By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Presidential Media Division (PMD) on the afternoon of Oct. 06, 2021 released a letter (PS/LAD/1/9/2021(iii)) Attorney-at-Law Harigupta Rohanadeera, Director General (Legal) President’s Office has sent to Attorney-at-Law W.K.D. Wijeratne, Director General, Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC).
The letter requested the CIABOC to submit a report to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa within a month as regards the revelations made by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) pertaining to Sri Lankans engaged in controversial offshore transactions. Rohanadeera’s letter didn’t name anyone though by then the media all over the world, on the basis of ICIJ investigations, named former parliamentarian Nirupama Rajapaksa and her husband Thirukumar Nadesan as operators of offshore accounts.
Instructions issued to the CIABOC should be examined against the backdrop of Nadesan’s plea to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa that he preferred a retired judge of the Court of Appeal to inquire into the ‘Pandora Papers’ revelations.
The following is the text of Nadesan’s letter dated Oct 06: “My name and that of my wife have been referred to as having various accounts/assets offshore. These references are in what is referred to as the Pandora Papers.
“It is commonly believed that all persons whose names have been so divulged are in some way guilty of wrongdoing. Several world leaders, including His Excellency Imran Khan have publicly announced that they will investigate anyone whose names appear in Pandora Papers.
“I assure your Excellency that my wife and I are totally innocent and are guilty of no wrong doings. In the circumstances, I humbly request Your Excellency to appoint an independent investigator, preferably a retired appeal court judge, without delay, to investigate this matter so that my name and that of my wife would be cleared.
“I am making this request to Your Excellency because my wife and I have suffered heartache and pain of mind. We have been presumed guilty, the presumption of innocence is reversed. It is in these circumstances that I make this humble request to your Excellency.
“Please forgive me for intruding on your time.”
The one page letter has been sent from Nadesan’s Horton Place residence ‘Montrose’, No 95.
Is the CIABOC capable of investigating Pandora Papers revelations? The CIABOC comprising retired Supreme Court justice Eva Wanasundera, retired Appeals Court justice Deepali Wijesundara and former head of State Intelligence Service (SIS) retired DIG Chandra Nimal Wakista, faces a daunting task in producing a report within a month.
The ICIJ declared: *”In the U.S., lawmakers said they will respond to the Pandora Papers with new legislation targeting financial professionals and other businesses that move dirty money for corrupt clients;
*The European Commission’s head of taxation said the commission will push to crack down on tax avoidance and expand information exchange between countries; and
*Enforcement agencies or leaders in India, Spain, Ireland, Mexico, Germany, Pakistan, Bulgaria, Australia, Brazil, Sri Lanka, Paraguay, Panama and more have vowed to act on the Pandora Papers revelations, as new stories continue to be published and the global response to the investigation continues to grow and evolve.”
The 20th Amendment to the Constitution, enacted in Oct 2020, deprived the CIABOC the power to initiate action. The much-touted move hailed by the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) as a measure to restore political stability, obviously weakened the outfit. However, the CIABOC’s performance, even before the enactment of the 20 A, has been questionable though it engaged in some high profile exercises during the yahapalana administration. Its passage with a 2/3 majority in Parliament was followed by the CIABOC giving up on investigations initiated during the yahapalana administration.
The Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL), the first to demand a thorough domestic investigation into the Pandora Papers has, subsequently lodged a complaint with the CIABOC seeking an investigation. Executive Director TISL Attorney-at-Law Nadishani Perera says the CIABOC has very clear powers and laws to deal with complaints though technically it cannot act on its own as a result of the 20th Amendment.
Having lodged the complaint on Oct 7, the day after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s intervention, TISL asserted that the transactions revealed could amount to offences under Section 23A of the Bribery Act hence the need to probe into the Declarations of Assets and Liabilities of Mrs. Nirupama Rajapaksa relating to her tenure as a Member of Parliament. TISL also points out that CIABOC is empowered to take relevant action on acquisitions through unknown sources of wealth or income, under Section 4(1) of the CIABOC Act under the provisions of the Bribery Act or the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Law. The anti-corruption outfit suggested that investigations could be pursued under Section 70 of the Bribery Act, to investigate whether public funds had been embezzled and laundered through these foreign safe havens.
