The Lodge, once known as Queen’s Cottage, in the cooler climes of Nuwara Eliya, often referred to as ‘Little England’ was once home for British Governors and the ruling elite. Since independence in 1948, it became the holiday resort of the Governor General, later Prime Ministers and now Presidents.
Unknown to most Sri Lankans, this turned out to be a centre in the tea country highlands for the campaign to re-elect Mahinda Rajapaksa at the presidential election on January 8. The man who lived there and ran the show was Udayanga Weeratunga, then Ambassador to Russia who was concurrently accredited to Ukraine. He is a cousin of Rajapaksa and not a nephew as erroneously reported earlier. He is the eldest son of the former President’s mother’s sister.
At the same time as Weeratunga was directing campaign activity from the presidential retreat, in December last year, he was unaware that he had become the subject of a confidential investigation over a serious allegation. For this purpose, Kshenuka Senewiratne, the then Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs (now Foreign Ministry) and Additional Secretary and Chief of Protocol Majintha Jayasinghe, had flown to New Delhi for a meeting on December 3 with the Ukranian Ambassador to India (concurrently accredited to Sri Lanka), Oleksandr Shevchenko.
It was over accusations that Weeratunga was involved in providing arms to pro-Russian rebel groups fighting government troops in eastern Ukraine, as revealed exclusively in the Sunday Times front page lead story last week. The report revealed that the Ukranian Government of President Poro Poroshenko had complained to the Government of Sri Lanka over Weeratunga’s conduct. Then External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris had directed Seneviratne and Jayasinghe to rush to New Delhi and report to him immediately upon their return. They did report their findings but no further action was pursued. In fact, the matter was hushed up. Weeratunga left Colombo no sooner it became clear Rajapaksa had lost the presidential election. He continued to serve as Ambassador in Moscow with regular trips to Ukraine until his recall by Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera. He did not return to Colombo and his whereabouts are not known.
Now, Foreign Minister Samaraweera has learnt that the General Prosecutor in Ukraine — the equivalent of the Attorney General in Sri Lanka — wants to indict Weeratunga under Ukraine’s penal code now that he no longer enjoys diplomatic immunity. A similar warning has also been conveyed earlier to the two-member team that travelled to New Delhi. Samaraweera is now examining what action the Government should take. Besides an investigation locally, he is also looking at the possibility of a team visiting Kiev to obtain first-hand information. He also wants to seek the assistance of friendly countries and other international agencies.
Weeratunga who lived in the Ukranian capital of Kiev once ran ‘Club Lanka’, a restaurant serving Sri Lankan dishes. He spoke Russian. Once Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Viktorovich Lavrov, who had listened to a speech made by Weeratunga remarked to late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar whilst in Moscow that “he speaks with a heavy Ukranian accent.” Weeratunga had served as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Russia for an unprecedented eight years after being appointed by then President Rajapaksa. He was recalled after the new Government took office.
This is the first time in post-independence Sri Lanka’s history that a country’s envoy has been accused of providing small arms to a separatist rebel group. That is by abusing his office as the Sri Lankan Ambassador and allegedly placing orders for weapons. Ironically he represents a nation that had fought a near three decade long separatist war and militarily defeated the Tiger guerrillas in May 2009. At international fora, Sri Lanka has denounced all forms of terrorism. Calls to Weeratunga’s mobile as well as a satellite telephone he used went unanswered.
Ukraine’s Third Person Note
The issue over Weeratunga came to the fore when the Ukranian Embassy in New Delhi (which covers Sri Lanka) handed over a Third Person Note (TPN) to the Sri Lanka High Commission in New Delhi. As the term implies, it is written in the third person and handed by a diplomatic mission to obtain the support of another Government. The introduction and salutations precede the subject matter. This is what the Government of Ukraine had to say in the TPN dated November 19 last year through its New Delhi diplomatic mission to the Sri Lanka High Commission in New Delhi:
“The Embassy of Ukraine in the Republic of India presents its compliments to the Ministry of External Affairs of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and has the honour to inform about the request of Ukrainian concerned authorities regarding the orders on awarding and handing of weapons to the Ukranian nationals (the list with the names and order numbers enclosed).
