After Fort Magistrate Ranga Dissanayake up-ended the CID’s well laid plans to ensure MiG-deal mastermind Udyanga Weeratunga obtained bail on Monday (17), furious President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has decided to dispatch two of his senior private counsel for a meeting with the Attorney General on Wednesday, Colombo Telegraph learns.
President’s Counsel M Ali Sabry and Shavindra Fernando will attend the meeting with AG Dappula De Livera, in order to decide “how to proceed” with dismantling the MiG-deal investigation that resulted in Sri Lanka’s first successful extradition of a fugitive without a conviction.
Colombo Telegraph learns that in order to “help” Udyanga Weeratunga to obtain bail, the CID deliberately failed to produce a document certifying that Weeratunge’s offence under the Public Property Act amounted to more than Rs. 25,000. In cases where the value of the offence exceeds Rs 25,000, a magistrate is prevented from granting bail to a suspect charged with such an offence, except under extraordinary circumstances.
Fort Magistrate Ranga Dissanayake swiftly caught on to the games being played in his courtroom on Monday. He severely reprimanded the CID for its failures and summoned prosecutors from the AG’s Department to court while proceedings were ongoing in order to have matters clarified.
Legal experts said that from the point of view of the court, Magistrate Dissanayake was ensuring that after the court spent years putting processes in place to force Weeratunge to return to Sri Lanka and face justice, a highly politicized CID should not be permitted to dismantle a 5 year long investigation without a fight. The original warrant for Weeratunga’s arrest was issued by the Fort Magistrate’s Court.
The President’s lawyers will attempt to convince AG De Livera to “go slow” on the case. If they win cooperation from the AG, the senior lawyers have convinced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa that between the CID and the AG the case can be swept under the carpet. The two senior counsel are confident they can win De Livera’s support for the President’s cause. Since he refused to drop indictments against key associates of the current President or bow to the dictates of the special commission of inquiry and prevent indictments being served to two of the accused in the high profile navy abductions case, De Livera has become a thorn in the side of the new administration.
Both Sabry and Fernando have also convinced President Rajapaksa that since the Judicial Services Commission is refusing to allow Fort Magistrate Ranga Dissanayake to be transferred, the President should consider giving Dissanayake a promotion to the High Court, to ensure he is no longer in charge of the MiG case.
The matter is of immense personal interest for the current President, whose name has been linked to the procurement scandal since 2006.
Journalists who reported on the MiG-deal came under fire while Rajapaksa served as Defence Secretary – with Sunday Times Defence Correspondent Iqbal Athas who first broke the story being forced to flee the country in 2008. Rajapaksa also filed a defamation suit against The Sunday Leader and its Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge for the newspaper’s exposes of the MiG deal in 2007. On January 8, 2009 just days before he was set to testify in the defamation case, Wickrematunge was brutally murdered on the streets of Colombo. Colleagues and friends recall Wickrematunge remarking only days before his murder that he was soon to take the stand to testify in the case, and vowing to “take Gota to the cleaners!”
AG’s Department officials who were summoned to court on Monday, agreed with the Magistrate that the original investigator should be reinstated to recommence work on the complex MiG-case.
At the centre of the aircraft procurement scandal is Udyanga Weeratunge, first cousin to both Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Ukraine when the shady aircraft deal went through and Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself, who served as Secretary to the Ministry of Defence in 2006 and paved the way for Weeratunga to push the deal through the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF).
The MiG-27 procurement for the Sri Lanka Air Force in 2006 is uncannily similar to the Airbus A350 corruption scandal at SriLankan Airlines. In both cases parties with vested interest in the aircraft procurements set up shell companies in tax havens – in the MiG case, the BVI and in the Airbus case, Brunei.
To siphon off the money from the MiG deal, Weeratunga and Rajapaksa used a shell company in the British Virgin Islands called Bellisima Holdings. The Government of Sri Lanka transferred USD 14 million to Bellimissa, USD 7 million of which reached UKRINMASH, the company in Ukraine that supplied the aircraft to the SLAF. For five years, investigators have been on the trail of the balance USD 7 million, which has led to one of the most complex and extensive financial crime investigations in the history of the Sri Lanka Police.
Chief Inspector Nihal Francis headed the MiG deal investigation at the FCID from the outset. A police officer with a nose for white collar crime probes, Francis has been doggedly following the money trail that led to the Fort Magistrate issuing a warrant for Weeratunga in 2016.
The Fort Magistrate ordered the registrar to write to the Acting IGP Chandra Wickremaratne ordering the reinstatement of the original investigator CI Nihal Francis. Francis was transferred to the miscellaneous crimes branch of the Puttalam Police late last month, becoming yet another financial crimes expert in the Sri Lanka Police to be relegated to ordinary police work in remote places.