The contentious issue is whether serving or former parliamentarians or their relatives can be properly investigated without political interference. The CIABOC has conducted successful investigations even on the basis of anonymous complaints. Let me give an example to prove how a successful prosecution has been achieved in the case of a person failing to make an asset declaration.
The Colombo High Court of No.6, Judge Patabendige on June 12, 2020, convicted a Supply Assistant of Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) attached to the Ratnapura Branch, Wijekoon Mudiyanselage Sumanasekera, in a case prosecuted by the CIABOC based on an assets investigation conducted on an anonymous complaint received by the Commission.
The accused, residing at the Millennium City Housing Scheme, No 14, Aturugiriya, has been accused of accumulating Rs.6 mn assets through bribes exceeding his actual income. HC judge Patabendige imposed a five year rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 5,000/-. In default of fine, further three months simple imprisonment was imposed.
The judge further ordered the official under section 26(b) of the Bribery Act to pay Rs.11,960,093/98 which was twice the amount earned by bribes. In default of payment, the accused was subjected to a term of a further two year rigorous imprisonment.
Judge Patabendige also issued an open warrant on the accused and ordered to inform the Department of Immigration and Emigration in that regard.
Deputy Director General of CIABOC Mrs. Ranjani Senewiratne prosecuted. Investigation was conducted by the OIC of the Assets Investigations Division.
However, the CIABOC will have to work closely with the Central Bank, the Inland Revenue and even the Foreign Ministry in addition to the ICIJ in conducting investigations into the Nadesan affair. Parliament, too, will have to monitor what can be easily declared as the biggest case undertaken by the CIABOC. The issue at hand is whether the assets under the name of Nirupama Rajapaksa and Thirukumar Nadesan had been declared to the relevant authorities.
Regardless of attempts to depict the questionable transactions as dealings that had taken place during the 1990-2000 period, the Pandora Papers disclosure placed the SLPP in an extremely embarrassing position. There is no point in denying the fact that she represented the SLFP in the PA and UPFA parliamentary groups for a period of 16 years. Most of all she is a blood relative of the Rajapaksas in power. That is the undeniable truth. The revelations couldn’t have happened at a worse time for the government as it struggles to cope up with the deepening economic crisis, primarily brought on by the global pandemic.
Conduct of parliamentarians
Colombo Chief Magistrate Buddhika Sri Ragala on July 30, 2021 acquitted one-time Deputy Minister Sarana Gunawardena of all bribery cases filed against him.
Assistant Director General of the CIABOC Asitha Anthony told the court that the case had been filed against the former Deputy Minister without the approval of the three commissioners. Attorney-at-Law Niroshan Siriwardena, appearing on behalf of Gunawardena requested that the charges against his client be dropped.
CIABOC had filed eight cases against Gunawardena, accusing him of causing losses to the State by leasing vehicles to the Development Lotteries Board (DLB) during his tenure as its Chairman in 2007.
While serving as the Chairman of DLB, Gunawardena was alleged to have influenced the officers of the DLB to rent three vehicles from his wife by paying Rs 960,000 per each vehicle where the true value per vehicle was only Rs. 635,000.
Gunawardena was convicted for all three charges that were presented against him. The rejected politician was sentenced to a prison sentence of one year on each charge cumulating a prison sentence of three years. Gunawardena was also ordered to pay a fine of Rs 100,000 for each vehicle totaling to a fine of Rs 300,000. In case Gunawardena failed to pay the fine, he was to be subjected to an additional prison sentence of six months for each offence. The prosecution was handled by Assistant Director General Mr. Asitha Athony.
The dismissal of Gunawardena’s proceedings is certainly not an isolated case. When JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake raised the shocking disclosure made by ICIJ in Parliament, Leader of the House and Education Minister Dinesh Gunawardena pointed out that the case was now before court.
Lawmaker Dissanayake was addressing Parliament on Oct 8, the day the CIABOC recorded Nadesan’s statement. Minister Gunawardena was referring to the controversial case pertaining to Malwana house.
