Last week Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe claimed that the inordinate delay in initiating legal action against X-Press Feeders, the owners of container carrier X-Press Pearl, which sank off Colombo in early June, 2021 causing a maritime disaster, was due to a massive $ 250 million bribe being offered to certain individuals. He claimed that he had requested Inspector General of Police C.D. Wickramaratne to probe this allegation where the sum of money has been transferred to an account in the United Kingdom.
Rajapakshe is not the epitome of integrity when it comes to financial matters but as the Justice Minister when he claims that there is the possibility of fraud on a matter that concerns over $ 6 billion in compensation to the country it must be taken seriously. However, from the track record of the criminal justice system for holding those accountable for financial crimes there is little hope to see any person seeing the inside of a courtroom over this extraordinary allegation.
Instead, corruption has become systemic and commonplace within the Sri Lankan governing structure. The same week as the Justice Minister was claiming knowledge of a fraudulent transaction in the hundreds of millions the former Executive Director of the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) Thushan Gunawardena speaking to an online channel once again exposed two powerful Cabinet ministers involved in numerous corrupt deals including the importation and distribution of faulty gas cylinders which caused the lives of at least five individuals.
Gunawardena had previously accused Minister Bandula Gunawardena of being a direct beneficiary of many corrupt deals while holding the portfolio of trade. The Minister claimed two years ago as these allegations surfaced that he had sent a letter of demand to the former Executive Director of the CAA and demanded Rs. 1 billion as compensation for damages caused to his “reputation and political life” and also filed a complaint with the IGP over Gunawardena’s statements to the media. Yet to date there has not been any investigations into the accusations made by Thushan Gunawardena nor has Minister Bandula Gunawardene sued the former official in a court of law for libel.
The current Cabinet of Ministers is filled with such individuals with dubious track records. Prasanna Ranatunga, who was in fact, convicted for soliciting a bribe and handed a suspended sentence by the Colombo High Court continues as a Cabinet Minister. Tiran Alles, the Minister now in charge of the Department of Police had himself claimed that he acted as an intermediary in providing hundreds of millions of rupees to the LTTE in 2005 to ensure a boycott of the presidential election, and Trade Minister Nalin Fernando was arrested in 2018 while attempting to flee the country over accusations of misappropriating Rs. 39 million while serving as the Chairman of State-owned Sathosa. These are only a handful of examples, and the records of many other cabinet ministers are no better.
As a result of the negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout package, the Government presented an Anti-Corruption Bill to the Parliament recently. Though commendable in the outset this initiative was primarily driven by international concerns over the appalling state of financial integrity within the State structure. It is merely a box ticking exercise in order to access international funds.
As Sri Lanka grapples with its worst financial crisis the revelations by none other than the Minister in charge of justice of possible graft must be made an opportunity to hold those involved accountable. Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe owes it to the public to see his accusation through, with a proper investigation into the allegation and necessary judicial action.