Plea bargain helps Jaliya to get off lightly
Rogue Ambassador Jaliya Wickramasuriya, the first cousin of Mahinda, Gotabaya, Basil and Chamal Rajapaksa, has got off lightly in a Washington court where he, on a plea bargain, pleaded guilty to wire fraud and escaped with a fine of USD 5,000 and five years probation. The very light sentence was because he had pleaded guilty to the charge and returned the money he had defrauded from the Sri Lanka taxpayer in purchasing a new building for Colombo’s Embassy in a posh Washington neighbourhood very close to where Bill and Hillary Clinton live.
The Politico magazine, in an article we reproduce in today’s issue of this newspaper reported that eight spectators were present when Judge Tanya Chutkan handed down the sentence saying: “Even though this was not millions of dollars, it represents a serious theft from the people, and by a person, they entrusted to represent their interests in the capital of the most powerful country in the world.” On hearing these words, the accused is reported to have said with a break in his voice, “I am sorry.”
We would beg to differ with the judge on one point. It was not the people of this country who appointed Wickramasuriya to represent their interests in Washington. It was his cousin Mahinda Rajapaksa. Worse, even after Wickramasuriya had been caught with his hands in the till and made to return the money he had stolen, an effort was made to send him as High Commissioner to Canada. Fortunately, Colombo was unable to win Ottawa’s Agrément for his accreditation. The Canadians didn’t say ‘no.’ Very diplomatically they said nothing as they did in the case of former Defence Secretary Chandrananda de Silva who too failed to get a posting to Ottawa. There was also a failed attempt to invoke diplomatic immunity in Wickramasuriya’s case.
De Silva, of course, was no crook. But he had been Defence Secretary during the civil war and the strong presence of a Tamil diaspora in Toronto was responsible for the denial of Agrément. However, strangely, that did not apply to Gen. Tissa Weeratunga, a former army commander, who served a term as high commissioner in Ottawa. Gen. Weeratunga had been sent to Jaffna by President J.R. Jayewardene with explicit orders to finish off the Tiger menace in the early days when the LTTE was first baring its fangs. Most likely, the Tamil diaspora in Canada then was not as numerous or as influential as it later became.
When Wickramasuriya’s shameful conduct first became public, MR is reported to have said “This fellow has rubbed soot on my face.” Despite that, he wanted to send him to Canada after the fraud had been bared and the culprit had admitted the crime by returning the loot. A storekeeper at Merril. J. Fernando’s Dilmah group, Wickramasuriya on being named ambassador published a brochure on himself falsely claiming he had been trained as a tea taster by Fernando. He even had the brass to give Fernando a copy of this publication. The disgraced ambassador’s only claim to the appointment was that he ran a tea import business in the U.S. and had lived there for some time.
There was also a similar appointment of another Rajapaksa cousin, Udyanga Weeratunga, who served as ambassador in Russia. Apart from the kinship, his one qualification would probably have been that he had been living in what was the former USSR and spoke the language. A businessman, he was accused by the Ukrainian government of arms sales to the LTTE. At a point of time, his diplomatic passport was withdrawn by the Colombo government which was investigating the arms sales allegations.
An Interpol warrant for his arrest was requested by the Financial Crimes Investigations Division, but not received in 2016 when the Yahapalana government was in office. As many as 16 of his bank accounts were suspended by the courts in 2017. His name was mentioned over questionable purchases of MIG-27 jet aircraft during the war and his whereabouts were unknown during a period. But he’s known to have met MR, then out of office, in Thailand. Eventually, he was arrested in Dubai by international police based on a request made by the authorities in 2018. Wikipedia has quite a chunk on this worthy who was back here and working to bring tourists from Ukraine to Sri Lanka at a time the political winds were blowing in a direction favourable to him. A common factor between Wickramasuriya and Weeratunga, apart from their kinship to the Rajapaksas, was their fortunes teetered depending on who was in office in Colombo at various periods of time. Wickramasuriya’s diplomatic immunity was at one stage not upheld during Yahapalana’s rule. When its successor tried to invoke it later, Washington refused to oblige.
Questionable appointments to Sri Lanka missions overseas from ambassador/head of mission down to the lowest levels like drivers have been endemic during governments of all political complexions. Progeny, spouses, friends, relatives and whoever were being accommodated out of a patronage pork barrel that seemed bottomless for a poor developing country like Sri Lanka. This is ancient and not contemporary history. Even agents of security services in hot water over various acts of commission and omission have been found in safe havens in this country’s overseas missions. The number of such missions is way above the actual need and the costs incurred are astronomical. Efforts at downsizing and economizing have at best been perfunctory. Can anybody tell us why we opened an embassy in the Seychelles of all places? Possible answers can only be in whispers.