SLPP National List MP Jayantha Weerasinghe, PC, challenged Dissanayake’s comments. Declaring that he appeared for Thirukumar Nadesan in court, Weerasinghe emphasised that no one in Parliament represented the businessman’s interests. Weerasinghe said that Nadesan was an accused in that case.
Dissanayake also raised the controversial Gin-Nilwala project and the transfer of funds to Nadesan’s account by a Chinese company that received a staggering Rs 4,012 mn in two separate transactions from the then Sri Lankan government around the time of the 2015 presidential election. The SLPP repeatedly interrupted MP Dissanayake. A smiling JVPer said that though the SLPP claimed no one in Parliament represented the interests of Thirukumar Nadesan, many spoke on his behalf.
Matara District Communist Party member Weerasumana Weerasinghe was in the chair.
The reference to money received by Nadesan from the Chinese company given the Gin-Nilwala project amounted to USD 5.9 mn. Dissanayake told The Island that the account that had received USD 5.9 mn was a Hong Kong account.
TISL, in its website tweeted that particular section of MP Dissanayake’s parliamentary speech. The social media coverage of Pandora Papers underscored the seriousness of the crisis faced by Sri Lanka.
A dismal track record
Civil society activist Gamini Viyangoda in April this year sought an explanation from the CIABOC and the Attorney General’s Department as regards termination of several high profile cases. Viyangoda questioned the rationale in dropping all charges against former lawmaker and Foreign Ministry Monitoring MP Sajin Vass Gunawardena pertaining to the Mihin Lanka case. That particular case dealt with misappropriation of public funds amounting to Rs 883 mn, Viyangoda declared while referring to recent dismissal of cases involving one-time Eastern Province Chief Minister Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias Pilleyan (now an MP backing the SLPP), Johnston Fernando, Rohitha Abeygunawardena, Basil Rajapaksa, Mahindananda Aluthgamage, Janaka Bandara Tennakoon and former Chief Justice Mohan Peiris. The former CJ received appointment as Sri Lanka’s top representative in New York.
Jayantha Jayasuriya, PC, who served as the AG during the Yahapalana administration is the incumbent Chief Justice.
What really happened to the money laundering case (HC case No 4648/2009) involving the then parliamentarian Ravi Karunanayake, who subsequently received the appointment as the Minister of Finance during the previous administration. The money had been received from Raj Rajaratnam, given an 11-year prison sentence for insider trading in the US.
The case that had been initially taken up at the HC No 01 was subsequently (May 2015) transferred to High Court No 4 before HC Judge Iranganee Perera who was about to be retired. On the basis of what was called a defective indictment Judge Perera discharged Karunanayake while making specific legal right of the Attorney General to serve an indictment afresh to the accused Ravi Karunanayake. Obviously, that was conveniently ignored. Yuvanjana Wijayatilake served as the AG at that time.
Attorney-at-Law and public interest litigation Activist Nagananda Kodituwakku in an affidavit submitted to the CIABOC in March 2017 sought an investigation in respect of the failure on the part of the AG’s Department to act on the advice given by HC judge Perera. Kodituwakku asserted that the alleged offence committed could have been dealt with under Section 70 of the Bribery Act.
A monument for ICIJ
A no-holds-barred investigation is required to examine high profile corruption allegations. So far, the CIABOC hasn’t been able to bring at least one of the cases involving politicians to a successful conclusion. It would be pertinent to mention incumbent Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena’s response to waste, corruption and irregularities.
Speaker Abeywardena said contentious matters pertaining to financial responsibility on the part of Parliament should be dealt with only by the enactment of a new Constitution.
The SLPP MP said so in response to Prof. Charitha Herath, Chairman of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) alleging serious hindrance of parliamentary supervision by a section of state enterprises. Prof. Herath explained the daunting challenges faced by COPE at the time he tabled the first COPE report at the outfit’s ninth session.
Proceedings of parliamentary watchdog committees, COPE, COPA (Committee on Public Accounts) and COPF (Committee on Public Finance) depict a frightening picture.
Unfortunately, Parliament has conveniently failed to take tangible measures though the three watchdog committees reported rampant criminal waste of public funds, corruption, irregularities involving the revenue collection mechanism and negligence at every level of successive administrations.
