COLOMBO (AFP) – Two brothers of former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapakse faced questioning by anti-corruption investigators on Thursday as the new government stepped up its crackdown against the old regime.
Hours after the former leader’s youngest brother Basil was arrested on his return from a trip abroad, another sibling, Gotabhaya, was hauled before the country’s main anti-corruption body over claims of kickbacks he allegedly received while he served as defence secretary.
Gotabhaya, widely regarded as the real power behind 69-year-old Rajapakse during his decade-long rule, angrily denounced the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) as he arrived at their headquarters on Thursday.
"They are taking action against policy decisions we took," the 65-year-old told reporters in downtown Colombo.
"At this rate, they can arrest the entire (former) cabinet for taking decisions. This is ridiculous.
"I have not done anything wrong. I was an honest government officer."
Hundreds of Gotabhaya supporters carrying photos of him defied a ban on protests as they massed outside CIABOC.
Many also carried doctored versions of the Sri Lankan national flag, without the green and saffron stripes that represent the minority Muslim and Tamil communities respectively.
Gotabhaya was questioned behind closed doors, although sources said that it was a brief session and he would return for a more lengthy interrogation early next week.
Basil, who was economic development minister under his brother, faced his own interrogation behind bars at a Colombo prison hospital over allegations that he embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars in a controversial government housing scheme.
The 64-year-old, who has dual Sri Lankan and American citizenship, fled to the United States soon after his brother lost the January 8 election to Maithripala Sirisena, a former ally of Rajapakse before he jumped ship to challenge his old mentor.
The US embassy in Colombo said it could not comment on whether it was providing consular assistance to Basil, who faces two weeks in remand, "due to privacy considerations".
– ‘Witch-hunt’ –
Police said they will question him over the next two weeks, after which formal charges are expected to be framed.
As he was driven to the prison hospital on Wednesday, Basil told reporters that he was not guilty of any crime.
"The government has prejudged the case and carried out this arrest," he said after a magistrate granted his request to continue treatment for an unspecified medical condition.
In an interview with AFP on Wednesday, Rajapakse slammed the string of corruption probes against his relatives as part of a "witch-hunt" instigated by his successor.
An ethnic Sinhalese, he remains popular among big sections of the island’s largest community for overseeing the defeat of the Tamil Tiger separatist rebels in 2009 after a 37-year conflict.
Parliament remains packed with Rajapakse loyalists, complicating the new leader’s plans to overturn a raft of consitutional changes brought in by his predecessor, who awarded himself a host of new powers.
Sirisena had originally pledged to dissolve the 225-member legislature this week. While he is not expected to announce the dissolution, he may outline a new timetable in an address to the nation on Thursday night.
Deputy foreign minister Ajith Perera said the president was likely to delay the dissolution to allow parliament to approve a statute amendment that would establish independent commissions to run the police, the public service and the judiciary, among others.
"We can expect a dissolution soon after the 19th amendment (the reform bill) is put to a vote in parliament next week," the minister told reporters in Colombo.