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Anti-corruption drive or political witch-hunt?

Sri Lanka

Udayanga Weeratunga meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2006. by Kremlin.ru [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena was welcomed in London recently where he attended an anti-corruption summit hosted by British Prime Minister David Cameron. It is unlikely that such an invitation would have been extended to his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, defeated by Sirisena in elections last year by on an anti-corruption, anti-nepotism platform. Sixteen months down the line, Sirisena’s pledges to root out corruption and nepotism are being put to the test, with opposition politicians describing the numerous inquiries launched by government to investigate corruption as an exercise in political victimization.

One case that gives credence to that view is that of Udayanga Weeratunga. A relative of the ex-president and former ambassador to Russia, he has been accused by Minister of Foreign Affairs Mangala Samaraweera of having ‘sold weapons to pro-Russian separatist rebels’ in Ukraine.      

The allegations started in March 2015 when Samaraweera said that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s government had ‘complained’ to the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry, accusing Weeratunga of being involved in weapons sales to ‘pro-Russian separatist rebels’. The story was picked up and widely reported by local and foreign media. At a Foreign Ministry media briefing, reporters were told that Ukraine’s ambassador to Sri Lanka, who is based in New Delhi, had informed Sri Lankan officials that Ukrainian authorities were ‘investigating’ the alleged transfer of weapons by Weeratunga to Ukrainian nationals.  

However, the Ukrainian Embassy in New Delhi said on 10 May this year that ‘the Embassy does not have information concerning investigations against Mr Weeratunga’. The Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry’s position had also been contradicted in a BBC Ukraine report on 23 March which quoted Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Yevhen Perebiynis as saying: ‘This information has not been confirmed.’     

Added to the government’s statements on Weeratunga’s alleged misconduct were charges that the former ambassador was involved in the death of Noel Ranaweera, who was employed as a messenger at the Sri Lankan embassy in Moscow. Though he died in on 11 June 2014, Ranaweera’s family members are reported to have complained to the police of suspected foul play only the following March, on the same day that news reports first appeared regarding Samaraweera’s arms-sales-to-rebels allegations.     

Responding to a phone inquiry, Evgeniya Altukhova, Press Secretary at the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Colombo, said that Ranaweera died in a motor accident in Russia. ‘The driver of the vehicle that ran over him, a Russian man, has been convicted and the case is closed,’ she said. ‘Udayanga was not a suspect in the case.’

The most recent allegations against Weeratunga were made a few weeks ago by a government MP who charged that he is wanted in Russia over ‘arms smuggling to rebels’. Ruling United National Party MP Nalin Bandara said the Russian government had even named the rebel groups.    

Asked for comment on the accusations, Altukhova asked: ‘Wanted – by whom? That is the important question. In Russia, Udayanga is not wanted for any questioning. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Russia has nothing to ask him. We have no suspicions of him.’ Referring to the remarks made by the MP, Altukhova said: ‘I can only question his sources,’ adding that the information ‘is not from us’.

Weeratunga’s ‘crime’ may be simply that he is a relative of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the government’s main political challenger. Weeratunga has issued statements repeatedly protesting that the Foreign Ministry was lying about him, arguing that it would have been impossible for him to live in Ukraine if the charges of supplying weapons to separatist rebels were true.  

He did not return to Sri Lanka following Samaraweera’s directive last year recalling all heads of Sri Lanka’s diplomatic missions abroad who were political appointees of the previous regime. Samaraweera pledged to maintain a ratio of 70:30 between career diplomats – meaning those drawn from the Foreign Service – and non-career diplomats, or political appointees. But according to media reports, that plan has been abandoned, with around 42 per cent of Sri Lanka’s 53 foreign missions being headed by political appointees of the new government.

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