Have those responsible for ensuring financial discipline forgotten the primary responsibilities of Parliament. The two major responsibilities are financial discipline and enactment of laws. Let people judge whether our political parties have lived up to their much repeated pledges to restore financial discipline. Examination of proceedings of the watchdog committees revealed how the public and private sectors exploited the national economy. Fighting corruption appears to be a just a political slogan propagated by both those in power and the Opposition.
The Joint Opposition (JO registered themselves as SLPP) in the run up to 2019 presidential election conducted a major campaign against what it called ‘Top 10 Kamba Horu.’ Incumbent Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage spearheaded the project. The JO printed a 750-page book that dealt with 10 major corrupt deals that took place between January 8, 2015 and Dec 31, 2015. The JO alleged that the CIABOC never initiated investigations into complaints lodged by the JO. The SLPP owed an explanation regarding the current status of the complaints lodged by them because the party returned to power, nearly two years ago.
According to the JO publication, in the public domain, complaints were lodged against Ranil Wickremesinghe, MP, pertaining to the Treasury bond scams, on Oct 29, 2016 (Rs 26 bn fraud/complainant Vasudeva Nanayakkara, MP), ex-MP Ravi Karunanayake pertaining to importation of vehicles, on Nov 09, 2016 (Rs 10 bn fraud/complainant Dr. Romesh Pathirana, MP), ex-MP Malik Samarawickrema pertaining to Mahapola Fund, on Nov 22, 2016 (Rs 1 bn fraud/complainant Sisira Jayakody, MP), Thalatha Atukorala, MP, pertaining to fraud in an insurance scheme for those working in the Middle East, on Dec 07, 2016 (Rs 1.5 bn fraud/complainant ex-MP Niroshan Premaratne), Ranil Wickremesinghe pertaining to 99-year-lease on Hanbantota port, on January 4, 2017 (Rs 15 bn/complainant Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, MP, Speaker), Kabir Hashim, MP, pertaining to cancellation of aircraft ordered by SriLankan Airlines, on January 18, 2017 (Rs 54 bn fraud/complainant Kanaka Herath, MP), P. Harrison pertaining to releasing of paddy to a selected group of companies, on Feb 01, 2017 (Rs 10 bn fraud/complainant Jayantha Samaraweera), ex-MP Ravi Karunanayake pertaining to vehicle racket, on Feb 15, 2017 (Rs 15 bn fraud/complainant Udaya Gammanpila, MP), Dr. Rajitha Senaratne MP pertaining to leasing of Modera fisheries harbour and issuance of licenses to eight vessels for fishing in Sri Lankan waters, on Feb 28, 2017 (Rs 1 bn fraud/complainant the late MP Ranjith de Zoysa) , Dr. Rajitha Senaratne pertaining to irregularities in the purchase of medicines, on Feb 28, 2017 (Rs 1.5 bn fraud/complainant the late Ranjith de Zoysa) and Ranil Wickremesinghe, MP pertaining to procurement of coal for the Norochcholai coal-fired power plant, on March 16, 2017 (Rs 5 bn fraud/complainant Vidura Wickremanayake, MP).
The JO declared the above mentioned frauds cost the country a staggering Rs 131.5 bn.
Parliament, as an institution, at least now should respond to corruption. In the wake of Pandora Papers disclosures, social media posted a speech made by SLPP Polonnaruwa District MP Maihripala Sirisena, in his capacity as the President. Sirisena dealt with the Gin-Nilwala project. What Sirisena, who contested the last general election in Aug 2015 on the SLPP ticket, said was astonishing. The government transferred Rs 1,000 mn to a Chinese company in 2012 for the implementation of the Gin-Nilwala project and another Rs 3,012 mn on January 7, 2015 to thereby bringing the total amount paid to Rs 4,012 mn. Sirisena questioned how such a transfer could have taken place on the day before the presidential election? Who authorised such a transfer and why absolutely no work was done regardless of the payments. Lawmaker Sirisena owed an explanation during his five-year tenure as President what he did to investigate the Gin-Nilwala project. Perhaps, the Gin-Nilwala link disclosed by Pandora Papers, if properly investigated, can cause such devastation to the current political setup, the public can consider putting up a monument to ICIJ.