Grounds for first Avant Garde case to be reopened? | Sunday Observer

Grounds for first Avant Garde case to be reopened?

Avant Garde  Chairman  Nissanka Senadhipathi
Avant Garde Chairman Nissanka Senadhipathi

With the Attorney General successfully indicting individuals behind the Avant Garde ship that entered Galle harbour in October 2015, carrying weapons and ammunition on board without permission, the initial case where the Avant Garde floating armoury was detected in January 2015 still remains closed with glaring and ample evidence implicating the former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in authorizing the private floating armoury operated by Avant Garde Maritime Services Private Limited.

Following the perusal of documents, Sunday Observer, reliably learns that the there is sufficient material to reopen this investigation, which is crucial because the main actors involved have easily evaded liability in respect of the second detected ship - because their actions are not directly indictable.

News relating to a floating armory surfaced in January 2015 with a complaint received by the Galle Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of police, who was tipped off that a ship by named “M. V. Mahanuwara” docked at the Closenburg Jetty in the Galle Harbour. Upon investigation it was revealed that 20 containers on board “M. V. Mahanuwara”, were packed with illicit automatic firearms and live ammunition.

The second incident occurred in October 2015 when a ship owned by Avant Garde entered Sri Lankan waters flying the Sri Lankan flag. This allowed the Navy to board the ship, at which point, they learnt that this vessel also was carrying automatic weapons and live ammunition without approval and that there was no local captain on board, as claimed, but a Ukranian captain.

According to the Parliament Hansard dated 10 August 2016 in reply to questions posed by JVP Parliamentarian Dr Nalinda Jayatissa, Then Minister of Law and Order and Southern Development, Sagala Ratnayake goes into the core details of the matter.

These answers also reveal that other than the weapons found in the floating armory, more weapons and live ammunition were detected in 3 containers owned and maintained by Avant Garde Maritime Services (Private) Limited at the Dakshina Lanka Naval Base.

More weapons and ammunition were also detected owned by Rakna Arakshaka Lanka, at the Seva Vanitha Unit in 3 rooms maintained at the Dakshina Lanka Naval Base.

The two companies; Avant Garde Maritime Services and Rakna Arakshaka Lanka were the main parties involved in the debacle.

History

Ships, when sailing tend to carry weapons for protection against pirate attacks. However, they are forbidden from bringing these weapons into the territory of another country. Therefore, once they enter territorial waters from international waters the ships are bound to hand over their weapons until they exit the territorial waters of that country. This service was initially provided by the Sri Lanka Navy. According to information received by investigators Sri Lanka Navy charged a rate up to US Dollars 1,500 depending on the capacity of weapons/ammunition and the duration it kept the weapons until released to the ship.

This operation, which earned Sri Lanka massive revenue, was given to a private company, Avant Garde, on the authority of the then Secretary of Defence, (the current SLPP Presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa), thereby channeling the country’s income into a private entity.

Letters dated 18 October, 2012 under the reference number MODUD/CS/FA/01 and MODUD/CS/FA/03 signed by the additional secretary of the Ministry of Defence D.M.S.D Jayaratne grants approval based on the Defence Secrertary’s permission, to “deploy a floating armory off Sri Lanka in International waters on or before the 15 October, 2012, in liaison with with Rakna Arakshaka Lanka.” It further permits the ship to enter Galle port when necessary to obtain services.

Avant Garde Maritime is the company incorporated to maintain the floating armory where as Rakna Arakshaka Lanka was the company maintained to provide firearms, ammunition and security personnel for the services of Avant Garde.

Questions in parliament

Answers given by Minister Ratnayake to the six questions posed by JVP Parliamentarian Dr Nalinda Jayathissa go to the root of the setup behind the Avant Garde project.

Answering the questions relating to the ownership of the weapons and ammunition the minister states that weapons found on board and in the containers at the Naval Base were owned by 159 foreign companies but the weapons and ammunition found at the Seva Vanitha unit belonged to Sri Lanka Army, Navy and Air force. Asked under which Act the said weapons were transferred, the minister answered that there was no license issued however investigations revealed that the foreign companies mentioned above have directly handed them over to Avant Garde.

The weapons found at the Seva Vanitha unit, were also not transferred under any law but based on a letter issued by a coordinating officer at the MOD on behalf of the Ministry secretary. Answering the question as to what authority had authorized such transfer, according to investigations, the minister states that regarding the weapons found in containers of the ship and at the Naval base, the authority was the approval given by then Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa to the additional secretary Jayaratne. Regarding the weapons found at the Seva Vanitha unit, authority was based on letters by additional secretary Jayarathne, on behalf of the secretary, addressed to the tri-forces.

Dr Jayathissa also questioned as to whether permission was granted to maintain the floating armoury in the harbour premises, to which the minister replies referring to the two letters issued by the MOD granting permission to maintain the ship and allowing it to enter the Galle harbor when the need arises.

To the question “the authority who granted such permission?” the minister states upon the recommendation of the former Defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, by the additional secretary D. M.S.D Jayarathne.

When perusing the answers which were based on the information which surfaced at the investigation it becomes quite apparent that there is material in that file which is indicates criminal offences and culpability. The Bribery Commission has charged Rajapaksa, Senadhipathi and others with corruption to the tune of Rs. 11.2 billion in connection with the Avant Garde Scandal, but up to date, the Attorney-General’s department has cleared him of wrongdoing.

The opinion of the former Attorney General Yuwanjana Wijetillake states that based on the material available at the time there are no offences under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and other laws and hence advises that there is not sufficient material for the investigations to proceed. The former AG makes room for a reopening the case, however, stating, that if the CID obtains new material on the matter, they may inform the Attorney General of the same. Wijetillake’s stance took senior officers working on the case by surprise. It was over their vehement objections that he cleared Rajapaksa and Senadhipathi of criminal wrongdoing.

“Accordingly there is a need either on the part of the CID to resurrect this matter or for some other legal means to re-activate the investigation,” a highly placed source told the Sunday Observer.

It is important for the CID to look into fundamentals such as permits and licenses issued for these actions and under which laws and the criminal liabilities involved. The minister himself has gone into the core fundamentals of this issue in his answers, laying out that there is an offence committed and under whose authority such offences were committed.

It is on this basis that former additional secretary Saman Dissanayake was also found to be culpable of offences for colluding with Avant Garde. When the current Attorney General is in an uphill battle to bring criminals who were involved in massive corruption such as the Bond commission case , and even the Avant Garde case (relating to the second ship), it is the responsibility of the CID and the ministers to call for the reopening of this case that has been closed clearly due to an oversight. Even after more than two years have passed, no one has reviewed the matter.

The Attorney General will only review its own decision if asked to do so. But no one responsible has so far raised the issue.

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