Extensive investigations expose the mysteries and irregularities of the former defence secretary’s citizenship, visas, passports now under police probe, the Sunday Observer revealed.
Two police complaints made last week by civil society leaders about alleged irregularities in the Sri Lankan citizenship, passports and electoral registration of Gotabaya Rajapaksa have threatened to derail the presidential candidacy of the former defence secretary before it can even get off the ground.
As police investigations get underway, Sunday Observer has independently corroborated several of the concerns addressed in last week’s media reports. If criminal offences under the Immigration Act or citizenship act are disclosed in the investigations, Sri Lanka may once again be entering ‘Helping Hambantota’ territory.
A few months before the 2005 presidential election, the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidential election campaign faced serious peril from a Criminal Investigation Department (CID) probe into the siphoning off of over Rs 60 million in tsunami aid money into a private bank account controlled by Rajapaksa’s brother’s and loyalists. That investigation was on the verge of necessitating Rajapaksa’s arrest for misappropriation of public property when Chief Justice Sarath Silva intervened, making an interim order stopping the investigation.
“I state that, when the matters remained as such upon my brother’s bid for the presidential elections in year 2005, I returned to Sri Lanka from United States of America to assist my brother in the election campaign,” the affidavit states.
The rules of Rajapaksa’s 30-day visa were explicit. Only “bona fide tourists” could use the facility. For the avoidance of doubt, visa rules stated that “those who visit for purposes other than holiday should obtain prior visit visas” from a Sri Lankan embassy or consulate. If police investigations into recent events reveal that a person entered or remained in Sri Lanka in violation of a visa condition, such behavior would amount to an offence under Section 45 (1) (a) of the Immigrants and Emigrants Act, and carry a prison sentence of between one and five years.
In 2005, applications for dual citizenship were lodged at the Ministry office at the Immigration Department in Bambalapitiya. Applicants were required to submit a number of documents including proof of educational qualifications, birth and marriage certificates, proof of any property ownership in Sri Lanka or foreign remittance to Sri Lanka and an affidavit. These particulars were verified and security clearance was requested from the police and intelligence agencies.
A Department official cited a possible reason for the file’s absence being that dual citizenship matters were handled at a ministry level, however Sunday Observer has independently verified that records of most dual citizens, including the former defence secretary’s wife, Ioma Rajapaksa, are safe and sound at the Immigration Department.
In the absence of the regularly maintained files, the only records remaining to tell the story are an entry in the Register of Dual Citizens maintained by the Immigration Department, and a record in the computer database of dual citizens maintained by the Department.
According to both these sources, payment for Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s dual citizenship application was accepted in less than one working day, on Monday, November 21, 2005, indicating that his application had been accepted. The prescribed procedure, which takes several months, appears to have been circumvented in its entirety. Several applications which had been pending from as far back as June 2005 were left at the back of the queue (See Dual Citizenship Register extract)
The page containing Rajapaksa’s entry in the Register of Dual Citizens, seen by Sunday Observer, shows signs of tampering. The cage that should contain his date of birth is empty and shows signs of smudging. His application number cage has been overwritten with a different pen, and other illegible alterations appear in the cages reserved for the initials and remarks of staff officers.
However, even these entries were made, according to system audit logs, only in January 2014. It will be up to police investigators to determine what happened to the files, who made the computer system entries, and why they were made nearly a decade after Rajapaksa was purportedly granted dual citizenship.
While passport applications by dual citizens require the applicant to furnish a copy of their dual citizenship certificate, there is no evidence on file at the Immigration Department that Gotabaya Rajapaksa ever produced a dual citizenship certificate to the department when applying for any of the five passports, three diplomatic and two regular, that he has received since he purportedly acquired dual citizenship.
Instead, in each case, a senior immigration official has written an overriding endorsement on the application that Rajapaksa is indeed a dual citizen. His 2009 diplomatic passport application indicates the degree to which the Immigration Department saw every rule in a light favourable to Rajapaksa. At that time, passport applicants were required to obtain a character certificate from a senior public servant to present to the Immigration Controller-General, and sign the application in his presence.
In this manner, his passport applications have been unique even amongst his privileged family. Even Rajapaksa’s wife, Ioma Udeni Rajapaksa, obtained dual citizenship under normal law. Records of her 2006 application and supporting documentation remain available, and a copy of her dual citizenship certificate is on file.
Ioma Rajapaksa also tendered her dual citizenship certificate (See below) on each occasion she applied for a Sri Lankan passport, as did Basil Rajapaksa, who acquired dual citizenship at a later date. Among the Rajapaksa family, it is only Gotabaya Rajapaksa whose purported dual citizenship application is shrouded in mystery.
