Arrest me if you can!
BY SULOCHANA RAMIAH MOHAN
Former Ambassador to Russia UDAYANGA WEERATUNGA appointed by his cousin, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, challenged the Government and demanded they meet him either in Ukraine or at the Russian Foreign office to ‘bring to a closure’ the allegations against him with regard to the arms deal he is alleged to have had with the pro Russian rebels in Ukraine several years back. “My financial assets have been frozen by the Government, and I am recommencing my tea business in tough times. I did not kill Noel nor did I supply arms to the rebels. I am not a big shark in the Russia/Ukraine political circuit but if I am in great trouble I could still reach out to Russian President Vladimir Putin,” says Weeratunga.
?: You have been branded as the most controversial Ambassador Sri Lanka has ever had. That aside what’s your current position?
A: 15 years ago I started a tea business and I own a tea brand named Randy Tea. For the past nine years I was working for our overseas mission and did not attend to my business very much. Now times are difficult and I’m redeveloping my tea trade.
?: Where do you live?
A: I am based in Ukraine. For almost 30 years now Ukraine has been my hometown and for the last 20 years I have been residing here with my family at this very same address. Everything is registered here at this address.
?: How did you settle there?
A: I did my Mechanical Engineering course in Moscow. During that time only the foreigners benefited doing business. Under the Soviet Union their citizens could hardly get out. We supplied them tea and other stuff, while travelling around the world. They used to wait till we brought computers from Singapore and Tea from Sri Lanka. Two months ahead, they would give us the money to purchase goods for them. I built my business and continued to stay here. I am fluent in Russian language which is an asset if you are here.
?: Why were you made the Ambassador to Russia?
A: Five years before I became the Ambassador. I was the Honorary Consul for Sri Lanka in Ukraine in 1999 while Dr. Lakshman Kadirgamar was the Foreign Minister. Then in 2006, I was made the Ambassador by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa because of my knowledge of the country and my experience in working with them.
?: You were involved in illicit arms dealing with Ukrainian rebels. This was confirmed by the Ukranian government during the time of the former president and again when the regime changed. Why?
A: When this was alleged I was in Russia. So far, there is no news about me. I ask the SL foreign ministry to tell me which foreign ministry of these two countries I should go and I will be present there if they want to question me. A foreign minister of a country to say such a thing tarnishes the image of Sri Lanka. What he means is that Russia is using me to supply weapons to the rebels.
?: If you did not supply weapons to pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine, why on earth was your name mentioned by the Ukrainian government?
A: Even Russia says it’s a serious accusation against them. It was a serious war at that time between those two countries. They may be rebels, but for Russia they are their security personnel.
?: What if we say that you are being amply protected by the Russians in this matter, which is why you are safe and still securely living there?
A: Yes. That is a debatable. However selling weapons to a rebel group by an institution or a person, whatever high profile he or she may hold, would be a problematic issue. If I have gone against Ukraine selling weapons to pro-Russian rebels I cannot live here. I also don’t live in the place where the pro Russian rebels are stationed. I am in the capital of Ukraine. A foreigner, who if he was involved in such activities will he not be hunted down by the Ukrainians? Why am I not taken into custody? Ukraine FM press secretary clearly spoke to the BBC that the Ukraine President or the Foreign Ministry here has not accused Udayanga of any arms dealing.
?: However, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Mangala Samaraweera met with Ukranian Ambassador Oleksander Shevchenko who came over here last year. did he speak on the controversy of alleged illegal arms deals by you?
A: Do you know he came here only to bid goodbye to the governments he worked with as a diplomat?
?: If you claim all these are lies, what is the truth? You mean to say the Ukrainian government did not officially complain to Sri Lanka over your involvement?
A: It’s a serious accusation.
?: Why are you linked with illegal arms dealing when you are involved in tea business?
A: If an arms supplier for the LTTE lives in Colombo, will anyone keep quiet? The rift between Russia and Ukraine is still active, will these countries spare me? Russian Foreign Ministry released a letter explaining even if I have set foot in supplying arms based in Russia, it’s ‘practically impossible’ to do so based in Moscow’.
