The “Sunday Times” Political Editor
The alleged abduction of a Sri Lankan staff member of the Swiss embassy in Colombo has jolted the two-week-old new government. The grave seriousness is in the light of the international implications and the political fallout it portends.
“We are taking the matter very seriously. We have ordered a full investigation by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID),” Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa told the Sunday Times. His remarks came after a meeting he held on Thursday with acting Police Chief, Chandana Wickremeratne, Senior DIG (CID) Ravi Seneviratne and the CID’s newly appointed Director SSP W. Tillekeratne, who served earlier in Rajapaksa’s security detail for 12 years.
It came in the aftermath of Swiss Ambassador Hanspeter Mock meeting the Premier to express his government’s concern and seek an immediate investigation. He also met Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, who assured continued protection to the embassy. Investigators are still expecting a statement from the embassy and the victim. They believe the statements could help expedite investigations. The Swiss envoy also met Prof. G.L. Peiris, senior advisor to the Premier.
In Berne, the Swiss Foreign Ministry has summoned Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Germany, Karunasena Hettiaratchchi, who is concurrently accredited to Switzerland, for a meeting tomorrow (Monday). Switzerland is expected to deliver a message to the government. This is whilst groups of western envoys including those of the European Union met Foreign Minister Gunawardena to urge immediate action. They have been told that the CID was on the job.
“I will have an open mind until the investigations are concluded. However, I suspect this could be part of a plot to embarrass our government. It comes immediately after Tamil references in name boards were tarred,” Premier Rajapaksa said. This was a reference to instances in Panadura and Wattala. In the name board, the Tamil name had been removed. This came soon after the presidential election results were announced.
Details of how the abduction took place are still sketchy. However, talking to diplomatic sources, the Sunday Times has been able to piece together some of the events. The incident is said to have occurred just after 5 p.m. on Monday (November 25) along R.G. Senanayake Mawatha (former Gregory’s Road) where the Swiss embassy is located. In the vicinity are the Japanese embassy and the Australian high commission.
The female Sri Lankan embassy staffer was an aide to the lady Migration Officer in the Swiss embassy, a national of that country. For reasons of security and for their safety their names are not being divulged. When the local staffer had walked out of a school nearby, to her office premises, five persons in a white Toyota Corolla car had followed her, bundled her into the vehicle and driven away. She had been released only two hours later. “She complained that she was sexually molested. The abductors had bound her and covered her eyes with a black cloth,” said a diplomatic source familiar with the incident.
“She was questioned on why she helped her embassy in the issue of a visa to CID Chief Inspector Nishantha de Silva.” She was questioned on this repeatedly. At times, they threatened her of consequences she would have to face if an answer was not given, said the source.
Chief Inspector Nishantha de Silva, who was head of the Organised Crimes Investigation Division of the CID, fled Sri Lanka on November 24 without official leave.
The task of investigating the alleged Swiss embassy staffer abduction has also fallen on a CID team. However, it has not been easy for them. On Thursday they failed to obtain the identity or statement from the local female staffer. Nor were they able to obtain surveillance video footage from them. The team has also made a request from the nearby Japanese embassy for copies of video footage from surveillance cameras in its premises. “The Police are seeking a statement from the victim and the embassy so they could proceed with the investigations expeditiously,” a Foreign Ministry source said.
However, the issue has become a dilemma for the Swiss authorities. They feel exposing the identity of their local employee to the investigators would add to her trauma. In fact, the Swiss embassy has made a formal request to the Foreign Ministry, to allow the local staffer to leave Sri Lanka. Yet, the request does not carry her identification.
This is for fear that investigators would be able to track her down. They are also concerned of the danger to her family. This is exacerbated by another issue. Just days before the alleged abduction, the diplomatic source said, some members of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) had to face “very unpleasant” situations after they visited the Swiss embassy.
“There were unidentified persons who would accost them and ask questions on whom they went to meet, what was discussed and what the response or answers from the Swiss diplomats were,” the source complained. They had also sought the identities of the diplomats, the source revealed. “Berne will lodge a strong protest with the Sri Lanka government and demand a thorough investigation,” the source familiar with the development said.
Just hours after Premier Rajapaksa’s meeting with Swiss Ambassador Hanspeter Mock, the Foreign Ministry in Colombo said in a statement “the Government of Sri Lanka has taken serious note of the alleged criminal incident concerning a locally recruited staff member” and, “take this opportunity to reaffirm unequivocally its commitment to give effect to the obligations as a State Party to the Vienna convention on Diplomatic Relations.”
The issues arising from Chief Inspector de Silva’s sudden departure from Colombo, the abduction of the local staffer at the Swiss embassy and issues arising from them are sure to reverberate at the next UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions in Geneva in June next year. A propaganda blitz is certain to flood the media. This is if CI de Silva chooses to come out with those documents which only relates to his investigations. Some aspects have already come into question. A newly sworn-in State Minister simply dismissing issues before the UNHRC as a thing of the past is a joke. It is a public display of their ignorance and a sign they were beginning to learn from nursery classes onwards.
This week, The New York Times reported on the abductions together with CID arrests of web journalists who had reported on different issues. This is sure to be exploited. Like the introduction of the US backed resolution and the resultant wide publicity, the previous government was unable to counter the propaganda emanating from them.