By K.S. Udaya Kumar
Former Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga and former Director General of the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (TRC) Anusha Palpita were convicted, in the so-called ‘Sil-cloth’ case, by the Colombo High Court and sentenced to three-year prison terms yesterday.
They were found guilty of misusing Rs 600 million of the TRC State funds to distribute the material.
Weeratunga had served as the Chairman of the TRC during that period.
High Court judge Gihan Kulatunge found the duo guilty and sentenced them to three years rigorous imprisonment.
He also imposed a Rs 2 million fine on each and ordered them to pay Rs 50 million each to the TRC as compensation.
They were also warned that an additional year of imprisonment would be slapped on them if they failed to pay the fines.
This is the first conviction obtained by the AG’s Department in a case investigated by the Financial Crimes Investigation Department set up by the current Government.
Announcing his verdict, over a one-and-a-half-hour span, Justice Kulatunga noted that the then TRC Chairman Weeratunga had made a request in writing to then TRC Director General Palpita to release
Rs 600 million from the TRC coffers to facilitate the distribution of 700,000 sil clothes to temples countrywide.
The Judge noted that having received the said request, accused Palpita, issuing a grade circular, had deposited a sum of Rs 600 million on 5 December 2014 to the account of the President’s Secretary at the Presidential Secretariat.
The Judge said, before depositing the said amount, the TRC Director General had not obtained prior approval from the TRC’s Board of Directors and that evidence gathered had noted that approval for doing so had only been obtained on 15 December 2015.
The Judge observed, the decision taken by Palpita to add Rs 100 million from the social service expenditure of the TRC to the Rs 600 million and then depositing it in the account of the Presidential Secretariat was a blatant violation of TRC regulations.
High Court Judge Kulatunga stated that even though the TRC tender board approval may have been there, for the depositing of said amount, there were no legal provisions to submit such an amount and he termed it an offence which should be severely punished.
Explaining his verdict, the Judge stated that during the Court case, accused Weeratunga had insisted that the said incident (distribution of sil clothes) had nothing to do with the 2015 Presidential election.
The Judge then asked if the project was getting delayed due to the financial constraints, as claimed by Weeratunga during the case, what reasons had prompted him to initiate the programme at a time when a presidential election campaign was on.
The Judge noted that setting aside such a sum to initiate the project, without having submitted a supplementary estimate to Parliament, was also an illegal act by Weeratunga.
The former President’s Secretary, during the Court case, had claimed that he had set aside the sum for the distribution of sil clothes following a request made to him by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The Judge pointed out that both Weeratunga and Palpita had been appointed to their respective portfolios by the former President and that they were hence serving him.
Judge Kulathunga stated that the suspects had carried out the said acts with the aim of providing political gain for their master, evidence given by them during the case had proved so.
Before the final verdict was announced, Deputy Solicitor General Thusith Mudalige, addressing the Court, stated that due to the acts of the accused, the sum of Rs 600 million belonging to the public had been robbed.
Mudalige later requested the Court to hand out a punishment to the suspects that could serve as a stern deterrent to those in the State sector from committing such fraudulent acts in the future.
Making submissions to Court, on behalf of the accused, PC Kalinga Indatissa stated that by having undertaken the said distribution of sil clothes, the suspects had not even earned a cent or a rupee and that not a single sil cloth had been taken to their homes.
PC Indatissa also requested the Court to hand out mild prison terms to the duo as they were esteemed State officials during their respective careers.
Before announcing the verdict, Judge Kulathunga noted that he would be taking into consideration the requests on behalf of the accused, made by their lawyers, as well as the impact the acts of the accused have had on society.
The Judge stated that though the accused had not used the said sum for their personal gain, as had been proved from the evidence given by them, he noted still there had been a tendency for State officials to engage in such acts during that period.
Having considered all facts, the Judge announced his verdict before setting 20 September for them to pay the ordered fines and compensation.
PC Indatissa told the Court, in the wake of the announcement of the verdict, that an appeal will be submitted on behalf of his clients.