?: So you are not involved at all?
A: If they claim I have done so, I am willing at any time to meet anyone at the Russian Foreign ministry or at the Ukrainian foreign ministry. I am willing to produce myself, but not in Sri Lanka.
?: You mean to say that they falsely tarnished your name?
A: Yes. But it’s not because of me.
?: did they use your name to link you with the Avant Garde controversy?
A: No. It was something else.
?: Why did the Ukranian officials send a letter to Sri Lanka if there is no truth in it?
A: They have no time to clear their names if they had said or not. They are facing a crucial war here.
?: Some say you are ‘hiding out’ there, too. Is that correct?
A: Yes. I am hiding away from fellow Sri Lankans.
A: I am a mental wreck. I worked so hard for Sri Lanka and took part in many promotions to promote my country. But, today I don’t even have my wedding photo. My children’s future is bleak.
?: How do you earn your living now?
A: Did you know my financial assets are all frozen by the government?
?: How much is it?
A: My 25 years of savings has been frozen. I cannot divulge the amount but based in a foreign country for nearly 30 years, you should be able to guess.
?: Do you fear arrest if you come to Sri Lanka?
A: Yes. I have never been an accused or been under police custody. I am not mentally prepared to face arrest charges.
?: A possible arrest warrant over the illegal arms deals?
A: Possibly. You cannot even imagine what is in store there for me.
?: You don’t intend to return to Sri Lanka?
A: Not really. When I am old and weak, I would prefer to be in my country. But my well-wishers advised me not to step in there.
?: Were you upset when President Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated?
A: I was not shaken over the defeat. But I never expected the new government to be full of vengeance.
?: But many accuse this government for ‘not taking’ action on culprits and corrupt politicians of the previous regime. Did you hear about that?
A: Compared to former Government, political revenge is higher now.
?: We hear you are very close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. How close are you?
A: Not a great friendship but with the Ukrainian Presidents from the beginning till now, I have a cordial relationship. With Russia it’s not so. But if I have a big issue, I can approach the Russian President without any hassle. I have my close link with the Russian foreign ministry too. But they are too busy. My links with them is not based on politics but based on my personal encounters. It does not mean they are friends around the clock.
?: Why can’t you come to Sri Lanka and clear your name?
A: I don’t want to get caught to unwarranted accusations. I am fine here and happy here. why would I come there and be worried all the time?
?: Ukrainian government said they are conducting investigation on you. What if they arrest you?
A: That will never be the case. I have not done harm to the Ukranian government. Under the Soviet Union I lived with the KGB. I know their ways. That is why fearlessly I say if I am accused, even before Sri Lanka comes to know my secret operations, KGB will take action against me. Even for that matter the intelligence operation in Ukraine, Kazakhstan or Belarus is so systematic and to find me or finish me off it’s a minor matter to them.
?: Did you find the Ukrainian university for Yoshitha Rajapaksa who came here to study?
A: Ukranian government gave the scholarship for him. I did not spend on him; neither did the Government of Sri Lanka.
?: is it true that Interpol is looking for you?
A: I am told but just because government keeps changing and accusing people for political reasons, and if the Interpol works like that, they will not be recognized internationally. Firstly, I must be an accused. Not alleged for something. Then they might search for me. If I am an accused, Ukrainian government will take care of it. But they are not. I am not hiding. The Foreign Ministry knows where I live. They have my address telephone number etc. I am waiting but no one is coming here. I am in Moscow and in Ukraine. Come arrest me.
?: Did you own a restaurant before?
A: Yes, I did while I was in Kiev the capital of Ukraine. When I was the honorary consul, many Sri Lankans used to visit Ukraine and there were no Sri Lankan food outlets here. With the government’s help and the Ukrainian government’s support we were able to rent out a building very cheap.
?: Who is Noel Ranaweera?
A: Noel was a chef. When Chef Sunil left for Russia, I was introduced to Noel by him. Both worked for a leading hotel in Negombo. I met Noel in Kiev.
