Gunaratne and Shiral Lakthilaka vowed that the new regime would punish those who amassed wealth; and investigate abuse of State resources, the misuse of Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) helicopters, stock market manipulation and corrupt construction and energy deals, Namal Rajapaksa’s ‘Nil Balakaya’ and ‘Tharunyata Hetak’. The Voice against Corruption (VAC) even had a hotline. But it later quietly disbanded.

By January 11, the Government said it would look into “a shocking attempt” by Mahinda Rajapaksa, former President, and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, former Defence Secretary, to block the counting of votes and declaration of winner with backing from the Army Commander, Inspector General of Police (IGP) and Attorney General (AG). Protracted investigations produced no evidence.

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) was soon competing to reach the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption (CIABOC) before others. Media offices were alerted so that photographers would be at the ready each time these crusaders sailed in with their files.

The JVP lodged “documentary evidence” against Basil, Namal and Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Mr. Cabraal. There were complaints related to the petroleum hedging deal, Deyata Kirula, water supply projects in Deniyaya and Weeraketiya, Divineguma, Carlton Super Sports Club and the non-payment of 15 percent tax on import of 500 machines to the Department of Customs.

Complaints were also filed against Johnston Fernando, Rohitha Abeygunawardene, former Tourist Board Chairman Senaka Guneratne, former Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau Rumy Jauffer and Development Lotteries Board (DLB). Eight persons were arrested after 60,000 unlicensed bottles of liquor belonging to Fernando’s Wayamba Distilleries was found in a Baseline Road warehouse. Its brewery was also sealed.

A corruption case was filed against Mr Fernando and two others for allegedly causing an unlawful loss of Rs 40 million to the Government by employing 153 employees of the Cooperative Wholesale Establishment (CWE) for election work from 2010 to 2014. The case continues.

Separately, the Kurunegala High Court heard that, during the 2013 North-Western Provincial Council polls, Mr Fernando ordered three Lak Sathosa outlets to release Rs 5.2mn worth of goods to support his son’s election bid. He was acquitted in 2018 over, among other issues, contradictory evidence. The Attorney General’s Department has said it will file a revision application challenging the judgment.

In January last year, Mr Fernando was also acquitted and released from a case filed against failure to declare assets and liabilities while serving as a minister in 2010. The reason: failure of prosecutors to prove the charges.

Cases galore

After the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) was set up, officials–including Mr. Cabraal and former Treasury Secretary P B Jayasundera–were questioned about the petroleum hedging deal. The inquiries were completed in 2016 and file handed over to the AG’s Department for further action which is still pending.

The FCID and CIABOC started investigating alleged financial misappropriation around the 2013 Deyata Kirula. Kanthi Gunawardana, the former Chief Executive of the Deyata Kirula Secretariat, spent four months of 2013 in remand without charge. She later filed complaints at CIABOC claiming exhibition committee members–including Ranjith Siyambalapitiya–had allegedly misappropriated Rs 500mn in public funds.

Each institution had its own inquiries, often summoning officials for questioning on clashing dates. Mr Sirisena set up the Presidential Commission of Inquiry to investigate and inquire into Serious Acts of Fraud, Corruption and Abuse of Power, State Resources and Privileges (PRECIFAC).

Not to be outdone, the Prime Minister’s office started a Committee against Corruption (CAC). And Cabinet approved the creation of an ‘Urgent Response Committee’ that would include the JVP’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake, officials, police, lawyers, audit and finance experts and CID. The police also had a Special Investigations Unit.

CIABOC complained that it had no resources to handle the magnitude of petitions being filed. It needed staff, vehicles and at least 78 computers. Thousands of complaints were coming in but at least half were rubbish. The JHU alone gave 1,700 files, a party member said.

The police then dwelt for days on the discovery of a two-seater aircraft at the Narahenpita Economic Centre, reportedly gifted to Yoshitha Rajapaksa. A special team headed by the Colombo Deputy Inspector General (DIG) was assigned. After much frenzy, a technician came forward to say the craft had been built by the late Ray Wijewardene. The drama ended in anti-climax.

