Senior Swiss diplomat in town to clarify alleged abduction

High-level diplomatic talks between Colombo and Bern were underway this week on the controversy surrounding the alleged abduction of a Swiss Embassy staffer in Colombo, with one diplomat warning that Sri Lanka’s “reputation as a country that upholds the rule of law was at stake.”

Senior Swiss diplomat and former ambassador to Sri Lanka Jörg Frieden, in a meeting with Foreign Relations Minister Dinesh Gunawardena yesterday, said the principle of the presumption of innocence applies and that the health and safety of its embassy staff take priority.

The Embassy staffer, who is now in remand custody, was sent to the National Institute of Mental Health yesterday for an evaluation of her mental health. The Swiss Embassy had previously claimed that, following her alleged abduction, the employee was not in the right frame of mind to give a statement to the police.

Yesterday’s meeting came in the wake of a telephone conversation between Minister Gunawardena and his Swiss counterpart Ignazio Cassis on Wednesday in which the latter had informed Sri Lanka that an “experienced diplomat” would be on his way to Colombo to explore possibilities for clarifying what he called the security incident at the Embassy.

According to a press release from Switzerland’s Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA), Cassis had told Gunawardena on the telephone that the FDFA considers the health and safety of its staff to be paramount, and that it is the responsibility of the Sri Lankan authorities to ensure that these are protected in the further proceedings.

The security incident has severely affected the health of the local staff member of the Swiss embassy in question, the FDFA press release quoted Cassis as saying.

“Mr Cassis also expressed his regret at the decision by the examining magistrate to place the local employee concerned in pre-trial detention, where the conditions do not take into account her state of health in any way. He therefore asked Mr Gunawardena to transfer her to a more appropriate location, such as a hospital, on humanitarian grounds. Switzerland considers the Sri Lankan authorities to be responsible for the health and safety of all its embassy staff,” the press release added.

Cassis had also been critical of the Sri Lankan media’s coverage of the incident.

“During his telephone conversation with Mr Gunawardena, Mr Cassis also pointed out that the high level of media coverage, lack of privacy safeguards and public condemnation in this case not only endangered Swiss embassy staff but also eroded the trust and confidence required to jointly clarify the incident,” the FDFA said.

Swiss Ambassador Hanspeter Mock, meanwhile, had met Attorney General Dappula de Livera on Tuesday and, according to the FDFA, had told him that “in this high-profile case, Sri Lanka’s reputation as a country that upholds the rule of law was at stake.”

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However, the Swiss government is “keen to clarify the incident together with the Sri Lankan authorities”, according to the statement.

The additional contact at the diplomatic level vis-à-vis Frieden’s visit to Colombo is also intended to strengthen the basis of trust between Switzerland and Sri Lanka, the FDFA said.

“Switzerland wishes to maintain close relations with Sri Lanka and support the country as it moves forward,” it added.

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