Batticaloa campus: Did Hizbullah misuse his office? | Sunday Observer

Batticaloa campus: Did Hizbullah misuse his office?

Members of the Parliamentary Subcommittee on Higher Education led by Prof. Ashu Marasinghe, visited the Eastern Province late last week as part of the investigation on the controversial Batticaloa campus linked to the Eastern Governor M.L.A.M. Hizbullah.

Parliamentarians Prof. Ashu Marasinghe, Rohini Kumari Wijeratne and S. Viyalenderan in conversation with Governor Hizbullah at the partially constructed Batticaloa campus on Friday. 

The mission of the three-member team was to inspect the institution and its facilities for a report meant for the Cabinet of Ministers to decide its fate. Known as the Batticaloa Campus Private Limited, this higher education institute, the brainchild of Governor Hizbullah, created quite an uproar after Easter Sunday’s IS linked terror attacks on churches and tourist hotels.

The campus mooted as a higher education institute for the local communities, has been funded by a Saudi Arabian Trust and the project has so far been infused a total of Rs.3,600 million from this Trust - Sheikh Ali Abdulla Al Juffali Foundation Charity of Jeddah.

After widespread claims which are yet to be proved, that it was a campus dedicated to teaching Sharia Law, Governor Hizbullah outright denied the claims as baseless. However, the campus website sometime ago declared that there was a department dedicated to Sharia Law within the campus which has since been removed.

The reports also suggested that the company sought approval from the Higher Education Ministry in 2015 for academic staff to teach Sharia Law in a separate department.

Before the trip to Batticaloa, Prof. Marasinghe said their current mission was mainly to conduct an institutional review. A scrutiny of the course content will follow later, he said.

“We have to recommend a way out to the current crisis, like in the case of SAITM. State acquisition is likely to be recommended and the university be allowed to function as private, like the SLIIT, NSBM or the Kotelawala Defence Academy,”said Prof.Marasinghe who is the Chairman of the Parliamentary Subcommittee on Higher Education that functions under the Oversight Committee on Education and Human Resource Development.

The campus construction project has received over a massive Rs.4 billion as overseas funding during the past few years, which may have prompted media reports questioning if money laundering was also involved in the private campus project.

Documentary evidence is there to show the transfer of 3.6 billion from an account with the Citybank, New York to a Bank of Ceylon account under the name of the Batticaloa Campus Pvt. Ltd. between March 2016 and June 2017. The sender in the seven swift code transactions was the Al Juffali Foundation Charity in Saudi Arabia.

Initially, the Hira Foundation, which planned the private university in Batticaloa has maintained the funds came in as a grant, but later it said it was a soft loan where the university had to repay after a grace period of sixty months. Hira Foundation which has its roots running back to 1993, was first led by M.L.A.M. Hizbullah and now it is chaired by his son Hiras Hizbullah. Hira Foundation possesses 90% stake of the campus which boasts of smart class rooms, huge lecture halls, state of the art facilities and a swimming pool.

When the committee asked for paper proof for the soft loan, a letter addressed to Chairman of the Batticaloa Campus Pvt Ltd from the Chairman of the Sheikh Ali Abdulla Al Juffali Foundation Charity of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia was produced. The letter was titled ‘Intent to grant soft loan for Batticaloa Campus – Sri Lanka’.

Governor Hizbullah’s letter to the Higher Education Ministry seeking  approval to commence the private university.

The letter was dated January 1, 2019 –three years ‘after’ and not ‘before’ the funds actually started to come in for the private campus.

According to sources the funds had mainly come in seven swift code transactions from the Citibank New York to Bank of Ceylon, Kollupitiya branch. The very first transaction was dated 2.3.2016 and the amount was Rs.695.8 million (US $ 4,815,392). Thereafter Rs.564.1m, Rs.526.9m, Rs.424.7m had arrived on May 5, August 3 and October 5, 2016 respectively.

In 2017, Rs.541m, Rs.438m and Rs.450m were transferred on January 3, March 3 and June 6 respectively.

The Hira Foundation owned by M.L.A.M. Hizbullah acquired the sprawling 35 acre land from the Mahaweli Authority to construct the higher education institute in 2013.

The application to acquire the land was made under a special scheme to obtain state land for rural farmer societies. The land has been given on a 30-year lease for Rs.14,034 per acre per year. The annual lease for the 35 acre land was Rs.491, 200. In 2018 the annual lease was increased to Rs.547, 200, after government valuation.

Investigations have revealed that since 2013 no payments were made to the Mahaweli Authority for the leased land despite some construction having already come up. By 2018 the total amount due was Rs.4,185,584. In a letter dated 2017.2.24 signed by the Divisional Manager of the Mahaweli Authorty, the Batticaloa University Pvt Ltd was asked to settle up. On March 1 the same year, the company has paid the due amount in full.

The application seeking approval to set up the private higher education institute, Batticaloa Campus (Pvt) Ltd. was submitted on 2015.7.3.

Dr. Sarath Amunugama was the then Higher Education and Research Minister under whose purview the Non State University Branch that approves private universities functioned.

The letter was written by M.L.A.M. Hizbullah as the Chairman of the Batticaloa Campus Pvt Ltd. There was clearly a conflict of interest, not only because he was the Deputy Minister of Economic Development then and the campus project was a BOI project but he was also sending the letter on an official letterhead bearing the Parliament insignia.

He is prohibited to enter into agreements with the government while being a deputy minister of the same government, besides the BOI came under the purview of his ministry.

“This is where the issue is,” an authoritative source said. In May 2013, Oluvil Campus Student Union organized a procession and a rally where they passed the ‘Oluvil Declaration’ calling for a Muslim region in the East. The source said the private university proposed soon after this declaration was feared an extension of this move.

The subcommitteeis mandated to investigate if the place is qualified to be a higher education institute and submit a report in Parliament to be referred to the Cabinet. Thereafter the Cabinet must take a decision based on its recommendations and inform Parliament within six weeks.

The inspection team which included Members of Parliament Rohini Kumari Wijeratne and S.Viyalenderan met Governor Hizbullah and other officials at the proposed university on Friday. The construction of the university is currently stalled due to a dispute with the contractor, the Governor has told the visitng parliamentary members.

The subcommittee is expected to table its report on the Batticaloa Campus by June 1.


COPE investigation on May 21

Chairman, Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) and JVP MP Sunil Handunnetti said that the officials from the Higher Education Ministry, Vocational Training Authority, University Grants Commission and the Board of Investment will be summoned before the COPE on May 21 for a probe on the Batticaloa Campus.

“We are required to investigate public enterprises, but if required Governor M.L.A.M. Hizbullah and his son Hiras Hizbullah will also be called before the committee for statements,” the COPE Chairman said.

“The project proposals seeking approval for higher education institutions from the relevant state authorities must detail the course contents such as curriculum and syllabus. This would reveal if the private campus has mooted a Sharia Law Department and if any shady deal was involved,” he said.