“As per received information, the above mentioned persons were awarded by H.E. Udayanga Weeratunga, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to Ukraine with residence in Moscow. ”Taking into account the aforesaid, the Embassy has further the honour to request the esteemed Ministry to kindly confirm the above data and provide the Embassy with the information about legal regulations and procedure of awarding weapons to foreigners by the Heads of Lankan Diplomatic Missions abroad. ”The Embassy of Ukraine in the Republic of India avails itself of this opportunity to renew to the Ministry of External Affairs of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka the assurance of its highest consideration.”
As referred to in the above TPN, accompanying the Ukranian complaint is a list of the weapons which Weeratunga allegedly gave, their names, the description of the weapons and the order numbers. The provision of the order numbers and the dates has raised doubts in the Foreign Ministry in Colombo on how a serving Ambassador could place orders for the procurement of small arms in a country where he is accredited. The list includes Sigsauer P266 pistols (7.62) that are made in Germany and Switzerland, Parabellum O8 pistol made in Germany, different types of CZ 75 automatic pistols made in the Czech Republic (9 mm), Beretta 92 FS pistols made in Italy, Akkar pistols made in Turkey, TT pistols made in the former Soviet Union and Steyr pistols made in Germany.
According to a “strictly confidential” report forwarded by then External Affairs Ministry Secretary Senewiratne to her Minister dated November 21 last year, a copy of which was seen by the Sunday Times, she said the Ukrainian Embassy “requests confirmation” of the dates on which the small arms were handed over and also “requests information about the legal regulations and procedure on awarding weapons to foreigners by Heads of Sri Lankan diplomatic missions.” The query itself raised concerns among top officials in the former External Affairs Ministry who were privy to the Ukrainian complaint. One of them who sought anonymity declared “there appears to be a belief that the Sri Lankan envoy allegedly issued those weapons with the concurrence of the Government of Sri Lanka. This is why they are seeking dates and confirmation from Colombo.” Yet, then External Affairs Minister Peiris did not pursue any further action on the matter. The envoy in this instance was none other than the cousin of the former President and the matter ended there. Neither did the then External Affairs Ministry Secretary nor the Additional Secretary brief the new Minister.
Then External Affairs Ministry Secretary Senewiratne also handed over to former Minister Peiris the minutes of the meeting she held with Ukrainian Ambassador Shevchenco in New Delhi. She has confirmed that she and Jayasinghe flew to New Delhi “on the instructions of the (then) Minister with regard to the Ukrainian TPN” on the award and handing over of weapons to 19 Ukrainian nationals” by then Ambassador Weeratunga. Confirming that the Ukrainian envoy had asked her whether “Ambassador Weeratunga had been accorded authority by the Government of Sri Lanka for this purpose,” Senewiratne has said she asked “for detailed description of individuals/persons” the weapons were given to. The Ukrainian envoy had said that had included two former Ministers of the Ukrainian Government and an official of the Kiev Foreign Ministry.
All these persons were alleged suspects backing the separatist rebels. The envoy has revealed, according to the minutes of the meeting, that then Ambassador Weeratunga travelled frequently from Moscow to Kiev, at least three times a month.
According to the minutes, the former External Affairs Ministry Secretary has told the Ukrainian envoy that the Government of Sri Lanka was not aware of any transaction involving Weeratunga until the receipt of their TPN. She has also said that Colombo “categorically rejected” any “official” or “unofficial” involvement. Another reference in the minutes says “…the Ambassador inquired Sri Lanka’s practice in gifting weapons to non-nationals. He informed that such a practice does not exist and if at all, weapons would be transacted only on a commercial basis as was done by Sri Lanka with Ukraine during the fight against terrorism.”
