X-Press Pearl surfaces in Bahamas with billionaire passenger aboard

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  • Another round of startling allegations by Justice Minister in the House
The ongoing X-Press Pearl parliamentary saga took a new twist this week with the burnt ship surfacing in the Bahamas with a new crew and a billionaire passenger aboard.

The Minister of Justice Wijeyadasa had made a sensational claim in last month’s episode that a bribe of 250 million dollars to thwart Lanka’s 6 billion-dollar-damage claim, had been placed in the London bank account of a mystery Lankan named Chamara Gunasekera. He even disclosed the London bank’s sorting code, IB number and the man’s personal account number.

In this week’s instalment, the Justice Minister returned to take centre stage once again to amend his previous submission. He said that according to new information received via a WhatsApp message on his phone, Chamara Gunasekera did not exist, it was a fake name.

Luckily for Wijeyadasa, he had wisely used the cover of absolute parliamentary immunity to make the false allegation. Had a Chamara Gunasekera existed in London, and had Wijeyadasa made this claim outside Parliament, he could have faced a claim in damages for defamation. Mindful of the hazard, the President’s Counsel used the same immunity shield to drop another name to the Parliamentary well.

There was a major amendment to his original hearsay revelations. ‘There’s no Chamara Gunasekera,’ he said, ‘the real name of this person is Manjusiri Nissanka.’

He also alleged that the said Manju was a close friend of a former SLPP minister and named him.

He made a further revelation which unwittingly, perhaps, put the Attorney General’s Department in the dock of suspicion of canvassing a bribe of 250 million dollars to deny Lanka its 6 billion-dollar environmental-damage claim.

He said: ‘MP Ajith Mannapperuma who is the chairman of the relevant consultative committee informed me that some officers attached to the Attorney General’s Department had demanded US$250 million as a bribe to prevent Sri Lanka from securing damages for the tragedy.’

But the following day, while the Opposition demanded a debate on the X-Press Pearl disaster, the Justice Minister vehemently opposed the request, stating that since cases have been filed in court, the matter was sub judice and should not be discussed lest details of the case were revealed in the House to prejudice the ongoing trial.

LANKAN JUSTICE: An environmental activist joins a Diyatha Uyana protest on Wednesday demanding the X-Press Pearl 6 billion dollar case be heard in Lankan courts but their ship has already berthed in a Singapore port.

Meanwhile, with the House in uproar and the Attorney General’s Department under a cloud, the leader of a fringe political party awoke to find himself declared as one of Lanka’s richest men, with 250 million dollars or 80 billion rupees credited to his name in an offshore Bahamas bank by a mystery benefactor. No doubt, it is the stuff dreams are made of.  But for Manju Nishanka, it was, literally, too good to be true, even in parliamentary bedtime tales.

Manju Nishanka appeared on national TV news bulletins on May 11th night to discount speculation that he was a secret billionaire of the Nadesan class with millions of dollars stashed in a secret offshore bank as exposed by the Pandora Papers two years ago.

Instead, he was merely the leader of a small-time party called Global Sri Lanka Congress with political ambitions which had placed deposits to contest the cancelled LG polls this March.  He disclaimed all knowledge of the entire affair and claimed it was a base attempt waged under Parliament immunity to sling mud at him.

Waiving a document at the media conference, he said, ‘nowhere in my birth certificate is the name Chamara or Gunasekera listed. If anyone has a doubt, they can come and inspect my birth certificate.’

On Friday, Wijeyadasa held a press conference where he explained further. He said: ‘MP Ajith Mannapperuma conveyed through a WhatsApp message on April 6 that he had heard during the X-Press Pearl consultative inquiry that the London’s NatWest bank account of a certain person had been credited with 250 million dollars, and that the said person was a relative of the lawyer at the Attorney General’s Department handling our legal case.’

He further said: ‘I forwarded the information to the IGP to investigate. I did not reveal the name because I wasn’t sure whether it was true. Later I revealed the name in Parliament since I thought that if I didn’t people may think I too am involved.’

The Justice Minister further claimed that Mannapperuma has now said he cannot locate his WhatsApp message and thinks it may have got deleted. But I have his message on my phone and can prove he sent it to me.’

