Sri Lankan court order foils EU sanctions-related bid to ground Russian plane

By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

Sri Lankan authorities have interdicted a fiscal officer associated with an attempt by an Irish plane-leasing company, to detain an Aeroflot passenger flight at Bandaranaike International Airport. The move follows a court order on 6th June from the Colombo Commercial High Court, to suspend an earlier enjoining order, issued at the request of Celestial Aviation Trading Ltd., to detain the aircraft. The company sought the order pending arbitration in London of a lease dispute with Aeroflot, reports said. However, following representations made by Sri Lanka’s Attorney General and others concerned, it was held that the company had secured the ruling by misleading court, with the result that the detention order effective till 16th was suspended. The Aeroflot Airbus flight SU 289 left the same evening for Moscow.

“The Colombo Commercial High Court Judge Harsha Sethunge ordered to suspend its previous Enjoining Order taking into consideration facts presented by parties including the Attorney General to effect that the Enjoining Order had been obtained by misleading the court and misrepresentation of facts,” the Daily Mirror reported. Additional Solicitor General Sumathi Dharmawardena appearing for Airport and Aviation Services Ltd, the second defendant, told court that the order was “in violation of the public policy of the country.” He alleged that a junior attorney from the Sri Lankan law firm representing the plaintiff company, served the enjoining order to his client “although no order had been made against him.” He informed court that the order had been obtained “concealing the fact that there is a bilateral agreement between Russia and Sri Lanka for a free passage to aircrafts,” the report said. Meanwhile the Justice Ministry has said the Fiscal Officer of the Colombo Commercial High Court who implemented the court order for the detention of the flight was interdicted for over-riding his official duties.

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The announcement on Thursday (2) of the aircraft’s detention threatened to trigger a serious diplomatic spat between Sri Lanka and the Russian Federation, disrupting traditionally cordial relations and causing international embarrassment to Moscow. Since its February invasion of Ukraine, Russia is battling a slew of EU economic sanctions, under which the EU has banned its members from leasing aircraft to Russia. Russian airlines lease 777 passenger jets, two thirds of them from foreign firms, according to Reuters. Leasing companies have reportedly confiscated 78 planes operated by Russian airlines since the EU ban.

Sri Lankan authorities initially sought to defuse tensions saying the matter was a commercial dispute between two companies. A foreign ministry statement said “The case relates to a commercial dispute between the Plaintiff, Celestial Aviation Trading 10 Limited an Irish Company against the first Defendant the Public Joint Stock Company “Aeroflot” and the second Defendant, Mr. N. C Abeywardene/Acting Head of Air Navigation/Airport and Aviation Services of Sri Lanka (AASL), Katunayake. The matter is still pending final determination of the Court.” It said “This matter is also under consultation  through normal diplomatic channels.”  Ports, Shipping and Aviation Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva who held discussions with the Russian embassy was reported as saying the matter was ‘due to an issue between the Russian Aeroflot Airlines and another company.’

Following the court’s detention order on the plane, Russia’s foreign ministry summoned Sri Lanka’s ambassador Janitha Abeywickrema Liyanage to register its protest. Aeroflot announced the suspension of commercial flights to Sri Lanka and temporarily suspended ticket sales to Colombo. Reports said the airline arranged repatriation flights to bring back the SU-289’s 191 passengers and 13 crew who had been accommodated in hotels, and other citizens booked to return. This came at a time the tourism industry faced a downturn, amidst the country’s worst ever economic crisis. Russia is a key source of tourists to Sri Lanka. In addition, diplomatic tensions could have potentially affected negotiations for purchase of low-cost Russian oil at a time of fuel shortages.

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Welcoming the resolution of the issue with the suspension of the court order, the Russian Federal Agency for Air Transport (Rosaviatsiya) expressed gratitude to the authorities. “Today, June 6, 2022, at 15:52 Moscow time (12:52 GMT), an Airbus A330-343 aircraft under the Russian registration mark RA – 73702 of the Aeroflot airline, after being detained at Colombo airport, departed to Moscow,’ said Rosaviatsiya’s statement, cited by “The Russian Federal Agency for Air Transport expresses its gratitude to the leadership of the aviation authorities and other state departments of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka for a constructive solution to the issue.”

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