By Shamindra Ferdinando
The Department of Homeland Security has prevented Sri Lanka’s former Ambassador to the US, Jaliya Wickramasuriya, 57, from leaving the US to face court proceedings in Colombo in respect of alleged embezzlement of funds to the tune of USD 322,027.35 during his tenure as the Ambassador.
Wickramasuriya served as Sri Lanka’s top envoy in Washington from July 2008 to May 2014.
Wickramasuriya, in a brief interview with The Island over the phone yesterday morning spoke of efforts to leave the US to appear before Fort Magistrate’s court in respect of alleged misappropriation of public funds amounting to USD 322,027.35 out of USD 6.6 mn, allocated for the purchase of a building to house Sri Lankan mission in Washington.
Wickramasuriya said he had first realized restrictions placed on him when he tried to leave Atlanta for Chile late last year. “I got my boarding pass and was about to get in when Homeland Security personnel stopped me. They wanted to question me at the airport. I was taken to a room where they explained the reasons for to my detention.”
Wickramasuriya said that he hadn’t been able to leave the US though he was ordered to appear in court over the alleged embezzlement of funds. The former diplomat quoted Homeland Security officers as having told him that the government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) had wanted the embassy transaction probed.
Wickramasuriya claimed that basically he was told in addition to the controversial embassy transaction, the US wanted him to cooperate on ongoing US investigations into alleged war crimes perpetrated during the final phase of the offensive against the LTTE as well misappropriation of funds by the Rajapaksas, former officials and some officials in the present administration.
US officials have reminded Wickramasuriya they were fully aware of his communications with Colombo during the last six weeks of the war.
Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful conclusion on May 19, 2009 regardless of heavy US pressure to call off the offensive.
Asked whether he had negotiated with the US in a bid to ease pressure on him, Wickramasuriya said that a suggestion was made the probe into embassy transaction could be handled differently if he was willing to fully cooperate on war crimes probe and financial fraud involving Sri Lankan officials and the Rajapaksas.
Responding to another query, Wickramasuriya claimed that US officials, having acknowledged that he still enjoyed diplomatic immunity subsequently revealed GoSL promising to revoke the privilege status.
“I had no option but to obtain the services of a US lawyer. On my behalf, the lawyer met Homeland Security authorities and they basically reiterated their stand that the US had received an assurance from GoSL in respect of his diplomatic immunity relevant to the period under investigation.”
Wickramasuriya’s counsel, Shavendra Fernando, PC, had immediately sought a clarification from the Foreign Ministry regarding the former ambassador’s status and was told immunity remained. “My Counsel received a prompt response from the ministry though clarification was sought close on the heels upheaval over Tilak Marapana succeeding Ravi Karuanayake.
Karunanayake lost foreign ministry portfolio in early August 2017 in the wake of revelation before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry Perpetual Treasuries owner Arjuna Aloysius leased super luxury penthouse at Monarch Residencies for the UNPer.
The assurance was received from Foreign Secretary veteran career diplomat Prasad Kariyawasam, Wickramasuriya’s successor in Washington.
When The Island pointed out to Wickramasuriya that the GoSL would probably had no option but to seek an Interpol ‘Red Notice’ unless he returned to face judicial probe, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s nephew said that once he had received assurance from Foreign Ministry as regards his privileged status, there was no question of coming back.
“Soon after receiving an assurance from Foreign Ministry, I booked air ticket to Colombo and was contacted by Homeland Security within 5 minutes. I was warned in no uncertain terms that they would arrest me if an attempt was made to leave the US. I was flabbergasted. This happened in August/Sept last year.”
Asked whether he had been held in the US illegally, Wickramasuriya asserted that was certainly not the case as the US acted on the basis of diplomatic note issued by Foreign Secretary Kariyawasam to US Ambassador in Colombo Atul Keshap. Wickramasuriya said that his lawyer had consulted Homeland Security and other relevant authorities and informed him of the diplomatic note issued by the Foreign Ministry rescinding his immunity status.
Wickramasuriya said that he had already moved the Court of Appeal seeking an immediate revision of the Foreign Ministry decision to revoke his immunity. The Court of Appeal has been told as the decision to waive Wickramasuriya’s diplomatic immunity was taken by President Maithripala Sirisena, only the Supreme Court could rule on that.
Wickramasuriya’s Counsel Romesh de Silva, PC, has inquired whether a written directive issued by President Sirisena in this respect could be produced in court.
Wickramasuriya said that he was ready to move Supreme Court to obtain relief.
