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Corruption on the march: Eran calls for ‘Office of Prosecutions’ independent of AG



“Ashamed of failure to ensure punitive measures in respect of 2013 SriLankan Airlines deal’

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) MP Eran Wickramaratne says Sri Lanka should have an Office of Prosecutions independent of the Attorney General (AG). Such an apparatus can inspire public confidence at a time the rationale behind the dismissal of a spate of high profile cases is being questioned, the SJB National List MP points out.

In a brief interview with The Island, the former UNPer and one-time banker emphasised the responsibility on the part of Parliament to take tangible measures in this regard.

Referring to the withdrawal of many high profile cases filed by the AG and the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) since the last presidential election in 2019, MP Wickramaratne said that such actions caused controversy and drastically undermined public confidence. Therefore, political parties represented in Parliament should seriously consider ways and means of reaching a consensus on an Office of Prosecutions, the former State Finance Minister said. Wickramaratne served as the late Mangala Samaraweera’s Deputy during the 2017-2019 period. “There is a clear case of conflict of interest in some instances as the AG is the Chief Legal Officer of the government,” the MP said.

Wickramaratne received the State Finance portfolio a year after the second Treasury bond scam perpetrated by the then UNP government after the Central Bank was brought under the then PM Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Responding to another query, Wickramaratne, who first entered parliament in 2010 on the UNP National List, acknowledged that his previous efforts to convince his parliamentary colleagues to consider an Office of Prosecutions hadn’t been successful. “The situation is so bad, I sincerely hope all political parties recognise the need to strengthen the system. Parliament is responsible for financial discipline and enactment of laws. Therefore, Parliament should address this matter,” Wickramaratne, who served as Deputy Minister of Investment Promotions and Highways before being appointed State Finance Minister, said.

Wickramaratne successfully contested the Colombo district at the 2015 general election. He switched his allegiance to the breakaway SJB in early 2020 in the wake of the split in the UNP. The former CEO of the National Development Bank entered Parliament for the third consecutive time in 2020 through the SJB National List.

Top SJB spokesperson said that the country urgently required an efficient system free of political interference to tackle major cases. The lawmaker said that the unprecedented scam in what he called sugar duty fraud perpetrated in Oct 2020 just two months after the general election underscored the need for examination of the whole system. Declaring that it hadn’t been an ordinary scam, MP Wickramaratne pointed out how a gazette bearing 2197/12 issued by the Finance Ministry on Oct 13, 2020 paved the way for the alleged fraud.

Anura Priyadarshana Yapa (SLPP/Kurunegala District), in his capacity as Chairman of the Committee on Public Finance (COPF) on January 5, 2021 declared that consumers hadn’t benefited at all from the sharp reduction of duty on a kilo of sugar from Rs 50 to 25 cents.

Referring to a statement dated January 7 issued by the Communications Department of the Parliament, lawmaker Wickramaratne said that COPF called for a report from the Finance Ministry in that regard. Responding to the COPF request, Secretary to the Finance Ministry S.R. Attygalle submitted a report dated Feb 24, 2021 that placed the loss of revenue suffered by the Treasury at Rs 15.9 bn during Oct 14, 2020-Feb 20, 2021.

Lawmaker Wickramaratne explained that in the wake of the issuance of Oct 13, 2020 gazette, major importers imported/cleared 266,212 metric tonnes of sugar (Sept-Nov, 2020) and 433,000 metric tonnes (Jan-June, 2021) at Rs 25 cents a kilo. However, MP Wickramaratne said that his calculation was different. The MP declared that the Treasury had suffered a revenue loss of Rs 35 bn at a time the government was struggling on the economic front.

MP Wickmaratne said that the COPF discussed the sugar duty scam again on Feb 25, 2021. Asked whether he represented the COPF, MP Wickramaratne said that he was a member of the other parliamentary watchdog, Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE). The former State Finance Minister emphasised that the losses inflicted on the Treasury was quite shocking against the backdrop of revenue loss of well over Rs 500 bn as a result of the questionable decision to do away with several taxes soon after the 2019 presidential election.

The MP was referring to quite controversial decision to do away with a range of taxes, including PAYE (Pay As You Earn), NBT (Nation Building Tax), Withholding tax, Capital Gain tax imposed on the Colombo Stock Exchange, Bank Debit tax and unprecedented reduction of VAT (Value Added Tax). The 15% VAT and the 2% NBT which amounted to 17% imposed on all goods and services were unified and reduced to 8%, effective from the first of December 2019. The decision was taken at the first cabinet meeting of the incumbent government held on Nov 27, 2019.

