Sri Lanka's former leader Mahinda Rajapaksa is no longer 'untouchable'

Ex-President says he is victim of a revenge plot but government has appetite for justice 

For victims of alleged war crimes, it was a hopeful moment when the United Nations’ human rights chief, Jordanian Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, visited the northern districts of Sri Lanka at the weekend.

It was the first such visit by a senior UN official for two and a half years to the area worst affected by the country’s 26-year civil war, which ended in May 2009. But for the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, it was one more sign that the judicial net is steadily tightening on him and his family after his election defeat in January last year. 

In the past week, the once untouchable former President has seen his son, Yoshitha, jailed on money-laundering charges and his wife, Shiranthi, grilled by a special presidential unit over corruption allegations. Former ministers have joined the government of President Maithripala Sirisena, to his fury. “Some of the ministers who were with me are now talking as if they have never seen me in their lives,” Mr Rajapaksa said on Sunday.

The crackdown follows a decade of authoritarian rule that was marred by allegations of nepotism and corruption. President Sirisena, who defected from the Rajapaksa camp to launch his own campaign just eight weeks before the election, is at the steering wheel. He is joined by Mr Rajapaksa’s arch enemies, the current Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka – whom the ex-President previously had court-martialled and imprisoned for two years after he stood against him in the 2010 election. As his 27-year-old handcuffed son waved farewell from the back of a prison van, a tearful Mr Rajapaksa said: “This is an attempt to seek revenge”.

While he still commands the loyalty of a section of the country’s Buddhist majority, the allegations against him – including that he siphoned off millions of dollars meant for the 2006 tsunami victims, many of whom still remain homeless – have begun to turn public opinion. Once revered for ending the three-decade ethnic war that claimed 100,000 lives, today Mr Rajapaksa and his family face a series of charges. He, two of his once-powerful brothers, his wife and two sons are accused of involvement in crimes including abduction, murder, weapons offences and large-scale corruption – all of which they deny.

Last year, soon after his promise to wipe out corruption helped him win power, President Sirisena set in train a series of investigations into the Rajapaksa family. Soon afterwards, the former President was summoned for questioning by the presidential anti-corruption body,

Meanwhile, a court imposed a travel ban on one brother, the former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, and arrested another, Basil Rajapaksa, who controlled Sri Lanka’s economy for years. The former President was questioned over alleged allegations of bribery, financial fraud, corruption and abuse of state resources and privileges amounting to billions of dollars. “There are more than 3,000 cases involving the Rajapaksa family members and his aides,” the Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne, a former member of the Rajapaksa circle, told The Independent.

But loyalists are furious. “Arresting Yoshitha [Rajapaksa], who is a naval officer, while the President pardons suicide bombers is pure victimisation and persecution,” said Gamini Lakshman Pieris, the former Foreign Minister. “The investigators even wanted full details of the cutlery and crockery in his kitchen.”

Chrishantha Weliamuna, a member of the presidential task force cracking down on corruption, said the Rajapaksa clan’s control over 70 per cent of the country’s economy, media and military amounted to “state capture”. 

With each new case the government digs up, the public is more impatient for justice. Two of Mr Rajapaksa’s sons are caught up in investigations into the alleged murder of a popular rugby star. Four army officers have been arrested in connection with the disappearance of an anti-Rajapaksa journalist. A former minister, Mervin Silva, has accused the Rajapaksas of the “white van” abductions and ransom demands common while they were in office; and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is accused of running a torture chamber where victims were allegedly killed.

The investigations are “right on track”, according to the government. “Corruption takes years to prove, the world over,” Mr Weliamuna said. “Sri Lanka is not used to such complex investigations. We just need a bit of patience.” 

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