- Wickramasuriya was arrested for misappropriation of public funds while serving as the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the USA from 2008 to 2013
- Wickramasuriya was residing in the US and engaging in the business of Tea Export, at the time he was appointed as the Consular General to the Sri Lankan mission in Los Angeles in 2005
- According to the ‘B’ Report (B 21/2016) submitted to the Fort Magistrate’s Court by the FCID, the former Diplomat is accused of having pocketed US$ 322,027.35
- Through the e-mail, a request had been made from Wickramasuriya’s Counsel to treat the sensitive information provided as confidential. However, it has found its way to the Rajapaksas
In a new twist in the saga of Sri Lanka’s former Ambassador to the United States of America, it has emerged that the US Authorities were in communication with the former Ambassador, Jaliya Chitran Wickramasuriya, about becoming a prosecution witness in an U.S. investigation into allegedly dubious financial transactions made by persons connected to the former First family.
Surprisingly, the development came to light in a highly confidential e-mail sent by Wickramasuriya’s lawyer, in the US, to one of his lawyers in Sri Lanka. Through means that have yet to be ascertained, this confidential and legally privileged communication got into the hands of allies of the Rajapaksa family within a few days after it was received in Colombo.
The information led to efforts by affected parties to persuade the Sri Lankan Government to assert diplomatic immunity for Wickramasuriya to prevent him from testifying in the US against the Rajapaksa family.
As a part of this process, an eminent President’s Counsel was tasked to file a Writ Application in the Court of Appeal to legally compel the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) to reverse its decision not to assert diplomatic immunity.
Filing a Writ Petition, the accused Wickramasuriya, was seeking an order to quash the decision to issue a letter waiving off his diplomatic immunity.
However, when the Writ Petition was taken up in the Court of Appeal on February 6, Additional Solicitor General Yasantha Kodagoda appearing for the Attorney General, raised a preliminary objection, stating that seeking the decision to withdraw immunity was taken by the President in his official capacity and the only Court with jurisdiction to reverse such decision is the Supreme Court according to the Constitution.
When the petition was taken up for support last week, Additional Solicitor General Yasantha Kodagoda who appeared for the Attorney General, as well as President’s Counsel Romesh de Silva, who appeared on behalf of the petitioner, were given time until March 5 to make their final written submissions. Considering the submissions, the Court of Appeal is expected to take a final decision on whether or not the case can proceed further.
Wickramasuriya, who is a cousin of the former President, and now Kurunegala District MP, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was arrested at the Bandaranaike International Airport on November 18, 2016 while going through immigration at the Departure Lounge after a vacation in Sri Lanka, by the Officers of the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID). Wickramasuriya was arrested for misappropriation of public funds while serving as the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the USA from 2008 to 2013.
According to individuals briefed on the matter, an investigation was initiated against Wickramasuriya after the FCID was established in 2015 based on several complaints, and the investigation had been conducted in a most secretive manner. “When the investigators came to know that Wickramasuriya was to leave the country, a Court Order had been obtained to arrest him,” sources told the ‘Daily Mirror’ on condition of anonymity.
Wickramasuriya was residing in the US and engaging in the business of Tea Export, at the time he was appointed as the Consular General to the Sri Lankan mission in Los Angeles in 2005. Three years later in 2008, he was appointed the Sri Lankan Ambassador to USA.
According to the ‘B’ Report (B 21/2016) submitted to the Fort Magistrate’s Court by the FCID, the former Diplomat is accused of having pocketed US$ 322,027.35 out of US $ 6.6 million (approximately Rs. 1 billion as per the present exchange rate) that was deposited to the Escrow account maintained by the Embassy of Sri Lanka, to purchase a building to house the Sri Lankan Embassy at No: 3025 Whitehaven Street, Washington DC 20008. According to the Settlement Statement issued to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development by Allen Randy, who was in charge of the Embassy’s Escrow account, the purchase price was US $ 6.25 million. The Settlement Statement further states that the purchaser (the GoSL) owns the remaining balance of US$ 332,072.35.
In a confidential addendum to the Settlement Statement it had further stated that the balance of the Escrow account US $332,027.35 had been paid to two companies on Wickramasuriya’s instruction. These two companies – Washington Fine Properties and DCRE Company had been paid US$ 166,013.68 and US$ 166,013.66 respectively as broker fees by the property seller. Later, the Escrow account had been closed on January 13, 2016.
Broker fee not documented
According to the ‘B’ Report, although the e-mails exchanged by the then Acting Ambassador and the property seller says that a broker fee had been paid to Washington Fine Properties and DCRE Company, this had not been documented in any of the Embassy documents.
It was later revealed how this money had been paid to an American Company – Paper Crown LLC and PPP International (Pvt) Ltd., which is a Sri Lankan Company. These two companies had been paid US$ 82,027.35 and US$ 250,000 respectively by Wickramasuriya although these two companies were not involved in a legitimate transaction.
Paper Crown LLC is owned by Vinod Basnayake – a close associate of Ambassador Wickramasuriya. According to the ‘B’ Report, both Basnayake and Wickramasuriya were meeting constantly at the Sri Lankan Embassy in Washington during the latter’s tenure as the Ambassador.
