By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya
December 8, 2019
A strange diplomatic drama has been playing out in Sri Lanka’s capital over the past couple of weeks. The Swiss embassy in Colombo complained to the Prime Minister and to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 27 Nov. that one of its employees was ‘abducted’ two days earlier, in broad daylight on a busy street. The embassy demanded an immediate investigation, but provided scant information – not even the identity of the victim. It was not till Sunday (08) that the alleged abductee came forward to make a statement to the police Criminal Investigation Department (CID). That too followed a court order temporarily preventing her from leaving the countrybefore making a statement – while the embassy sought to fly her outin an ambulance plane.
The drama unfolded days after the formation of a government by Sri Lanka’s new president, former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa,who won theelection with an overwhelming mandate. While the government immediately ordered a probe, authorities found themselves at every turn obstructed by the very party that requested it.
The embassy refusedto divulge the identity of the ‘victim.’ For two weeks it prevented the police from getting a statement from her, saying that“Due to a deteriorating health condition” she is “currently not in a state to testify.”Nor was a judicial medical officer allowed to examine her to report on her ‘deteriorating health.’ An official statement on the embassy website however claimed that the mission is “fully cooperating with the Sri Lanka authorities.”
That statement, dated 29 Nov., said the embassyhad “immediately” lodged a formal complaint with the Lankan authorities. But the Sri LankaMinistry of Foreign Affairs in a statement said it was informed of the alleged abduction on the 27th.It is arguable whether two days late can be considered ‘immediate.’In the interim, several news reportsdamaging to the image of the country and its new government appeared in the media,citing Swiss officials plus a lot of hearsay.
The embassy’s statement said: “On 25 November 2019, a serious security incident involving a local employee of the Embassy of Switzerland in Colombo occurred. The employee was detained against their will in the street, forced to get into a car, seriously threatened at length by unidentified men and forced in order to disclose embassy-related information.”
The CID investigatorsswiftly traced the woman’s identity and showed that there was little truth in the Swiss allegation. Briefing the media on 04 Dec. Minister of Foreign Affairs Dinesh Gunewardena said “All the evidence shows the victim’s position has no standing.” Asked what information the ambassador had supplied, he said “A small note saying he has received this complaint from the victim. … There was no statement, no complaint.” Foreign Secretary Ravinath Ariyasinghe added “He stated only that there was an abduction. Subsequently he presented a sequence of events.” Ariyasinghe said the ministry informed the ambassador that his statement did not correspond with findings based on witness interviews and technical information including Uber records, CCTV footage, telephone records and GPS data.
While police said the alleged victim was not found at her residence, recent reports assert that she and her family are being accommodated at the Swiss mission. On 04 Dec the embassy issued a notice to its nationals saying “The Embassy of Switzerland in Colombo herewith informs that due to the current situation in Sri Lanka, and until further notice, the operation of the Embassy has been reduced.”Perhaps the ‘situation’ arises from keeping a group of Sri Lankan citizens (who do not have diplomatic immunity) within its premises indefinitely?
What would have been the impression created, if the embassy’s request to fly its employee out for ‘medical treatment’ was granted,without allowing access to law enforcement authorities? It’s not difficult to imagine the kind of sensational headlines that would appear in the international press about an ambulance plane evacuating the victim.Such reports could potentially suggest that the government was in some way associated with the alleged abduction (reported in Swiss media as if it were fact).The very day after the incident was alleged to have taken place, the embassy’s version was reported inWestern media, embedded in a now-familiar anti-RajapaksaWestern narrative predicting doom and gloom.
White vans and death threats
It is intriguing how new information, the origins of which are not clear, hasalso got into circulation through media reports. Opposition UNP politiciansin Sri Lanka referred to the incident as a ’White Van’ abduction. The ‘White Van,’ associated with alleged wartime disappearances, has by now become a brand name that conjures up a picture of lawlessness and crime. Another assertion, nowhere madepublic by Swiss authorities, is that the abducted woman was forced to reveal cell phone data on Sri Lankans who had sought asylum in Switzerland -including CID inspectorNishantha Silva who had been investigating cases brought by the previous government against the Rajapaksas. Silva is said to have fled the country 24 Nov following death threats,to seek asylum in Switzerland -‘according to reports’ and unnamed ‘sources.’
