US indictment against Jaliya rests on SC decision on diplomatic immunity question | Sunday Observer

US indictment against Jaliya rests on SC decision on diplomatic immunity question

Jaliya Wickremasuriya
Jaliya Wickremasuriya

In Sri Lanka, cousin of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Colombo’s former Envoy to the US Jaliya Wickremasuriya is a fugitive running from the law. In the United States, a Grand Jury is ready to indict the former Lankan diplomat on charges of money-laundering, but only if the Sri Lankan Supreme Court rules that a Government decision to waive Wickremasuriya’s diplomatic immunity is legal

United States (US) authorities are awaiting a decision by Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court regarding the application of residual immunity to former Ambassador Jaliya Wickremasuriya, before indicting him on several accounts of fraud and misappropriation.

Wickremasuriya is appealing a decision made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and sanctioned by the Office of the President to remove any residual diplomatic immunity he may have enjoyed by virtue of his appointment as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the US when his cousin Mahinda Rajapaksa was President.

The appeal will be taken up for consideration by the Supreme Court on June 18.

The former Ambassador, who is a relative of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, has been accused of allegedly accepting a commission of $332,000 while serving as the Sri Lankan Ambassador in Washington.

A US Grand Jury has approved an indictment to be served on the former Lankan diplomat who is being investigated for money-laundering in the US jurisdiction, but was holding back until the diplomatic immunity question is resolved, the Sunday Observer learns from highly placed sources.

Diplomatic immunity

Authoritative sources told the Sunday Observer that it was better to wait until a final decision is given by Sri Lankan judicial authorities regarding Wickremasuriya’s immunity before the indictment proceeds in the US. Diplomats are granted immunity from prosecution in a foreign jurisdiction when they represent their countries abroad, unless in exceptional cases. In order to indict the former Rajapaksa-era Ambassador, the US Government had to request Sri Lanka to waive immunity for its former diplomat so that he could be prosecuted under US law.

“If the Supreme Court upholds the matter in favour of the applicant; Jaliya Wickremasuriya, to the effect that his residual immunity cannot be waived, then the US authorities will not have the option of indicting him, therefore it is more sensible to do so only once this matter is concluded,” a highly placed official within the legal system told the Sunday Observer.

The official confirmed that a US Grand Jury has sanctioned the indictment and that this information has been communicated to Sri Lankan authorities.

Explaining the applicability and the extent of the residual immunity, the official went on to state that it is something diplomats are entitled to after serving their period in office. While this means their immunity on certain matters including immunity on civil matters is nonexistent, they are entitled to immunity on a very limited number of issues.

“Given this, at any point, if action is instituted against Wickremasuriya in the US, his lawyers will make the application seeking immunity which makes the whole effort futile,” he said.

The former Ambassador to the US and Mexico is currently at large and wanted for evading court in Sri Lanka for cases filed against him at the Fort Magistrate’s Court relating to misappropriation of funds and a host of other charges cited in a B report submitted to court by the Police.

Open warrant

On April 24, the Fort Magistrate re-issued an open warrant on Wickremasuriya who is still at large. Originally arrested in November 2016, Wickremasuriya was granted permission to go overseas for medical treatment for eight weeks in July 2017. He has been evading court ever since.

Officials of the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) arrested Jaliya Wickremasuriya on November 18, 2016 at the Bandaranaike International Airport as he was about to leave the country. According to the FCID B report and revelations made to court two days prior to it, a warrant was issued, and Wickremasuriya’s passport suspended by the Fort Magistrate, Lanka Jayarathne.

He was granted bail after being in remand custody as the FCID continued with investigations on the alleged misappropriation of state funds. However, citing medical reasons he sought permission to travel to the US allegedly to take medical treatment in July 2017.

Wickremasuriya’s arrest in Sri Lanka was based on a report submitted by Esala Weerakoon, who was the Deputy Ambassador in Washington under Wickremasuriya and became acting Ambassador following the recall of Wickremasuriya in 2015. Weerakoon complained that he suspected misappropriation of funds when a transaction document he had been required to sign as acting Ambassador contained two different payment orders.