?: How long did Noel stay and work for you?
A: Since he was a bachelor he remained with me from year 2002. He went back for the first time in 2012. Then, he returned once again for the ‘CHOGM’ in 2013.
?: Holding a diplomatic post, was it right for you to have opened a joint account with Noel who was only a chef?
A: He did not have an NRFC account when he came here. I told him to save his salary and live on the commission he earned in selling tea. When I came to Sri Lanka I opened one for him but not a joint account. When he visited Sri Lanka in 2012 I gave him a no objection letter to change the account completely in his name. He did so, and gave the power of attorney to his elder brother.
?: Why did Noel follow you to Moscow?
A: When I became the Ambassador in 2006 one of my workers Aruna Shantha, a graduate was murdered while he was selling tea in the remote areas in Ukraine. The killers thought he had money. They assaulted him and set fire to the car. Over that Noel was afraid to remain in Ukraine. Soon he came to Moscow and I employed him as a messenger, at the embassy, a local service man who is not entitled to any perks form the Foreign Ministry except his salary.
?: Wasn’t he a translator and your personal assistant?
A: No. to be a translator he must be a graduate. He was a chef and then I employed him as a messenger.
?: Was he a citizen of Russia?
A: He had permanent residence in Ukraine.
?: Why did his family suspect that there was foul play regarding his death?
A: the entire story came up not when he was killed, but after the regime changed.
?: The family said they were too scared to talk about it, because you were a part of a powerful family then. Not fair enough?
A: No. The family thought he was entitled for compensation. Noel bought a land and made a house all in his brother’s name. I heard there was nothing for his sister. Over this they used the regime change as a tool and tried to obtain compensation. They created the story that they suspected foul play. I even heard that the body has not yet been returned to the family after it was exhumed last year.
?: What do you know about his death?
A: I know that the man who knocked him down was arrested, and the court verdict was submitted to Sri Lanka. When he was knocked down it was clearly seen in the CCTV. Before the driver escaped in his truck, he was caught by the police. Russia has convicted the man and sent all details to Sri Lanka.
?: According to the Russian Court, what was the verdict on his death?
A: I don’t know, because I am not the Ambassador now. But when I was the Ambassador I inquired from the Russian foreign minister who said the truck driver was accused. The death certificate was issued by me. Three originals were prepared: one for the family, one for the registrar in Colombo and one for the Foreign Ministry. The family should obtain the registrar’s copy by going there.
?: Did he live at the same house you lived in?
A: He lived at the basement of the Mission house. The driver and cleaners lived there too.
?: What happened to your diplomatic passport which you have not handed over to the foreign ministry?
A: The immigration officer wrote to foreign ministry asking if they should cancel my diplomatic passport, and in return the FM sent a letter that they have no objection in issuing me an ordinary passport. That is before the diplomatic passports were cancelled. On 6 March 2015, my diplomatic passport was cancelled, and I obtained normal passport thereafter. But now the Foreign Minister says my diplomatic passport is not cancelled.
?: Even though the passport was cancelled why are you not handing it over to them?
A: It was cancelled but for the old visa details I need proof when I apply for another visa. They ask for my last travel, the date and all sorts of details. I have several expired passports with me. I need them for references. I have more than 10 such cancelled passports with me.
?: You are not willing to hand over the diplomatic passport?
A: I have all those for my future references. After the cancellation the passport is given back to the owner.
?: Why aren’t you confronting the foreign ministry and at the same time avoiding the media?
A: it’s politics. That is why I don’t want to talk now. There is no reason to counter argue. I also know there are several backlashes against me. One day my name will be cleared, based on proof. On Noel’s death the Russian court gave its verdict.
?: Is the Government trying to get you to Sri Lanka?
A: No. That attempt was not there but just to harass me. Up to now my personal belongings are not delivered to my power of attorney. My wedding photo is there and children’s photos are also there. I am disappointed.
?: What happened to the container?
A: I hear the FM has ordered to destroy the container stuff. I am totally against that.