There were the baby elephant cases that still haven’t led to concrete action. Sajin de Vass Gunawardena’s Ambalangoda home was searched an elephant found. The Wildlife Department declared a grace period of one month for anyone illegally holding baby elephants to return them.

A two-and-half-year-old elephant calf was found inside Alan Mathiniyaramaya Temple in Polhengoda, of which Ven Uduwe Dhammaloka Thera is Chief Prelate. In July 2018, authorities at Bandaranaike International Airport even forced the priest to get off a Muscat-bound aircraft on his way to London as the Court had banned his travel. Court proceedings continue.

Meanwhile, a case filed against Samarappulige Niraj Roshan alias ‘Ali Roshan’ and seven others for allegedly keeping five elephants without permits and racketeering them continues. The charges include conspiracy to traffic elephants, trafficking elephants, possessing elephants illegally and retaining stolen public property.

Vehicles and weapons

After the Presidential Secretariat asked the IGP to investigate its “missing vehicles”, tip-offs rolled in. Cars, jeeps and cabs started turning up everywhere: four defenders in a garage in Kirulapone; a Montero jeep in the garden of a former North Western Provincial Council member; a race car with no ownership papers from a house in Piliyandala; a double cab inside a sawmill in Kamburupitiya; a Government vehicle on an estate in Madulsima, and so on.

The Carlton residence of Mr Rajapaksa was searched for a Lamborghini. Police also took over 43 run-down vehicles–including the armour-plated BMW that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was riding in when the LTTE attacked him–from an open land in Colombo. There was a travel ban on the Presidential Secretariat’s former Transport Director. In February, Keerthi Samarasinghe Dissanayake was arrested and remanded for failing to account for three missing vehicles–a motorcycle, jeep and car.

Then, there were the weapons. The Rakna Arakshaka Lanka Limited (RALL) armoury at BMICH was raided on allegations that its weapons had been used for election violence. The Avant Garde Maritime Services (Pvt) Ltd (AGMSL) fiasco broke in January 2015 with the “discovery” of 3,000 weapons aboard the MV Mahanuwara off the port of Galle. Officials, including Gotabaya Rajapaksa, were extensively questioned. Several of them had stints in remand. The case continues to this day.

Following several acquittals, the AG last month filed a revised charge sheet containing indictments against Avant Garde Maritime Service Chairman Nissanka Senadhipathi and eight others over the allegations of possessing unauthorised firearms and live ammunition at a floating armoury in the Galle port. There are now 882 charges, as opposed to the previous 7,537.

The Government said it would inquire into a deposit of billions of rupees paid by Shangri-La and China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corporation (CATIC) in a Bank of Ceylon account belonging to the Defence Ministry. It came to nothing.

For a while, police expended energy on investigating buildings being built in Arugam Bay and Kankesanthurai that the Government claimed were “Presidential palaces”. The previous administration argued that they were international convention centres and not mansions.

The CID inquired into whether National Freedom Front Parliamentarian Wimal Weerawansa’s wife, Shashi, secured a diplomatic passport on wrong information–specifically, falsifying date of birth and national identity card number. She was arrested in late February 2015 when it emerged that her husband, too, had two separate dates of birth. Her case is ongoing (the next date is in March) and she is out on bail.

Mr Weerawansa was also arrested in January 2017 and remanded by the Colombo Fort Magistrate over charges of misusing 40 state vehicles belonging to SEC causing a loss of Rs 90mn. He is out on bail and, last year, a travel ban on him was lifted. The Magistrate has sent a reminder to the AG directing the Department to expedite legal advice regarding the case. The FCID has alleged that Mr Weerawansa doled out State vehicles for the use of close relatives and private staff without Treasury approval.

The CIABOC was petitioned against Sajin de Vass Gunawardena saying he had accumulated wealth and abused his power. And the JVP claimed his Cosmos Aviation had spent US$ 2mn on aircraft and helicopters.

