The truth about Udayanga Weeratunga: Is the government playing Russian Roulette?

By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

The ‘controversy’ surrounding Sri Lanka’s former Ambassador to Russia, Udayanga Weeratunga was revived again with the recent visit of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to Thailand. A photo uploaded on the web by Weeratunga of himself standing beside his relative Rajapaksa during this visit, has gone viral. This episode led to renewed allegations from the yahapalana government – this time around the charge being that Weeratunga is ‘wanted’ in RUSSIA over arms smuggling, and for questioning over the death of Noel Ranaweera, a former employee of Sri Lanka’s mission in Moscow. There were calls to ‘probe’ the Weeratunga-Rajapaksa meeting in order to ascertain Weeratunga’s whereabouts and track him down.

Days after the Weeratunga-Rajapaksa meeting in Thailand, UNP National List MP Nalin Bandara at a media briefing at Sirikotha said that the Russian government had told the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry that Weeratunga is ‘wanted for questioning’ in Russia over charges of weapons smuggling to rebels, and that the Russian government had even named the rebel groups.

The Embassy of the Russian Federation in Colombo has confirmed that Weeratunga is not “wanted” for any offence in Russia. Responding to a phone query the embassy’s Press Secretary Evgeniya Altukhova asked “Wanted – by whom? That is the important question. In Russia, Udayanga is not wanted for any questioning. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Russia has nothing to ask him. We have no suspicions of him.” Referring to the remarks made by the MP, Altukhova said “I can only question his sources,” and that the information “is not from us.”

She observed that the Ukrainian ambassador too has made a statement rejecting the accusations made against Weeratunga, but qualified the remark by saying this would have to be independently checked. “If Udayanga has any problem, the only problem is in Sri Lanka” she said.

The government’s new round of attacks directed against the former envoy is not only deceitful but also hilarious, reflecting ignorance of basic facts relating to the Ukraine–Russia conflict, against which background the accusations are made. The allegation made by Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera and repeated frequently to the media by his deputies and interlocutors, is that Weeratunga supplied weapons to ‘pro- Russian Ukrainian separatist rebels’ operating in the region of the Ukraine-Russia border. Now if that is the case, why would the Russian government make accusations over weapons being supplied to them? Isn’t it the Ukrainian side that should be worried?

Asked for clarification on Noel Ranaweera’s case Altukhova said that Ranaweera died in a motor accident involving several cars on the streets of Russia. “The driver of the vehicle that ran over him, a Russian man, has been convicted and the case is closed” she said. “Udayanga was not a suspect in the case. There were two police reports and video tapes” relating to the incident she said.

The allegations in circulation against Udayanga Weeratunga started in March last year when Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s government had ‘complained’ to the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry accusing Weeratunga of being involved in weapons sales to ‘pro-Russian separatist rebels.’ The story was picked up and widely reported by local and foreign media. At a media briefing at the foreign ministry on 03.06.15 reporters were told that Ukraine’s Ambassador to Sri Lanka, who is based in New Delhi, had informed Sri Lankan officials that Ukrainian authorities were ‘investigating’ the alleged transfer of weapons by Weeratunga to Ukrainian nationals.

However the Ukrainian Embassy in Delhi said on Tuesday that “the Embassy does not have information concerning investigations against Mr. Weeratunga.” The statement by Yaroslav Bielov, First Secretary (Consular) was in response to an email query seeking clarification as to whether Weeratunga was under investigation by Ukrainian authorities for any wrongdoing.

When the accusations against Weeratunga were first made, local media reported the story without quoting any Ukrainian official on Samaraweera’s assertions. But the foreign ministry’s position was contradicted in a BBC Ukraine report published on 23.03.15 titled “Foreign Ministry: Ukraine did not complain about the former Ambassador of Sri Lanka in Russia,” as reported exclusively in the English language press by Los Angeles based journalist Hassina Leelarathna. Referring to the ‘complaint’ said to have been made to the Sri Lankan government, the BBC report quoted Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Yevhen Perebiynis saying “This information has not been confirmed.”

Since that time the government has given the media frequent re-caps on Weeratunga’s alleged misconduct. Added to this, are charges that Weeratunga was somehow involved in the death of Noel Ranaweera whom Weeratunga had employed as a messenger (some say translator) in the Russian embassy. Though he died in on 11th June 2014, according to reports his family members complained to the police of suspected foul play only on 22.03.15 – the same day that news reports first appeared regarding minister Samaraweera’s arms-sales-to-rebels allegations. While Ranaweera’s body buried in Attanagalla was exhumed on a magistrate’s order on 02.04.15 the outcome of the inquiry is unknown.

Another allegation against Weeratunga made by Samaraweera and in sections of the media is that he was associated with an allegedly fraudulent Defence Ministry deal in 2006 to purchase MiG 27 fighter aircraft from Ukraine. Here again Weeratunga’s links with the case would seem tenuous. According to reports the deal was signed on 26.07.06 whereas Weeratunga, who was concurrently accredited to Ukraine, presented his credentials to Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko only on 01.12.06. At the foreign ministry’s media briefing of 03.06.15 it transpired that the FCID had not even sought information from the foreign ministry in connection with the case.

The repetition of these several accusations over and over again could well have contributed to a public impression being created of Weeratunga as a big-time arms dealer and suspected murderer. The government portrays him as a fugitive avoiding arrest, asking why he does not return to the country and face the charges to clear his name if he is innocent, as he claims. This begs the question of the likelihood of any person returning to face justice in a situation where their reputation has already been ruined and the environment thoroughly poisoned against them through unfounded allegations.

In an interview with Ceylon Today of 21.02.16 Weeratunga has said he is ready to answer the Sri Lankan foreign ministry’s questions based at either the foreign ministry of Ukraine or the foreign ministry of Russia. He has repeatedly protested that the Sri Lankan foreign ministry was lying about him, and argued that if he was ‘wanted’ for any crime in Ukraine it would have been impossible for him to live there.

It would appear from all of the foregoing that despite the furor that has been created over Weeratunga’s alleged criminal activities abroad, he is not ‘wanted’ anywhere other than in Sri Lanka. And here the only ‘crime’ he stands guilty of would seem to be that he is a relative of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the government’s main political challenger. Meanwhile strongmen from the previous regime on whom the ‘corruption/thuggery cap’ fits much better, are making an appearance in the yahapalana camp.

The vilification campaign against Udayanga Weeratunga would seem to confirm the suspicions of many, that the numerous investigations launched by the yahapalana government are more in the nature of a witch-hunt against its political opponents than part of a genuine attempt to address corruption.