AG favours Singapore court, compensation claim USD 6.2 bn

By Shamindra Ferdinando

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, has taken a new turn with Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, asking IGP C. D. Wickramaratne to probe an allegation that a certain party involved in the ongoing deliberations received USD 250 mn and the money was sent to an account at a British bank.

The ill-fated vessel carrying 1,486 containers caught fire on May 20, 2021 off Colombo. Its cargo included 25 metric tonnes of nitric acid and as much as 50 bn plastic pellets.

The Justice Minister said so yesterday (12) when The Island asked the latest developments in the wake of the Sectoral Oversight Committee on Environment, Natural Resources, and Sustainable Development taking up the issue on 04 April. SJB MP Ajith Mannapperuma chaired the meeting, which was also attended by the Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa.

Minister Rajapakse disclosed that he had received a certain foreign bank account number amidst accusations and counter accusations over the support extended to those who represented the interests of X-Press Feeders. He however declined to vouch for the veracity of the claim.

Asked where the government intended to file action in this regard, the Minister said that the Attorney General’s Department was of the view that it should be Singapore. The Minister said that he wouldn’t take a contrary view.

Sanjay Rajaratnam, PC, received appointment as the AG on May 26, 2021 as local and foreign firefighters were struggling to stabilize the vessel.

At the time of the worst maritime disaster in Sri Lankan waters, Ali Sabry, PC, served as the Justice Minister.

The Marine Environment Protection Authority (MEPA) during Attorney-at-Law Dharshanee Lahandapura’s tenure as its Chairperson asserted that the case should be filed here as the incident took place within the country’s territorial waters.

Lahandapura’s term ended in early February this year and another lawyer Asela B. Rakewa succeeded her.

Minister Rajapakse said that during his predecessor’s tenure two teams had been tasked with probing the accident. Minister Sabry appointed one comprising three lawyers whereas the then MEPA Chairperson appointed a bigger expert group for the same purpose.

Dr. Rajapakse said that in spite of an assurance from the committee appointed by the MEPA that its report would be submitted by Sept. 23, 2022, it was delivered in January this year.

Those who felt that legal action should be filed here should realise that enforcement of whatever ruling would also be a challenge, the Justice Minister said.

Asked whether there had been an issue with regard to the presence of a group of persons believed to be lawyers representing the interests of X-Press Feeders at the Sectoral Oversight Committee meeting, Dr. Rajapakse said that he had asked the Chair to move them out as he couldn’t under circumstances discuss government plans with the opposing side.

The Oversight Committee shouldn’t have invited them for that particular meeting, the Justice Minister said, adding that the high-profile case remained a heavy burden. During the proceedings, it transpired that nearly two years after the incident, the expert committee tasked with assessing damages to the environment and other damages hadn’t been able to visit the location of the ship disaster. MP Mannapperuma has directed MEEPA and NARA (National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency) to take tangible measures to facilitate the expert panel to visit the site with the assistance of the Navy and Airforce. The MP has pointed out that the failure to do so could be detrimental to Sri Lanka’s case.

The Sectoral Oversight Committee Chairman said so after members of the expert committee appointed by MEPA disclosed that they had been deprived of Navy and Air Force assistance to achieve the set objectives.

Environmentalists have pointed out that it is not advisable to move Singaporean court though the Cabinet-of-Ministers approved the Attorney General’s recommendation in this regard. They want the case to be heard in Colombo.

They pointed out that the second report of the expert committee had recommended that Sri Lanka ask for compensation to the tune of USD 6.2 bn. During Lahandapura’s tenure Sri Lanka received USD 10 mn for clean-up operations and fisheries sector compensation.

A statement issued by Parliament Director Legislative Services / Director Communication (Acting) Janakantha Silva quoted MEPA Chairman Rakewa as having said that the expert committee report had been handed over to the Attorney General. Rakewa said that the AG should go ahead with filing the case.

The AG’s Department representatives assured that action was being taken in this regard. According to the statement dated April 06 issued by parliament on the meeting held on 04 April legal action had to be initiated within 45 days.