A case filed against Mr. de Vass Gunawardena in the Colombo High Court will be taken up on February 25. He is indicted for laundering Rs 306.26mn after a CID investigation revealed that he owned 21 companies under the name Cosmos before he resigned from all directorships and transferred the shares to his wife. He allegedly made “suspicious transactions” using seven of these entities and deposited millions of rupees in their accounts, not commensurate with his or his wife’s income.

The Government pledged to probe State and semi-State institutions that had funded Mahinda Rajapaksa’s election campaign. This included State banks, media, boards and corporations. There is no record of any effort to recoup these losses.

The Hyatt Regency hotel deal was flagged as corrupt. The project had belonged to Ceylinco Shriram. But it was sold by a committee to Sino Lanka Hotels and Spa Ltd for Rs 350mn when there was allegedly another bid for Rs 7.5bn.

Sajith Premadasa, engaged two audit firms to investigate the housing and Samurdhi portfolios earlier held by Basil Rajapaksa and Weerawansa, with the aim of identifying those responsible for waste, corruption and irregularities. The reports were never released.

Mr Premadasa also publicly accused the State Engineering Corporation (SEC) of hiring 33 vehicles at Rs 80,000 each per month “for political work”. The National Housing Development Authority rented 15 vehicles for campaign activities at the expense of a housing initiative, he claimed. A large sum collected for Mahabhimani 2014 National Construction Awards was spent without procedure. There is no evidence of action being taken.

Police seized 75,000 Divineguma coupons and 65,000 almanacs from a storeroom at the Ampara District Secretariat. A related case is still being heard in the Colombo High Court with Basil Rajapaksa being accused of abusing Rs 29mn in public funds to print five million almanacs in the run-up 2015 presidential poll.

“Large-scale corruption”

A committee was set up to investigate “large-scale” corruption in the Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB), the Railways Department, the National Transport Commission (NTC) and the Road Passenger Transport Authority. It was alleged that NTC officials had issued road permits to cronies.

The FCID separately inquired into claims that Kumara Welgama, while he was Transport Minister, caused losses to the State by awarding spare parts tenders to two private companies. He has filed action in the Supreme Court seeking an order to prevent his arrest and remand–now a common practice. The case continues.

In February 2015, Parliamentarian Sarana Gunawardena’s passport was impounded by the Colombo Chief Magistrate on a request by CIABOC. Last month, he was sentenced to three years in prison for using Development Lotteries Board funds to import a luxury vehicle (which now cannot be found) during his tenure. He also pleaded guilty to two counts of not declaring his assets and liabilities. He is out on bail pending appeal.

The Government told Parliament it would take action over malpractice and fraud in the Uma Oya Multipurpose Development Project. The only case filed in this regard was a petition in the Supreme Court against violation of the fundamental rights of villagers whose houses were damaged and whose water sources dried up.

The investigation into the killing of Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra began in earnest. Today, Duminda Silva, a key suspect, is on death row, after he and three others were convicted of murder by the Colombo High Court. The sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court.

Other high-profile murder cases continue to be in limbo. Despite a pledge to find the killers of Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge and rugby player Wasim Thajudeen, there has been no result. In August 2015, Mr Thajudeen’s body was exhumed. In September 2016, Mr Wickrematunge’s body was exhumed. There have been some arrests, some remands–nothing concrete.

Parliament was told that legal action will be taken against those responsible for massive losses to Mihin Lanka. By now, there has been a Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Mihin and SriLankan Airlines. But action was only taken last month against SriLankan’s former Chief Executive Officer Kapila Chandrasena and his wife. That, too, was over bribery in aircraft purchases–not the multitude of other malpractices identified in the Commission report.