PPP International (Pvt) Ltd., of No. 11 Mansion Place, Negombo is owned by Allansis Brendon Sosa who is a Sri Lankan. Out of the money remitted to PPP International, Rs. 18 million had been deposited to Ceylon Royal Tea and Supplies (Pvt) Ltd., owned by Jaliya Wickramasuriya. The investigations meanwhile had found out that on six occasions, PPP International had paid Rs. 10.196 million each to Ceylon Royal Tea. Although Wickramasuriya had made the Embassy shut down the Escrow account when withdrawing US$ 6.6 million to purchase the building, there is an in-depth property report including tax and deed history of No. 3025 Whitehaven Street, Washington DC 20008. The house had cost the country only US$ 6.25 million. According to the transfer document, the ownership of the building had been changed from Bodman, Samuel E & M Diane to the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka on January 16, 2013. The 6,135 square feet building consists of seven bedrooms and nine bathrooms. The building had been built in 1951 and the land value of the property was US$1.924 million in 2016.
Allegedly evaded paying taxes
Following the transaction, Wickramasuriya is alleged to have evaded payment of taxes in the US which led relevant departments in the US to start investigating him.
The investigations brought to light how Wickramasuriya had violated the US laws by not declaring money in his possession and evaded paying taxes. As it was an offence in the US, the US Government had requested the GoSL to recall Ambassador Wickramasuriya. Later, career diplomat Asela Weerakoon was temporarily posted to the US as the Sri Lankan Ambassador till a permanent replacement was made.
The investigations refer to how the Rajapaksa Government remained tight lipped about the US Government’s request to the GoSL to remove the Ambassador and how Wickramasuriya was once again posted to Canada as the Sri Lankan Ambassador.
“The US and Canada have strong links with regard to Sri Lankan politicians and the citizens who are accused of fraud. When the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent the credential details of Wickramasuriya following his appointment to Canada as the new Sri Lankan Ambassador, the Canadian Government refused to accept the appointment.
“According to the B report, Wickramasuriya, maintains that he was not involved in any fraud, but had received a commission that had been paid to two companies that were involved in the purchase. However, on the instructions of Wickramasuriya, this money had been transferred to PPP International (Pvt) Ltd and Paper Crown LLC which are owned by two Sri Lankans,” sources said.
Since the allegation for swindling this money was first levelled against the Embassy official, in order to defend himself, the officer had spilled the beans to prevent any action being taken against him, it is learned
Wickramasuriya who was released on bail on March 18, 2017, later made a request from Colombo Fort Magistrate’s Court to grant him permission to travel to the US for three months to undergo treatment for one of his eyes, which appeal the Court turned down and ordered a report from the Director Eye Hospital Colombo to determine whether the illness can be treated in Sri Lanka. It is alleged that the report had been given in favour of the former Ambassador stating that the said treatment cannot be given here. After reviewing the report, Colombo Fort Magistrate Lanka Jayaratne allowed the accused to travel to the US for eight weeks and he was ordered to deposit two cash securities and a property he owns in Sri Lanka.
Be that as it may, now it is more than seven months since Wickramasuriya left for the US. His lawyer in America had send an e-mail to his Counsel, on September 24, 2017.
Through the e-mail, a request had been made from Wickramasuriya’s Counsel to treat the sensitive information provided as Confidential. However, it has found its way to the Rajapaksas.
According to reliable sources, the reason why the Government is coming under pressure to uphold diplomatic immunity on Wickramasuriya is to prevent the US from forcing the former Ambassador to testify against the former first family.
Although Colombo Fort Magistrate’s Court has issued an open warrant for the arrest of Wickramasuriya and issued notice on the defendant’s four bailsmen, including his wife who signed for the bail, to appear before the Court on February 16th, neither the accused nor his wife was present in Courts when the case was taken up last week. Meanwhile, the Court Registrar was ordered to issue Open Warrants on Wickramasuriya in English and Sinhala languages and to send copies to the Controller of Immigration and Emigration for necessary action.
“It is now clear that Wickramasuriya is not returning to the country to appear before Court. The Court lifted the Travel Ban and granted Wickramasuriya permission to travell overseas for medical treatment on the recommendation of the Director Eye Hospital Colombo, who confirmed that the accused cannot be treated in Sri Lanka,” sources claimed.
Meanwhile, an e-mail was sent to Wickramasuriya’s Counsel by this writer requesting information as to how the confidential correspondence between attorneys had gone to the hands of the Rajapaksa family and whether the Court was informed that Wickramasuriya would not appear in Court, as stated in the e-mail he received. There has been no response for this e-mail has so far.
‘Attorney-client privilege’ defined
Senior Attorney Upul Jayasuriya PC when contacted to find out what is meant by ‘attorney-client privilege’ in Sri Lankan law and what the legal basis is in Sri Lanka for attorney-client privilege, Jayasuriya replied as follows:
“Confidentiality and Attorney Client relationship concern the information received or obtained from the client and the lawyer is required to keep it private and protected in order to maintain client’s ability to confide freely in his lawyer.
“It is a fundamental principle embodied in the lawyer-client relationship that in the absence of client’s specific consent that the lawyer must not release the information relating to communication or any information obtained in the process of representation. This is a hallmark of the client lawyer relationship.
“However, in case such confidential communication is received by outside third parties it would be best left with discretion to the holder of such information. However, if such information is used in any legal proceedings the same could be objected to on the basis of the admissibility of such information on the basis that the same is confidential,”Jayasuriya added.