Sri Lanka coup hastens prosecution of Rajapaksa envoy to Washington
By Our Political Correspondent
Dec 24, 2018 21:03 PM GMT+0530 | 0 Comment(s)
ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s October coup that brought former president Mahinda Rajapaksa briefly back to power may have backfired on a close relative, ex-ambassador to Washington and fugitive from justice, Jaliya Wickramasuriya.
The prospect of a Rajapaksa government in Colombo prompted justice authorities in Washington to publicly disclose money laundering and visa fraud charges against Wickramasuriya, a first cousin of the former president, and ensure he is swiftly prosecuted.
The man who served as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Washington for six years till 2014 will now become the first Rajapaksa relative to be prosecuted abroad and face a possible lengthy jail term following five counts of charges ranging from wire fraud to immigration offences.
Official sources said the test case could leave the door open to several other very high profile prosecutions shortly. Foreign ministry sources said thatit was the first time that a Sri Lankan ambassador was being prosecuted in the country he was posted to.
US Justice department documents show the authorities were keen to ensure that the very serious nature of charges against Wickramasuriya were made public to prevent a Rajapaksa administration in Colombo restoring his diplomatic immunity to avoid prosecution.
With the nature of the serious charges made public, it was hoped that any new Rajapaksa-led government would not have been able to scuttle the prosecution without an international backlash.
The intense activity in the US judiciary came even as an appeal by Wickramasuriya was pending in the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka. However, Wickramasuriya is a fugitive from justice in Sri Lanka too after fleeing the island while on bail in 2017. He was arrested in late 2016 by the Financial Crimes Investigation Division over misusing state funds.
He gave the slip to the FCID, but lodged an appeal with the Court of Appeal against the foreign ministry in Colombo in October last year withdrawing his diplomatic immunity in the US and clearing the way to proceed against him.
Official sources said there were moves afoot to restore Wickramasuriya’s immunity after President Maithripala Sirisena made peace with his one-time foe Mahinda Rajapaksa and made him prime minister with most arms of the administration coming under him.
“In the last 10 days or so, there has been a change in the government of Sri Lanka,” the US government document to court said. “Several media outlets have referred to the matter as a constitutional crisis.
“We have been advised by the United States officials in Sri Lanka that there will be a meeting to discuss and/or determine the immunity (of Wickramasuriya) issue on Sunday, November 11, 2018 and they believe that advising the Sri Lankan authorities of the fact that the defendant has been indicted will be of relevance and assistance in making their determination.”
In other words, the US wanted to go public with the charges against Wickramasuriya so that the new Rajapaksa government (which had been recognized only by China) would not be in a position to restore the former envoy’s immunity and scuttle the case.
While a court case was moving slowly in Sri Lanka, the case against Wickramasuriya in Washington remained “sealed” meaning that the indictment was not made public. Court documents show that the "sealing" or making the indictment secret was out of fear that Wickramasuriya could either flee, destroy evidence or tamper with witnesses.
However, the case assumed a new urgency following the October 26 power grab in Colombo with Rajapaksa making a dramatic comeback.
As the coup drama unfolded in Colombo, the US government lodged a request on November 8 with a Washington court to partly “unseal” the indictment in order to impress upon the Sri Lanka authorities of the gravity of the case. They followed it up with another request to fully unseal the charges. It was granted on December 20, according to public records.
The original indictment charging him on five counts was filed on May 1, 2018, after the Court of Appeal in Sri Lanka dismissed Wickramasuriya's appeal against Colombo withdrawing his immunity for actions during the period he was Sri Lanka's top diplomat in Washington betwee 2008 and 2014.
The charges against him include defrauding the government of Sri Lanka of over 332,000 dollars over an embassy property transaction, money laundering and making a false declaration in an immigration application.
It is learnt that the US authorities would now press ahead with prosecuting Wickramasuriya irrespective of any court proceedings regarding his immunity status. He himself had waived his immunity in a document at the time of applying for residency in the US. This had been discovered much later, but has become a pivotal part of the Washington prosecutor’s case to proceed against Wickramasuriya. (COLOMBO, December 24, 2018)