Colombo Telegraph learns that within weeks of assuming office, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered the transfers of all three officers who investigated his MiG Deal. DIG P.K.D. Priyantha, who led the investigation personally as FCID Director, was sent to Killinochchi. SP Pavithra Dayaratne was sent to the City Traffic Division. And as soon as the UAE government informed the CID that Weeratunga was ready for extradition, CI Francis was sent to Puttalam.
All three officials are among the most highly trained professional financial crime investigators in the police. DIG Priyantha has a Masters Degree in criminology, and was a former Deputy Director of the CID in charge of its financial crimes units. SP Dayaratne was a senior SIS intelligence officer who specialized in unravelling LTTE finance networks. CI Francis was an expert in the Mutual Legal Assistance system of obtaining evidence from foreign jurisdictions. In the MiG case alone, he secured evidence from the US, UK, British Virgin Islands, Latvia, Hong Kong and Singapore, according to court records.
Magistrate Dissanayake also ticked off the CID about coming to court and claiming that they needed advice from the AG, when in fact they were not abiding by the instructions of the AG when it was given. “All the advice the CID needed from the AG in this case was whether USD 7 million was a higher value than Rs 25,000” the Magistrate said. (See full interaction between Magistrate and CID in court below).
Since early 2018, the Sri Lankan Government has been working to have Weeratunga extradited to Sri Lanka after the suspect was traced to the UAE. A special task force was set up to work on the extradition. At the time, FCID Chief Senior DIG Ravi Waidyalankara spearheaded efforts to bring Weeratunga back home to face justice in Sri Lanka for his role in the MiG deal. When Waidyalankara sought the assistance of the Attorney General on the matter, the AG assigned then Additional Solicitor General Yasantha Kodagoda PC to lead the AG’s Department team on the extradition. Senior police officials, FCID officers, CID officers and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were all involved in the extradition process.
The following is part of the interaction between Magistrate Ranga Dissanayake and the CID when MiG deal suspect Udyanga Weeratunga was produced in court for the second time on Monday, 17 February.
Magistrate: At the outset, I need to clarify something. Where is IP Nihal Francis who conducted this MiG aircraft investigation for the past five years?
CID: He has been transferred, he is in Negombo now.
Magistrate: Who is currently conducting this investigation?
CID: IP Sanjeewa
Magistrate: Now why has this investigating officer who conducted this inquiry since March 26, 2015, been suddenly transferred? As far as I know, it is this officer who has even signed most of the documents in this case file.
CID: 50 officers have been transferred, your Honour.
Magistrate: Is there any impediment to obtaining Officer Francis’ support for this investigation?
CID: According to our knowledge, special permission from the IGP will be required, your honour.
Magistrate: Now does the current officer in charge of the investigation have a full understanding about this case?
CID: He is in the process of studying the matter, Your Honour.
Magistrate: Now on a previous occasion, the CID Director came and said that a statement from the suspect Weeratunga would have to be recorded over a period of 10 days. So how can you question him when you don’t know anything about the investigation?
Magistrate: What on earth has happened to the Sri Lanka Police? I will be considering these matters when I decide on bail.
Magistrate: Facts were reported to this court on a previous occasion that Udyanga Weeratunga was being charged with the offences including violating the public property act and money laundering under the Code of Criminal Procedure.
And in the B report filed today these offences were also listed. Now when it comes to acting against a suspect being charged under the Public Property Act, there is are certain special considerations. That is that when the violation of the public property act exceeds a monetary value of over Rs 25,000, the ordinary Bail Act does not apply to the suspect. In such cases, a Magistrate can only grant bail to a suspect under extraordinary circumstances.
Based on the CID’s own reports, Udyanga Weeratunga should have been a suspect under this category. However, the Public Property Act requires another provision to be fulfilled. That is that in the event the value of the violation of the act exceeds Rs 25,000, this must be confirmed through a certificate signed by an ASP that must be produced along with a suspect to court. However the CID has not submitted such a certificate to court. Therefore the magistrate had no power to consider this special provision when the question of bail comes up.
This is very unusual conduct on the part of the CID.
Magistrate: I studied this case file very closely. Based on this investigation, the Sri Lankan Government paid USD 14 million to procure MiG-aircraft. But only USD 7 million has reached the Ukrainian company. Therefore it is quite clear that the loss to the Government is USD 7 million.
What I cannot understand is how the CID did not appear to see that this was a loss of more than Rs 25,000 to the Government.
Magistrate: Why was the certificate not produced along with this suspect?
CID: Your Honour, we have only been involved in this investigation since January this year. So we are still in the process of studying this case.
Magistrate: What I am asking is, when an offence has been listed under the Public Property Act, why the certificate was not obtained and produced?
Magistrate: Furthermore, the AG’s advice is not even necessary in this case. If the offence is under the Public Property Act, the certificate must be produced. The only thing you would have to ask the AG is whether USD 7 million is less than 25,000 rupees! Please remember that the people of this country are watching you. (By Chinthika De Silva)