The former Ambassador said that there hadn’t been an instance in Sri Lanka’s legal history a person who had held high post was prevented by his government from returning home to face legal proceedings. “As I have failed to appear in Fort Magistrate’s court, summons were issued on me as well as my wife, Priyanga as well as sister-in-law (brother Prasanna’s wife) as they signed as guarantors when he was released on bail in July last year. All three are currently in Atlanta.”
Wickramasuriya said that he couldn’t understand why no one had checked with the Foreign Ministry whether diplomatic note was issued rescinding former Sri Lanka’s ambassador’s immunity.
Wickramasuriya said that he was ready to return home immediately prior to the next hearing at the Fort Magistrate’s Court.
Asked whether he had appealed to Homeland Security to confirm his situation, Wickramasuriya said that he has been able to obtain a document from the US outfit explaining circumstances leading to him being prevented from leaving the country, with all relevant affidavits and papers. Wickramasuriya said that the document would be submitted to the Fort Magistrate’s court.
Wickramasuriya said that he has recently visited the Sri Lankan Embassy in Washington to request its assistance to return to Colombo. Since Kariyawasam’s return to Colombo, the Ambassador’s post hadn’t been filled, he said. “Sadly, Colombo was yet to appoint a Deputy Chief of Mission leaving Charge de Affairs Priyanga Wickramasinghe, a career officer, in charge of the mission. In spite of repeated efforts, Wickramasinghe declined to meet him and he left the mission after having obtained the signature of another staffer, who confirmed his visit to the embassy.
Wickramasuriya was engaged in lucrative tea trade as the owner of Ceylon Royal Teas when he received an invitation in 2005 from newly elected President Rajapaksa to take over as Sri Lanka’s Consul General in LA.
Having worked under Dilmah Chief Merrill J. Fernando for two decades, Wickramasuriya was somewhat reluctant to move to a new field. “However, I accepted the appointment in 2006 and in 2008 moved to Washington.”
Wickramasuriya admitted that he had never been a US citizen though as a Green Card holder he enjoyed the status of a Permanent Resident. “I had to give up the Green Card to accept the post of Consul General.
Green Card holders didn’t receive US passport, he said.
Wickramasuriya succeeded top career diplomat Bernard Gunatilleke in Washington. Whatever the allegations, Wickramasuriya emphasized that he was really satisfied with his role during the war. When The Island pointed out that he received Washington only because of his relationship with the Rajapaksas, Wickramasuriya shot back: “If you make inquiries, you’ll realize well over 50 per cent of top envoys there were either relatives, campaign managers or close associates of heads of governments. Washington encourages the practice as it facilitates communications.”
Wickramasuriya said that having returned to Colombo in early part of 2014, months ahead of declaration of early presidential polls, he was engaged in tea trade.
Although Wickramasuriya had travelled overseas about ten times since his return from the US in May 2014, the police stopped him as he was leaving for the US in the early hours of Nov 17, 2016.
The following day a section of the local media reported that the police had prevented Wickramasuriya from fleeing the country, the former Ambassador said. “I was in Sri Lanka for two years. They never wanted to record my statement,” Wickramasuriya said, adding that once he was taken in FCID (Financial Crimes Investigation Division) told him a statement was required in respect of fraudulent embassy transaction.
The FCID investigation was based on a report posted on Lankae-news, Wickramasuriya said.
Asked whether he could explain why he had deviated from specific procedures in place to guarantee transparency in such transactions, Wickramasuriya admitted that he had been able to procure the embassy building at much lower rate and the remaining funds were intact.
Wickramasuriya said that matters could be explained. “Don’t forget a case hasn’t been filed against me yet for want of sufficient evidence.”
When The Island pointed out that the former Ambassador had been treated well by those in authority as he didn’t have to sleep on the floor and instead allowed to enter prison hospital immediately after he was remanded, Wickramasinghe said that assertion was unfair. “I had many health issues and was subsequently allowed to receive treatment at the Durdens hospital and the National Hospital. Later, doctors found out that I had serious problem with my left eye.”
Wickramasuriya said that the Fort Magistrate’s Court had allowed him to go overseas only after the Director of the Eye Hospital, Colombo issued a certified letter that he had to go overseas as that particular problem couldn’t be dealt with here. That report had been issued on the basis of recommendations made by two other doctors, Wickramasuriya said, adding that he had been allowed to stay abroad for two months period to go abroad and the time was subsequently extended by two more weeks.
Asked why he had tried to leave for Chile as he was to obtain treatment in the US, Wickramasuriya said that he consulted US specialists and started receiving treatment there but felt the need to seek a second opinion. “A friend referred me to an excellent British run hospital in Chile, where a relative of his had received treatment to a similar eye problem.”
Wickramasuriya said that US position was unlikely to be changed as long Sri Lanka didn’t rescind the directive at issue.