The transaction pertained to the purchase of a new office space for the Sri Lankan Embassy in the US, situated in Washington DC, at a cost of USD 6.6 million paid by the Government of Sri Lanka. Wickremasuriya, as Ambassador, is suspected of having pocketed USD 332,000 of that transaction in commissions.

According to the Deputy Ambassador’s statement, two documents had been prepared by Ambassador Wickremasuriya. One document noted that monies payable as commission was depicted in Cage 303 of the document as being USD 332,027.35. The other said USD 0 in the same cage.

When the FCID in the course of investigations retrieved documentation pertaining to the transaction from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and cross-checked it against the same documents filed at the Sri Lankan Embassy in Washington DC, it was found that documents at the Lankan mission had been forged.

The B report further said that Wickremasuriya had admitted that it was his signature placed on the forged documents.

The first B report filed in the Fort Magistrate’s Court also seeks to carry out investigations about Wickremasuriya’s decision to pay USD 35,000 monthly to a US based PR firm – Patton Bogges allegedly for obtaining services for legal advice and image-building. According to the FCID B Report Wickremasuriya is also suspected of having used Government funds for personal gain, while claiming the funds were being used to house Embassy employees.

The B report also refers to other offences by Wickremasuriya including ‘human smuggling’, using insurance money received by the Embassy for personal use and engaging in private business while neglecting state duties.

Wickremasuriya, prior to his appointment as Ambassador by the Rajapaksa administration, ran a tea export company in Sri Lanka while living in the US.

His entry into the diplomatic service coincided with his first cousin Mahinda Rajapaksa being elected President of Sri Lanka. Wickremasuriya, back in 2005, was appointed as the Consul General for Los Angeles, California, by the former President. He was then appointed as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the US in August 2008 and continued in the position till 2014. He was only recalled on a request made by the US Government which had started investigations into his dealings.

Even after his appointment as Ambassador, Wickremasuriya continued to run his Tea business, Ceylon Royal Tea and Supplies (Pvt) Ltd, the FCID reported to Court.

The FCID B report reveals that Cabinet approval had been granted to the Treasury to release a sum of USD 6.6 million to purchase land situated at No. 3025, White Haven Street Nw, Washington.

“Monies paid to the seller was indicated at USD 6,250,000, leaving an amount of USD 350,000 which was not used for the transaction. Therefore, the Embassy forwarded the documents to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs seeking clarification and requesting an investigation into the transaction,” the B report states.

Further investigations into USD 350,000 showed that it had not been used as commission payment, as claimed by the Ambassador, as commissions were paid by the sellers in real estate transactions.

Payments

FCID investigations revealed that payments were made to two companies, namely, PPP International Private Limited, a local company who was paid a sum of USD 250,000 while a US company Paper Crown LLC were paid USD 82,000/-. The FCID found that, of the money transferred to PPP International, Rs 18 million was transferred to an account maintained in Sri Lanka owned and operated by Ceylon Royal Tea and Supplies (Pvt) Ltd – the company in which Jaliya Wickremasuriya is director.

Lengthy documents filed with the Fort Magistrate’s Court clearly show involvement of Jaliya Wickremasuriya in unlawful activities continuously throughout his tenure. Despite his bad repute and after the US requesting the government to recall him he was again appointed as the Rajapaksa Government’s Ambassador to Canada. This appointment never went through as the Canadian Government refused to accept his credentials.

Presidents Counsels Romesh de Silva and Shavindra Fernando appeared on behalf of Jaliya Wickremasuriya in the matter contesting removal of residual immunity.

Speaking to the Sunday Observer PC Shavindra Fernando stated that although it is the argument of the State that the decision to remove immunity was taken by the office of the President there is no documentary evidence to substantiate the claim.

“Our argument is that there is no jurisdictional issue.” Presidents Counsel said.

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