During Wickramaratne’s tenure as the State Finance Minister, the government income passed Rs 1,900 mark in 2018 and 2019 and dropped to Rs 1,300 bn in 2020.

Commenting on recent efforts taken by the government to stabilise the price of sugar, lawmaker Wickramaratne pointed out that those in authority had conveniently forgotten how the gazette issued on Oct 13, 2021 created an environment conducive for sugar fraud. Those responsible should be held accountable for driving the price of sugar to Rs 220-240 per kilo by August this year, the SJB official said, referring to a gazette issued subsequent to the Oct 13, 2021 duty reduction that was meant to sell a kilo of sugar at Rs 85. Now the same stocks that had been cleared at 25 cents a kilo over a period of time was being sold at the government set price at Rs 122.

Asked what he believed should be the government’s strategy, lawmaker Wickramaratne said that the market couldn’t be stabilised by price controls. The government should realise desired market stabilisation could be only achieved by ensuring uninterrupted supplies of whatever commodities in short supply, the former State Minister said.

The MP strongly disputed efforts to bring the price of essentials under control through what he called artificial measures. The SJB spokesman questioned the basis for the appointment of a serving military officer holding the rank of Major General as the Commissioner General of Essential Services.

MP Wickramaratne asked whether action had been initiated against those accused by the government of hoarding large stocks of sugar as well as paddy.

The Presidential Media Division last week named Pyramid Wilmar Company, Global Trading Company, Wilson Trading Company and R.G. Stores as hoarders. The National List MP said the government owed an explanation as to how the wrongdoers would be punished. The government couldn’t ignore the fact that hoarders earned massive profits at the expense of the hapless public.

The need for the establishment of an Office of Prosecutions should be studied taking into consideration Sri Lanka’s failure to tackle corruption, lawmaker Wickramaratne said, pointing out the questionable conduct of the AG in respect of some contentious cases.

Wickramaratne said that as a member of the previous administration he was ashamed of its pathetic failure to ensure action in respect of the national carrier, Sri Lankan Airlines, embroiled in massive corruption. Alleging waste, corruption, irregularities and negligence ruined the national career, the MP asked what really happened to the investigation ordered by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Feb 2020 into alleged financial irregularities in the transaction between SriLankan Airlines and Airbus. The presidential directive followed international media reports that the multinational aircraft manufacturer paid massive bribes to airline executives to secure contracts.

Pointing out that the alleged transaction took place in 2013, MP Wickramaratne according to disclosures in courts in Washington DC, Paris and London Airbus for years conducted a “massive scheme to offer and pay bribes” involving very senior executives in 16 countries, including SriLankan Airlines. The parliamentarian said that in spite of revelations that Airbus paid USD 2 mn to influence SriLankan Airlines’ purchase of 10 Airbus aircraft and the lease of an additional four aircraft to an intermediary company registered in Brunei under the wife of an executive at SriLankan Airlines, successive government failed to prosecute those responsible, the MP said.

“We cancelled the order and took other measures but never addressed the issue properly.” In 2017, Sri Lanka paid US$ 98 million in penalties for cancelling the order in 2016 and returning four A350 extra wide-body aircraft that are specifically designed for long haul routes and unsuitable for the airline’s business model.

Covid-19 has devastated the national economy and the country was facing a serious balance of payments crisis, the MP said. As part of Sri Lanka’s overall response to the situation, the government in consultation with all stakeholders should tackle waste, corruption, irregularities and negligence and also streamline the revenue collection process, the MP said.

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Third DNA test on Sarah: SJB questions veracity of police claim, asks Prez to dig deep



Easter Sunday carnage

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) yesterday (30) questioned the veracity of a police headquarters declaration that one of the Easter Sunday bombers Achchi Muhammadu Mohamed Hasthun’s wife Pulasthini Mahendran alias Sarah Jasmin had been killed on the night of April 26, 2019 at Sainthamaruthu.

The media was told at the Opposition Leader’s Office at No 30 Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha that the SJB was quite disturbed and surprised by the police headquarters statement issued on the basis of the Government Analyst’s findings.

