Alleged Swiss Embassy staffer abduction | Sunday Observer

Alleged Swiss Embassy staffer abduction

8 December, 2019
Foreign Affairs minister summoned all heads of missions based in Colombo to the Foreign Ministry on Wednesday
Foreign Affairs minister summoned all heads of missions based in Colombo to the Foreign Ministry on Wednesday

The alleged abduction and illegal questioning of the Swiss Embassy local staffer still remained a mystery after two weeks since the incident, with the Swiss Embassy sticking to its narrative while the government claimed the story did not add up.

Despite a court order on Monday to make a statement to the CID before December 9,the victim, an officer attached to the Visa Section, remained elusive even when this paper went to press.The Swiss Ambassador Hanspeter Mock had affirmed the female staffer was in a safe place and still unfit to make a statement on her alleged ordeal.

The Colombo Chief Magistrate Lanka Jayaratne on Monday clamped a travel ban on the alleged victim, identified as Garnier Banister Francis, barring her from leaving the country till December 9.

There were rumors last week that she might have been illegally whisked away to Switzerland while speculation was also rife if the abduction was stage-managed to tarnish the image of the new government.

Meanwhile, the Swiss government, summoned the Sri Lankan Ambassador Karunasena Hettiarachchi in Germany to Bern early last week seeking ‘non-refutable’ evidence that the claims of her abduction were doubtful, saying they were yet to see such evidence.

In the midst of serious allegations especially from UNP MPs that the white van culture was returning to the country, Foreign Affairs minister summoned all heads of missions based in Colombo to the Foreign Ministry on Wednesday (4) to brief them on the progress of the investigations on the alleged abduction on November 25.

Later the Minister told reporters, “We explained to them the truth behind the alleged abduction,” without elaborating and added that even though the local staffer did not enjoy diplomatic immunity and cannot be hidden from law enforcement officers, the government wished to settle this matter amicably.

The media briefing at the Republic Building was attended by Foreign Affairs State Minister Susil Premajayantha, Foreign Secretary Ravinatha Aryasingha and senior officials of the ministry.

He said while it was too early to refute that the incident actually took place on a street as claimed, the sequence of events and the timeline described in the note submitted to the investigators by the Embassy, contradicted the victim’s actual movements that day.

The Minister said they have assured protection to the victim and the family but she cannot be allowed to leave the country without making a statement to the CID, since the allegations were of a serious nature and the reputation of the country is at stake.

When there were efforts afoot to apprehend her abductors, Minister Gunawardena said a request had come from the Swiss Ambassador to remove the alleged victim to Switzerland in an air ambulance for medical treatment.

“We have not been informed of her identity, and she has not made a formal complaint of her abduction to the police,” he said, adding that this was not the proper norm for how such matters work under the immigration law.

He said it has been informed that she was examined by a Swiss doctor via video call and he concluded that she was in need of immediate medical attention. It is unknown if she was examined by a local doctor.

The Minister also added that the Government learnt about the incident from a report in the New York Times two days later on November 27.

“Obviously the paper has got to know of it one day after the incident,” he said adding the Swiss Ambassador upon inquiry from the Foreign Ministry confirmed on November 27 that one its staffers was abducted, molested and illegally questioned by a gang calling themselves police investigators from the CID and she had been highly shaken by the incident.

The Prime Minister and the Foreign Affairs Minister met the Head of Swiss Embassy the same day and instructions were issued to the IGP to conduct a full investigation into the incident, although a formal complaint by the victim or the Embassy was not made at the time.

“We have affirmed respect for the Vienna Convention and that we abide by all norms of diplomatic immunity,” the Swiss Embassy and the diplomatic community in general were affirmed by the Ministry shortly after the incident went public and the Foreign Minister in an interview with the Sunday Observer on previous Friday said the government condemned the alleged incident and was saddened by it.

After nearly two weeks of the incident, the victim still remains missing and, in response to a request for cooperation, the Embassy issued a written statement with details of the incident last week.

The investigators continued the probe along the information provided in the statement.After evaluating the submissions by the CID investigators and the Attorney General Colombo Chief Magistrate Lanka Jayaratne last Monday imposed a travel ban till December 9, ordering her to make a statement to the CID.

The Chief Registrar was directed by the Chief Magistrate to inform the Immigration and Emigration Controller of the court ruling.

The ruling was made in response to a request by the CID under Article 124 of the Code of Criminal Procedure Act. However, she turned down a request by the CID to ban the alleged victim’s husband from leaving the country, as he was not directly linked to the case.

Chief Magistrate Jayaratne said that if she was abducted it was a serious matter and if she had not been abducted as claimed, a thorough investigation should be initiated to look into the reasons for making false allegations.

