ECONOMYNEXT – President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s top aide Lalith Weeratunga became the first high-profile official from the former regime to be convicted for corruption, but his jailing could have a political fallout for the current coalition regime too.
The Economynext Political Correspondent discusses consequences for President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and their uneasy coalition whose tenure is virtually guaranteed by the constitution.
The case against Lalith Weeratunga, a highly respected civil servant, was one of the first to be filed after Sirisena defeated Rajapaksa at the January 8, 2015, election.
Weeratunga was convicted of diverting 600 million rupees from the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (TRC) to fund Rajapaksa’s unsuccessful re-election bid. He was sentenced to three years in jail and fined 2 million rupees. He was also asked to pay 50 million rupees in damages to the TRC, and failure would attract another two years in prison.
The High Court accepted that Weeratunga himself did not directly benefit from the transaction, but it amounted to a criminal misappropriation of public funds and a violation of laws relating to the TRC, which he chaired.
The first accused in the case was the then TRC Director-General Anusha Palpita who tried to wash his hands off the case by blaming Weeratunga for ordering the transfer of money from the TRC to an account at the Presidential Secretariat.
A Buddhist monk arranged the purchase of "sil redi" or white cloth that was distributed as gifts from Rajapaksa to Buddhist devotees on Duruthu Poya (Jan 4 4, 2015) just four days before the election.
Elections Chief Mahinda Deshapriya told court that he saw how the white material was distributed and saw it as a clear violation of election laws.
However, there was no case filed against Rajapaksa for breaking election laws with the authorities probably satisfied that his defeat was sufficient.
The state also made no attempt to recover any damages from Rajapaksa, the ultimate beneficiary of the criminal misappropriation of 600 million rupees of TRC cash.
What does Weeratunga’s jailing mean to President Sirisena?
President Sirisena emerged stronger following the judgement which came barely hours after a dozen ministers and deputies from his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) met him and expressed dissatisfaction with the unity government.
The dissidents were shocked to learn that a man of Weeratunga’s stature had been jailed and slapped with a hefty fine. Many had expected he would be convicted, but get off with a light suspended jail term.
Many SLFP dissidents who threatened to quit the government have suddenly become silent after Weeratunga was convicted by the Colombo High Court.
Almost all SLFP members in the current cabinet have some investigation or a court case pending. The message from the latest High Court decision is that any dissident could leave at the risk of having legal action accelerated against them.
Highly placed sources with the Rajapaksa faction of the SLFP said they did not expect Weeratunga to be incarcerated. "If Mr. Weeratunga could not escape jail, there is no chance for the others," a source close to Rajapaksa said.
The Rajapaksa camp is also worried that several cases against the two Rajapaksa sons — Namal and Yoshitha — could end soon and the case against Gotabhaya Rajapaksa could also be taken to its logical conclusion before the year’s end.
A demoralised and fearful Rajapaksa faction can only make Sirisena more assertive and it will also help him to tighten his grip on the party, something he has failed to do since winning the presidency.
For Ranil Wickremesinghe
Weeratunga’s jailing could have come as a surprise for Prime Minister Wickremesinghe too. They worked together when Wickremesinghe was in charge of the education and youth affairs portfolio.
Cabinet ministers have already spoken about the "chilling effect" on the bureaucracy with many frightened to carry out the verbal orders of their ministers fearing prosecution at a later date.
The Prime Minister may have to contend with slower decision making / implementation by his senior officials, much to the frustration of the electorate.
However, there are some Wickremesinghe loyalists who are arguing that honest and upright officials need not fear retrospective punitive action later on because courts have only punished two officers who had exceeded their authority and doled out public money to finance an election campaign.
Weakening of the Rajapaksa faction of the SLFP could be worrisome for Wickremesinghe who may have been banking on a split in the SLFP to propel his United National Party (UNP) to victory at future elections.
Weeratunga’s landmark prosecution will also pressure Wickremesinghe to ensure that the ongoing presidential commission of inquiry into controversial bond auctions lead to criminal prosecutions. (COLOMBO, Sept 9 2017)