Top SJB Spokesperson Mujibur Rahuman said that the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government owed an explanation as to how a third DNA test proved Sarah Jasmin’s death when the two previous DNA tests failed. The former MP said that the two previous tests had been conducted during the tenures of President Maithripala Sirisena and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Sarah Jasmin’s husband Hasthun is believed to be one of the bomb makers of the now proscribed National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) blamed for the series of near simultaneous blasts. Explosions caused by suicide bombers claimed the lives of about 270 persons including dozens of foreigners.

Rahuman told The Island that he would like to remind President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is also the Defence Minister that Easter Sunday carnage was meant to undermine the yahapalana government in which Wickremesinghe served as the Prime Minister. “We expect the President to look into this matter. The possibility of a conspiracy cannot be ruled out,” the former lawmaker said.

Authoritative sources said that the likes of ex-MP Rahuman was seeking political advantage from the Easter Sunday fallout. The Colombo District politician repeatedly questioned the investigation for reasons best known to him, sources said, alleging interested parties were working overtime to substantiate conspiracy theories.

Rahuman challenged the government to reveal the status of the investigation into the arrest of a police officer under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) for helping Sarah Jasmin to flee Sri Lanka. The former UNPer said that the police officer’s role in Sarah Jasmin’s escape transpired in the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (P CoI) into the Easter Sunday carnage.

The Batticaloa High Court granted bail to Chief Inspector Nagoor Thambi Aboobucker who had been arrested on July 13, 2020, a few weeks before the last general election, after he filed a fundamental rights application. The law enforcement officer had been held in custody for a period of 32 months.

Rahuman noted that Abdul Cader Fathima Saadiah, the wife of 2019 Easter Sunday attacks mastermind Zahran Hashim, too, had been granted bail. She had been held under the PTA for almost four years.The SJB official emphasized that regardless of repeated assurances given by successive governments, the Easter Sunday massacre remained a mystery. Rahuman said that SJB MPs Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara, who had been severely critical of the Easter Sunday investigations and repeatedly alleging a conspiracy, switched allegiance to the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government in last May. However, the SJB wouldn’t allow the incumbent government to suppress the truth, he said.

The former lawmaker asked whether the new partners had reached a consensus on the matter, therefore interested parties were busy covering up tracks.Rahuman said that those at the helm should be ashamed that the P CoI recommendations were never implemented. Demanding punishment to those who neglected their responsibilities, Rahuman said the current dispensation should know the conspirators, too, should be dealt with.

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CBK: Proposed anti-corruption bill inadequate to end widespread problem



“75 percent in parliament are crooks.”

There is nothing in the proposed anti-corruption bill to prevent people from engaging in corrupt activities, former President Chandrika Bandaranaike said yesterday in Colombo.She said that she had accessed the draft of the bill, formulated at the behest of the IMF.

“The bill focuses on what to do when someone is identified as a crook. But there is nothing to prevent people from engaging in such acts.”

Corruption had become a key feature in Sri Lanka since 1977 despite some efforts by political leaders. However, there were strong anti-corruption sentiments in the country and they had to be harnessed, she said.

“75 percent in parliament are crooks,” she said.

The former President was also critical of the proposed new anti-terror laws. She said they were very dangerous laws and anyone could be detained for having dissenting views.

“These are scary laws. Everyone must unite to fight such laws,” she said.

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SJB MP throws party union under the bus



By Akitha Perera

Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MP S.M. Marikkar on Thursday said that he supported the government’s decision to liberalise the petroleum sector and that the state should not be involved in business. Marikkar added that most Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) workers were idling and that they got paid for not doing any work.

“If you ask me, I say that we must liberalise the CPC. We must open the market. We can’t have this island mentality and it is our parochial thinking that got us into this mess. We can’t live in isolation. The world is open and an increase in competition leads to better outcomes for the consumer.

We believe that the state should not be involved in business. The Lanka IOC is in Sri Lanka. When three other companies come in, there will be greater competition. Most CPC employees are idling. They draw fat salaries at the end of the month for doing nothing,” he said.Marikkar said that while the average CPC employee wasted public funds, those who headed it were involved in corruption. Both waste and corruption had to be stopped, he said.

“I am not sucking up to the President. We have principles and we stand by them,” he said.

However, the SJB’s trade union arm led by Ananda Palitha is playing leading role in CPC trade union struggle against the Cabinet decision to award licenses to more foreign companies that intend to enter the fuel retail market in the country.

In a Twitter message, Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera said China’s Sinopec, United Petroleum of Australia and RM Parks of USA in a collaboration with Shell Plc would enter the fuel retail market in Sri Lanka.

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