The Rajapaksa administration was accused of gross abuse of State funds for election bribes, propaganda and vote-buying. But only the “sil redi” case drew to a conclusion. Lalith Weeratunga, the former Secretary to the President, and Anusha Pelpita, the former Director General of the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission, were both indicted in September 2015 of fraudulently using Rs 600mn of TRC funds to buy and give away ‘sil redi’ as election hand-outs. In 2017, the Colombo High Court found them guilty and sentenced them to three years rigorous imprisonment. They were allowed bail on appeal.

Mr Wickremesinghe told Parliament that Mangala Samaraweera, the then Foreign Minister, was asked to investigate millions of dollars paid to US lobbyists to campaign in Washington on Sri Lanka’s behalf. The Sunday Times repeatedly highlighted that some of this money did not go into lobbying at all. No action was taken.

In October last year, Federal prosecutors filed a criminal case charging 49-year-old Imaad Zuberi, a Southern California campaign fundraiser, with falsifying records. Court papers showed that only a fraction of the US$ 6.5mn that Sri Lanka paid this man in 2014 was spent on lobbying while 87 percent of it was spent on himself and his wife.

These are only a few of the cases that are part of the former Government’s anti-corruption drive. Others investigated include Gamini Senerath, formerly Presidential Chief of Staff, Rohitha Bogollagama, Tiran Alles, Udayanga Weeratunga (over the MiG deal), Keheliya Rambukwella and Prasanna Ranatunga. There is a plethora more and it has mostly benefiting a handful of elite lawyers who are predominantly President’s Counsel and their associates. There has been no systemic change for public benefit.

Cases against the Rajapaksas

Shayamali Perera, the spouse of former DIG Vas Gunewardena (now serving five years rigorous imprisonment for threatening a fellow police officer), complained to CIABOC that Shirani, the former First Lady, and the Treasury were involved in a Rs 500mn gold racket.

That didn’t go far. But the FCID did start inquiries on whether a Defender jeep allegedly involved in rugby player Wasim Thajudeen’s death was used by Ms Rajapaksa’s son, Yoshitha, after it was given to her Siriliya Saviya Foundation by the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society. Police also searched a house in Dehiwala believed to have been hers, as part of an assets probe.

Yoshitha, meanwhile, was remanded by the Kaduwela Magistrate in 2016 over suspected money laundering. So were Nishantha Ranatunga, former Sri Lanka Cricket Secretary, and three others. They were the owners and top management of Carlton Sports Network (CSN). He was suspended from naval service on Defence Ministry order. But he was reinstated in October 2019 ahead of his marriage. Nothing has yet come of the CSN case.

Namal Rajapaksa was also arrested in 2016 over allegations that he pocketed Rs 70mn worth of funds from the Krrish deal. There were allegations that several VIPs had been granted secret payoffs by the US$ 650 million Krrish Tower project. He spent time in remand before being released on bail. Police are proceeding with investigations but their fate is uncertain.

A separate case against Namal and five others relates to their alleged involvement in laundering money through Gowers Corporate Services (Pvt) Limited. He is alleged to have bought shares of a company named Hello Corp and then set up Gowers with funds that exceed his income as an MP. The case is still being heard.

In November last year, a Special High Court Trial-at-Bar acquitted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa from the D.A. Rajapaksa Museum case and also lifted the overseas travel ban imposed on him. This was in view of his new position. The Constitution did not allow any civil or criminal proceedings to be instituted or continued against the President in respect of anything done or omitted to be done by the President, either in his official or private capacity.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa and six others were charged with misappropriation of Rs. 33.9 million in public funds during construction of the D A Rajapaksa Museum and Memorial in Medamulana.

A case has also been filed against Basil Rajapaksa in the Gampaha High Court (next date March 20) under the Anti-Money Laundering Act for misusing state funds by allegedly purchasing a 16-acre plot of land in Malwana in Dompe, constructing a mansion, a swimming pool and a functioning farm.

And he is fighting another accusation of misappropriating Rs 2.99bn from the Divineguma Development Department to distribute roofing sheets to voters before the 2015 Presidential election. The case is ongoing. Also charged are three others from the Department.

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