Sri Lankan authorities Wednesday remanded the youngest brother of former president Mahinda Rajapakse for "misappropriating" public funds, hours after the ex-leader accused his successor of a witch-hunt.
Former economic development minister Basil Rajapakse was questioned for more than seven hours and taken before a magistrate who remanded him in custody for two weeks after rejecting a bail application.
"The government has prejudged the case and carried out this arrest," Rajapakse told reporters as he was driven away from the magistrate’s court at Kaduwela, a suburb of the capital.
Lawyer Udaya Rohan de Silva said his client Rajapakse was arrested on a charge under the Offences Against Public Property Act which did not give the magistrate discretion to grant bail.
Two senior officials who worked under Basil Rajapakse were also arrested and remanded on charges that the three of them were responsible for a 70 million rupee ($530,000) fraud involving the construction of public housing.
Hundreds of supporters shouted anti-government slogans after the bail hearing, but elsewhere celebratory fire crackers were burst at key towns in and around the capital as news of his arrest was broadcast.
Basil, who has dual Sri Lankan-American citizenship, had fled to the United States soon after his brother lost the January 8 election to his former ally Maithripala Sirisena, who came to power on a pledge to fight corruption.
After Basil returned home Tuesday, his lawyers had tried to resist attempts to have him immediately arrested.
He went on his own to the police Financial Crimes Investigations Department where he was grilled for more than seven hours before he was arrested.
Basil becomes the first member of the former first family to be imprisoned since Rajapakse’s election defeat.
Another brother Gotabhaya, who was the former regime’s defence secretary, is also under investigation in connection with several frauds involving the purchase of military and civilian aircraft as well as arms deals.
– ‘This is a witch-hunt’ –
All the brothers have denied any wrongdoing and the former president told AFP in an interview earlier Wednesday that the investigations amounted to a witch-hunt.
Mahinda Rajapakse is himself under investigation over a bribery charge and is due to be questioned by anti-graft detectives on Friday.
The new government which came to power on a pledge to fight corruption during Rajapakse’s decade-long rule, has accused him and his inner circle of syphoning off billions of dollars by inflating the size of foreign-funded infrastructure projects.
In an interview with AFP earlier in the day, Rajapakse staunchly defended himself and his immediate family and challenged the new government to provide evidence.
"They have no evidence. They are making wild allegations. This is a witch-hunt," Rajapakse told AFP at his home in a suburb of Colombo, where he is protected by police and military guards.
"Neither I nor any member of my family has ill-gotten money. At first, they said I had money in Swaziland, then in Dubai. Show us the money, where is the evidence?
"They said I owned a hotel in Dubai. Then they said all the hotels in Sri Lanka are owned by me and (brothers) Gota (Gotabhaya) and Basil," Rajapakse said. "This is a joke."
Gotabhaya, who was seen as the real power behind the throne, is due to be grilled by anti-graft investigators on Thursday although he has requested a delay.
Sirisena, who served in Rajapakse’s cabinet before quitting to stand against his one-time mentor, had made fighting corruption a key campaign plank and had been criticised for slow action against alleged culprits.