She said getting a statement was necessary to ensure justice to the affected person, and travel ban was a temporary measure to facilitate it.

CID’s Gang Robbery and Murder Investigation Unit OIC Chief Inspector Ranjith Munasinghe, reported the case to the Colombo Chief Magistrate of the incident where the Swiss Embassy’s visa section staffer was abducted near the St.Bridget’s Convent, molested and illegally detained for a few hours by a group seeking to get information on the issuance of Swiss Visa to an individual identified as Nishantha Silva.

Senior State Counsel Janaka Bandara representing the Attorney General Department also made submissions while Director CID SSP W.Tillekeratne, ASP Lokuhetti and Police Constable Iqbal also reported facts on the investigations conducted so far to the Chief Magistrate.

Senior State Counsel Bandara said that the investigation was initiated on a complaint that the said female employee was abducted in a white car, sexually harassed, illegally questioned and the data in her phone was forcibly accessed. He said abducting an embassy official was a serious offense and this matter has gained huge attention and hence no longer can it be considered a personal matter.

Further, the court was told that she had been questioned about her association with police inspector Nishantha Silva. Chief Inspector Nishantha Silva was involved in a series of investigations initiated by the former government against certain members of the Opposition and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He has reportedly fled to Switzerland with the family. The abduction case was first initiated by CID Director on November 27 on a directive by the Acting IGP C.W. Wickremeratne. According to court submissions, the police had sought her identity to initiate the investigations but her identity has been withheld by the Embassy to date without any given reason. Therefore, the investigations were continued on CID findings.

A couple of days later a written complaint was made available by a senior official of the Swiss Embassy on behalf of the Swiss Ambassador. According to the written statement, the court was told that the victim had left her office around 4.15pm and had got into an Uber taxi to go to the St.Bridget’s convent, a leading girls’ school about 1km off her office to attend a parents’ meeting.

The written complaint says that the abductors claimed they were from the CID. The Deputy Solicitor General told court that to imply a white van culture has returned, is a black mark for the government, hence this incident has to be thoroughly investigated and perpetrators brought to book. Therefore, he said, obtaining a statement from the victim who is the only known witness in this incident is very crucial and it has been conveyed to the Ambassador.

Since there was no cooperation from the Embassy, the CID officers had questioned the school authorities to find whose mother from among about 3000 students in the school, was working in the Swiss Embassy in Colombo, in an effort to establish the alleged victim’s identity to carry out the investigation.

Thereafter, the CID had obtained her and her husband’s mobile phone numbers and investigated their call records and movements. Since it was found that she had used the service of an Uber Taxi, around the time of her alleged abduction, a statement was recorded from the Uber driver.

The CID informed the progress of the investigation to the Embassy but the Embassy had not responded positively to record a statement which is a crucial element of the investigation.Since the incident the alleged victim, her husband and her two children have gone missing from her house. When the investigators visited the apartment building in Maligakanda where her house was located, a security guard informed that the family has left the country.The Guard said the mother of the alleged victim conveyed this to him.

The CID had also recorded a statement from the victim’s grandmother who was the only available next of kin and she was handed a copy of the summons asking her granddaughter to make a statement to the CID. It also contained telephone numbers to inform if she was unable to come to make a statement. Another copy was handed over to the Swiss Embassy.

The Investigators also told Court that their telephones are unresponsive and it’s suspected if the whole family have been abducted again. (The Swiss Embassy has informed the foreign Ministry later that she is in a safe place.)

The CID officers told Court, “We need to find if she was forced by someone to come out with this serious claim since the investigators have found that the sequence of events provided in her written statement did not corroborate with their findings which are based on CCTV footage, telephone data and GPS data.

“CID cannot enter the Embassy and see if the family is still there since we have to honor the Vienna Convention. The ambassador has spoken to the investigators but a formal statement has not been given and nothing about the said embassy worker was in his statement.

“The whole country is aware of this incident and the government is bound to take responsibility. The husband has not reported to his workplace (a leading Bank) since then, it is a mystery as to why they are in hiding and she is reluctant to give a statement.If she leaves the country, the chances of solving the case will diminish and, due to the seriousness of allegations, the country’s reputation will suffer.”

The Chief Magistrate issued the order to impound her passport temporarily after the above submission by the CID officers and the Senior State Counsel.

At a media briefing at the Foreign Affairs Ministry on Wednesday, a clear response was not given to a question posed by a reporter if the Swiss Ambassador has affirmed the government that the alleged victim who is a Sri Lankan national is still in the country or if she has already been taken overseas.