Though Senewiratne told Ukranian envoy Shivchenko that the “the Government of Sri Lanka takes serious note of the contents of the TPN and would initiate an inquiry,” no inquiry or further action followed. Weeratunga continued to function in Moscow with regular visits to Kiev as if the alleged arms transaction did not take place and then came to Sri Lanka to campaign for the re-election of his cousin-President.
For the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the biggest difficulty appears to be its inability to get in touch with former Ambassador Weeratunga. Hence, it is unable to obtain answers to the questions the Government of Ukraine has sought. It is not only the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that wants to question Weeratunga.
MiG deal and million-dollar questions
The newly established Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) of the Police that is now probing the procurement of MiG-27 ground attack aircraft from Ukraine too wants to question him. FCID officers say Weeratunga, who was then Ambassador to Moscow with concurrent accreditation to Ukraine was closely associated with the MiG-27 procurement that is under investigation in Sri Lanka. He made frequent trips from Kiev to Colombo. On Friday, FCID detectives recorded a statement for nine and half hours from Air Chief Marshal Roshan Goonetilleke who was then Commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) and had travelled to Ukraine personally to take delivery of the fighter jets. Also to be questioned is Air Chief Marshal Donald Perera, a former Commander of the Air Force during whose tenure the offers for MiG-27s had been received.
FCID officers have confirmed facts contained in a string of investigative exposures in the Sunday Times. This was after they obtained all related documents from the SLAF and also recorded statements from a few linked to the transaction so far. More are to be questioned. The transactions revolve around the procurement of four MiG-27 fighter jets, the much older leftover from two previous purchases and overhaul to seven others in the SLAF inventory.
A contract between SLAF (on behalf of the Government of Sri Lanka) and Ukrainian Government owned firm Ukrinmarsh was touted as a Government-to-Government deal. Such deals, as often publicised then, were meant to obviate the need for tenders and eliminate intermediaries. In this instance, the contract signed on July 26, 2006, identified a hitherto unknown offshore company called Bellimissa Holdings Limited, registered in Britain. Until now, investigators have not been able to find a profile of this company.
The contract describes this company as the “designated party.” The cost of the four MiG-27s, freight and other charges went directly to this offshore company to an address in London though it had no designated office. The contract had been signed one day before July 27, 2006 when Lanka Logistics and Technologies Limited, a wholly state owned liability company came into being. It became the sole organisation to procure and provide all equipment and services for the armed forces and the Police.
Six years before the above deal, on two different occasions the SLAF purchased MiG-27 fighter jets at much lower prices. They were from a yard where the best among a fleet was picked. The first purchase was on May 25, 2000 when four MiG-27s were obtained for US$ 1.75 million (or about Rs. 189 million each at the exchange rate prevailing at that time). They were manufactured between 1982 and 1985. The second purchase was on October 24, 2000. In this deal, two MiG-27 fighter jets were procured at a still lower price of US$ 1.6 million (about Rs. 172.8 million each at the then prevailing exchange rate). One was manufactured in 1981 and the other in 1984.
These facts have been confirmed during investigations so far. Furthermore, it was found that a MiG-27 23 UB trainer which was purchased at US$ 900,000 (or about Rs. 92 million at the then prevailing exchange rate), manufactured in 1984, cost the SLAF US$ 1.6 million later to overhaul.
The final purchase of four more MiG-27 fighter jets, investigators have now confirmed revelations in the Sunday Times, is for US$ 2.462 million dollars (or Rs. 265,896,000 at the exchange rate that prevailed then). It was thus much higher than the two previous purchases and was for aircraft which were much older. These aircraft, it has also been confirmed, were those manufactured in 1980 and 1983. FCID detectives have taken into possession documents that confirm these purchases and the prices paid.
The price difference from the previous purchase at US$1.6 million for each aircraft works out to US$ 862,000 each or US$ 3,448,000 for four fighter jets. Did anyone skim off this price difference? Who are they, and was there a move to cover up the procurement form the main thrust of the investigation now under way FCID officials declined to comment on the findings of the investigations so far except to say “we are making steady progress.”