by Manjula Fernando
Minister of Justice Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, dismissing accusations levelled at the government and some of its ministers by JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake over the Avant Garde case in Parliament on Wednesday, said there was no case under the PTA, Explosives Act or the Firearm Ordinance and he did not want to be branded as a Justice Minister who has no knowledge of Sri Lanka’s laws. “There are no criminal elements to the case to initiate action under the said statutes,” he said in an interview with the Sunday Observer, questioning why the Avant Garde operations were deemed a threat to national security now, and not in 2012 when it started operations.
Q: Taking part in the adjournment debate on Wednesday, you said you prevented the former Defence Secretary from being taken into custody by the police, acting on the Attorney General’s (AG) advice. Can you elaborate on this statement?
A: Not on the AG’s advice. This was done soon after the Avant Garde case was initiated. Some politicians were insisting that irrespective of the final result of the case, it was a good opportunity to get at Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and that he must be arrested immediately.
I knew the investigation was done under three statutes, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the Explosives Act and the Firearm Ordinance. I said there was no material to file action under those laws as the Ministry of Defence, the Navy, a team of officials including the Defence Secretary and the Navy Commander have considered it and granted a licence to run the operation.
In addition, they have got the approval of the UN Security Council. This was an international undertaking, involving EU countries, India and so on. All were involved because their ships are sailing in the pirate infested waters near Somalia. They requested Sri Lanka’s help to protect the ships.
The contracting parties cannot be blamed for procedural irregularities. The officials should be held responsible. There are no criminal elements to the case to initiate action under the said statutes but action may be taken under Bribery and Corruption laws. This was the position I maintained. I don’t want to go down in history as the Justice Minister who knew nothing of the law.
Further, I said you could also see if the money laundering laws have been breached when they were dealing with foreign currency. That was way before the AG had given any kind of opinion.
Q: So was your decision to not allow the arrest of the former Defence Secretary based on those grounds?
A: I expressed this to the Cabinet and to the Anti Corruption Committee. I said I don’t want to protect Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. But my opinion is purely on policy. I said as the Minister of Justice I cannot let you arrest Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. My argument was, if we were to arrest Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, we will have to arrest the Navy Commander and other officials whose names are connected to the Avant Garde Case. Just because we have political differences, we cannot resort to take revenge from political opponents. Good governance can’t be what Mahinda Rajapaksa did during his time.
Q: There are many allegations regarding Avant Garde, two of which are the possibility of gun running and the supply of weapons to non-State actors. Government Ministers including, Minister Champika Ranawaka have alluded to conspiracies to hush up the investigations. Can you say this is not one such effort?
A: No it’s not. The Avant Garde operations started in 2012. Why is this a threat to national security now, after the change of government. It has not done a single transaction with the private sector, not a single gun had been given to a wrong party. It was not possible. Each and every gun that came to the floating armoury was under the custody of the Navy.
Q: But the Additional Secretary to the Defence Ministry has stated that only 89 weapons have been legally issued to Rakna Arakshaka Lanka Limited (RALL), which in turn ended up with Avant Garde but 3,000 odd weapons were found on their floating armoury. Is that statement being looked into by the investigators?
A: That is the type of operation Avant Garde carries out. When a ship proceeds from Galle Port to the Red Sea, they take guns from the Galle armoury and deposit them in another floating armoury, anchored in the Red Sea. When another arrives from Red Sea towards Galle, the same practice is repeated. Therefore, the guns on board the floating armouries can belong to various countries.
Q: You mean to say there has been no security breach or any law breaking as a result of permitting these floating armouries to dock at the Galle harbour and releasing military weapons?
A: This ship had been in the Galle harbour since October 2014. The Sri Lankan forces have allowed that. What can the new government do about it?
Q: But if you find any wrong doing under the Bribery and Corruption or Money Laundering laws, will the government be taking action?
A: Yes, certainly. The Attorney General has given a similar opinion and my personal opinion has also been that. The AG has given directives to the Inspector General of Police to look into the possibility of initiating action under the Money Laundering Act and the matter has also been referred to the Bribery Commission because this is not within the purview of the Attorney General.
Q: So there is no criminal element involved in the Avant Garde case?
A: Not just that, according to available information, this venture has brought into the country foreign currency amounting to Rs.15,000 million. And the government has received Rs. 3,500 million, not a single cent of which has been spent. After getting the benefit of the transaction, how can the same government say it is illegal.
Q: The accusations made by JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake in Parliament on Wednesday were very serious. What have you got to say about that?
A: That is his understanding of this case. Various people understand things in different ways. There have been threats to national security in 1971, 1988, 1989. I heard that thousands of ex-forces members were employed by Avant Garde, if you close it up, about 9000 or more people are bound to lose jobs. That will be another issue for the government.
Q: A minister has alleged that the owner of Avant Garde Sri Lanka is ‘filthy rich’, and that he can buy over any minister or government. Your comments?
A: I think that is a foolish assumption. The owner of Avant Garde has been given all these contracts by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. If the allegations are true, he could have bought over necessary numbers from our side and ensured Mahinda Rajapaksa’s continuation in office. Couldn’t he?
Those Ministers who make the accusations may be bought over but not myself and Minister Tilak Marapana. If you wanted to earn money like that, the best place would have been in the Mahinda Rajapaksa Cabinet. I could have become a billionaire. If that was my intention I should have remained there without raising my voice against corruption and opting to walk out after exposing massive corruption amounting to Rs. 3,000 billion.