Addressing financial crimes

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The Supreme Court issued an important verdict last week in the fight against corruption. The severely-weakened Judiciary, in a rare ruling against the wishes of the Executive, dismissed an appeal by former Ambassador Jaliya Wickramasuriya to restore his diplomatic immunity. 

Wickramasuriya, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the United States from 2008 to 2014, is accused of embezzling $ 332,000 in a single transaction concerning the purchase of a property for the Sri Lanka Embassy in Washington DC. The US Government is investigating the former Ambassador in several financial crimes concerning this transaction. Even though Wickramasuriya is an American citizen, since these alleged financial frauds occurred while he was a diplomat, in 2017 the US Government had requested Sri Lanka to waive his diplomatic immunity. At that time Sri Lankan authorities were also investigating Wickramasuriya into these crimes and the Foreign Ministry had waived his immunity, allowing for the US investigations to proceed.

However, after the election of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a close relative of Wickramasuriya, in November 2019, all proceedings against Wickramasuriya in Sri Lanka were dropped. In fact a Presidential Commission of Inquiry on political victimisation appointed by President Rajapaksa not only recommended that Wickramasuriya be exonerated, but recommended that those who were involved in investigating and prosecuting him to be themselves be prosecuted. This included the Secretary to the Foreign Ministry, diplomats serving in the Sri Lanka Embassy in the US who alerted the authorities of the alleged fraud, the officers of the Financial Crimes Investigations Division (FCID) of the Police and prosecutors of the Attorney General’s Department who led the judicial proceedings against the accused.

Having escaped justice in Sri Lanka, Wickramasuriya appealed to the courts to regain his diplomatic immunity restored in the US. In what can only be termed a shameful episode, in 2020 the Foreign Ministry had written to the US Government requesting the restoration of diplomatic immunity for this alleged fraudster, a request that had been rejected by the US Government. However Wickramasuriya’s legal challenge for the initial waiver in 2017 proceeded through the Appeals Court to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court through its judgement last week held that due process had been followed in the first instance when the Foreign Ministry informed the US Government of the diplomatic waiver. Now there is no legal impediment for the United States to proceed with its own investigations and legal processes against Wickramasuriya.

It has been increasingly evident that only the international processes offer any form of justice for the massive frauds that have happened and continue to happen in Sri Lanka. Another such example is the Airbus corruption scandal. In 2020 Britain’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) said Airbus had hired the wife of SriLankan Airlines’ Chief Executive as its intermediary and paid her $ 2 million to secure an aircraft purchasing deal. Though this deal was signed it was later cancelled with the Sri Lankan Government incurring a further loss of nearly $ 100 million. Though the courts initiated a case against the former CEO of SriLankan Airlines Kapila Chandrasena and his wife, the case has not proceeded for nearly two years and the individuals are out on bail. The money trail of this transaction leads to some leading members of the current Government through the accounts of a stock market manipulator with a dubious financial record. Both the Airbus deal and the Jaliya Wickramasuriya case were under investigation by the FCID at the time of its closure by the current Government. What the international revelations have proven is that the FCID has done a significant amount of work to identify some of the worst perpetrators of financial crimes in Sri Lanka. Despite the FCID not being able to finish its task and bring these culprits to justice, its existence and work are exonerated through these international revelations. It is therefore no wonder that the current ruling regime when in opposition vilified the FCID as a partisan witch-hunt out to get the leaders of the opposition. Those leaders and their able officials are now back in power and their names often pop up in all sorts of corruption allegations from importing substandard fertiliser to secret deals in the energy sector.

Yet there is little chance of any of these individuals facing any legal consequences for their blatant corruption in Sri Lanka. The irony and tragedy should not be lost that the best hope for justice for crimes committed with Sri Lankan public money now lies in foreign courts. 

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