The recent events mark the first time that Rajapksa’s Sri Lankan citizenship has come under scrutiny. Attention has previously focused on his years of contradictory claims regarding his renunciation of American citizenship, a prerequisite for him to contest in the upcoming presidential elections. Beginning in 2015, Rajapaksa has made repeated contradictory claims about his renunciation of American citizenship.
However, according to California district court filings, he only submitted his application to renounce US citizenship on April 17 this year, 10 days after he was served with a lawsuit in the United States over the extrajudicial killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge.
Rajapaksa himself told media outlets that he had acquired a new Sri Lankan passport in May of this year that indicated that he was not a dual citizen, soon after receiving confirmation of renouncing his US citizenship. It was this revelation from him that prompted a firestorm and panicked investigations by Immigration and Internal Affairs ministry officials unaware of how he got such a passport under their noses despite being registered as a dual citizen.
According to Immigration officials, dual citizens who wish to return to becoming normal Sri Lankan citizens must make an application in that regard to the Internal Affairs Minister, who is required to consider whether granting citizenship to the applicant would be “sound public policy” after they have renounced their foreign citizenship.
But here again, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was able to find a shortcut. Had he applied for his passport in May under his existing National Identity Card (NIC) issued in 1949, the passport control computer systems would have noted that he was a dual citizen, and also that his travel documents were impounded by the Permanent High Court at Bar, where he is facing criminal charges of misappropriating over Rs 33 million in public property to build a monument and mausoleum for his parents.
Instead, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had acquired a new NIC with a new number completely detached from his previous identity card and used this number to apply for a passport. It was this passport that he used to travel to Singapore for medical treatment and miss his trial date at the Permanent High Court at Bar. The maneuver bought Gotabaya Rajapaksa time until he was able to obtain an order from the Supreme Court preventing his trial from starting until October.
Immigration investigators suspected that Gotabaya Rajapaksa obtained the irregular passport using political influence in order to sidestep the requirement of reapplying for regular Sri Lankan citizenship after forfeiting his American citizenship, because that process allows for ministerial discretion. Unlike almost any other act that permits ministerial discretion, the power of the citizenship minister to grant or revoke dual citizenship or resumed citizenship is extremely difficult to challenge in court. The citizenship act states explicitly that these powers “are final and shall not be contested in any court.”
Even the Constitution, whose fundamental rights provisions have been used to review executive decisions of other kinds, gives special exemption to the power of the minister to control the rights of foreign citizens wishing to re-pledge allegiance to Sri Lanka.
Immigration investigators who conducted these initial inquiries, Sunday Observer learns, were fearful of following the prescribed procedure of reporting the irregularities to the CID for investigation. One officer said that with the former defence secretary’s presidential candidacy looming, they feared reprisals against themselves and their families were Rajapaksa to become president, especially as he seemed to enjoy allies across the political and judicial spectrum.
The official specifically recalled the Helping Hambantota scandal from the 2005 presidential election of MahindaRajapaksa, and how the Supreme Court stepped in to prevent his arrest in 2005. “This is not Mahinda. We know who this is. The Supreme Court has never allowed him to be arrested before. If they stop him again and he wins, we could be killed. We have to put our families first,” he said.
Viyangoda, who lodged the police complaint, said he believed this case was more important than Helping Hambantota allegations faced by Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005. “In 2005 when Mahinda Rajapaksa contested for President we did not know much about crimes or corruption committed by him. Then Helping Hambantota came about and he used Sarath Nanda Silva to absolve himself,” Viyangoda told the Sunday Observer. He added that knowledge about Gotabaya’s alleged criminal activities is “100 times more” than what was known of Mahinda in 2005. “Therefore we must take greater care. We must learn a lesson from the Helping Hambantota case and ensure these charges are thoroughly investigated,” he added.
Viyangoda told the Sunday Observer that if Gotabaya Rajapaksa had taken dual citizenship illegally or has relinquished dual citizenship in an illegal manner or has obtained a new passport and NIC in an irregular manner, such a person could become the President of Sri Lanka. “If he acts with such impunity before gaining power, and then goes on to become President nothing will happen in a lawful manner in the country. For example there are corruption and criminal allegations against Rajapaksa. For the last several years he has used various tactics to prevent court proceedings into the corruption allegations against him. This time it is not just about corruption but it is about the future of the country. That is how I see it,” he added.