An attempt to trace the provenance of these stories shows that the ‘White Van’ referenceemerged in reports on 26 Nov. inLanka News Web (LNW), a pro-UNP website which added that the abductee was questioned about Nishantha Silva.Also on 26 Nov., the German-language Swiss newspaper Neue Zurcher Zeitung (NZZ) citing ‘Sri Lankan media reports’ said Silva received death threats after the change of government. But those Sri Lankan media reports too cited unnamed ‘sources.’
So who was the original source of this information? What are the ‘reports’ that could have appeared just a day after the incident allegedly occurred, even before the foreign ministry had been informed?NZZ is “the most important and prestigious Swiss daily newspaper published in the German language” said a well informed source, adding that it is “highly influential also in Germany and Austria, indicating big time manipulation.” Information from NZZ and LNW was also picked up and circulated by swissinfo.chwebsite.
It would appear that CID inspector Nishantha Silva who, police confirmed, left the country, is in fact the main player in this drama, to which the abduction story is but a sequel. Local media reports (citing unnamed sources) say Silva and his family left the country three days after his boss, CID Director Shani Abeysekera was transferred to a lesser post – suggesting that he lost protection as a result. However it is unlikely that flights and visas to Switzerland could have been arranged in three days, and would more likely have been organized well ahead. MP and former minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe (no relative of the president) has pointed out that “high ranking military officers had been denied visas whereas relatively junior policeman and his family had received visas in record time.” He further alleged, in remarks to The Island27.11.19 that Silva ‘worked closely with the foreign missions.’
The Swiss embassy has not denied that Silva has been granted asylum.In its statement of 29 Nov. it only rebuts the allegation that the Swiss government “rejected a request for the extradition of an employee of the Sri Lankan Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and his family,” saying “No such request has been submitted.”
For those who scripted this drama, A CID inspector’s unauthorized departure from Sri Lanka may not have constituted a story big enough to make international headlines. But thestory of abduction of aWestern embassy employee the very next day, being forced to divulge details of his asylum application, has the potential to become a diplomatic scandal with serious repercussions.Readers need to ask themselves how likely it is that a local embassy employee would be entrusted with sensitive information of this nature in the first place, and still less, that she would be carrying it around on her cell phone.
Upcoming UNHRC session
The election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President of Sri Lanka has caused ripples in the Western world,which appears to be in overdrive in its attempt to manage the new situation.With the UNHRC sessions in Geneva due in March, the possibility that there is mischief afoot cannot be discounted. The ‘abduction’episode comes against the backdrop of Rajapaksa having publicly rejected the US-UK led HRC resolution 30/1, targeting the security forces and the wartime leadership that defeated the LTTE.It is likely that the new government will present Sri Lanka’s case against these allegations, using the formidable body of evidence contradicting them, that was ignored by the former regime.
It is relevant to note here that the Swiss Federal Court on 03 Dec. acquitted 12 suspects fromcharges of fundraising for the LTTE, and ruledthat the LTTE is ‘not a criminal organization.’ The LTTE isbanned as a terrorist outfit in many countries. Is there a tacit threat in recent moves, to warn the fledgling government that if it fails to fall in line with Western strategic objectives, it may have to face pressures from a newly unleashedpro-LTTE diasporadomiciled in the West?
If a state of chaos is required by those who seekto impose hegemony, then the promise of stability held out by the new government will not be to their liking. The presidenthas set about changing the political culture, leading by his own example by shedding the vulgar trappings of power, trimming waste and mapping out plans for accelerated development. He has reached out to the minorities in the North and East (who ‘did not vote for him’) with the promise of a better life. Once these communities begin to enjoy the fruits of development they may begin to cooperate with the government’s efforts– if they are seen to be genuine.This in turn would narrow the space for imperialist forces to use the age old ploy of ‘divide and rule’in Sri Lanka, to secure control in this strategically important region of the world. No wonder the West is worried.