Mannapperuma, however, denied his message had gone missing and confirmed he still has it. He told the media: ‘I don’t know who sent the message to me but I certainly have the WhatsApp I sent to Wijeyadasa.’

MANJU: Denies he has 250 million dollars in a Bahamas bank account

On Thursday, Mannapperuma had made the Xpress Pearl scandal surface in the Bahamas. He told Parliament: ‘I told the Minister that the bank was not in England but the money had been sent to a Bahamas bank account of a resident in England. But the Minister has claimed that the money has been received by an account in a UK bank. ‘

But the six billion dollar question that must be posed again is the question the Sunday Punch posed on April 30: Would any international shipping or insurance company be so stupendously naïve to implicitly trust an unknown middle-man with 250 million dollars and be foolish enough to place the sum in his offshore Bahamas bank account to be insidiously used as a secret slush fund to pay out bribes to a foreign government’s officials to thwart a legal case?

One more point to ponder: If British and Singapore courts, where the insurance company has a presence, are bound by a Limitation of Damages Act under which the maximum damage assessed is some 25 million dollars, how, if the case is heard in Lanka, can a Lankan court’s 6 billion dollar award be legally enforced against the insurance company in Britain or Singapore? Have we assessed our damages according to our dreams, not according to what international law permits?

In the meantime, Manju must be secretly wishing it were, indeed, literally true. He would then have been laughing all the way to his Bahamas bank, a 250-dollar millionaire to boot while the mystery insurance company officials, 250 million dollars poorer, will be cursing their own stupidity, helpless to lay legal claim to even a single dollar, since if they breathed a word to the authorities, they will expose themselves to the serious criminal charge of international bribery.

Watch out for the next episode in the X-Press Pesrl soap opera. There’s no letup in surprises.

Govt faces human rights hurdle with EU’s new GSP regulations

President Ranil Wickremesinghe will face an acid test this year when he is called on to decide whether his government is ready to meet the higher threshold on human rights, set by the European Union for a nation to qualify for special GSP status. If not, be denied preferential access to Lanka’s second biggest export market.

This follows the EU adopting a new set of GSP regulations, effective from 1st January 2024 to 2033. An EU delegation met Foreign Minister Sabry on Tuesday to brief him on the salient aspects of the EU’s new regulations and the time frame to signal acceptance of the new provisos.

Nations currently enjoying GSP+ status are given a two-year transition period to meet the additional requirement and reapply to join the scheme before 31st December 2025. During the two years, however, they will continue to enjoy the present benefit throughout the application process.

After the meeting, Foreign Minister Sabry confirmed that Sri Lanka will reapply to gain GSP status under the new regulations and that a joint cabinet paper had been submitted seeking the necessary approval. He said, ‘they are concerned about the provisions of the Anti-Terrorism Bill.’

But it will not be only a single draconian bill that will make the EU give Lanka’s application the thumbs down.

Under present EU regulations, which expire this yearend, nations seeking GSP+ status are required to comply with the core principles of the 15 fundamental conventions on human and labour rights. The new regulations, which were adopted by the EU Commission on 21 September 2021 to be effective from 2024, demand a whole lot more than a mere show of compliance. They demand iron-clad affirmation.

Under this radical scheme, which moves from negative to positive conditionality, Lanka will be required to also ratify and effectively implement 27 international conventions including human and labour rights, good governance, and environmental protection. Henceforth, serious and systematic violations of the principles included in the good governance and environmental conventions could lead to the withdrawal of GSP+ status.

Well, these will not be impossible terms to adhere to for any civilized country practising democracy and upholding the universally recognised rights of its fellow citizens, now would it? No need for any democratic government abiding by human rights in a living, breathing democracy to raise ‘international conspiracy’ charges and claim it was another bid by Western powers to practice neo-colonialism.

Under this agreement, the success of any country is not measured by economic benefits alone but also by the advances made on the human rights frontier.  The EU is the monitor. It keeps a watchful hawk’s eye for possible transgressions against the people’s rights by any authoritarian government.

The aim is not to merely enrich individual local manufacturers and producers but to see the masses collectively enjoy the protection of democratic law and order, the prerequisites for any stable and enlightened society. Conflicts, civil unrest, and protests there may be, but the beneficiary state, if it must war, must war only within universally accepted ‘human rights’ parameters.

The only snag is whether the present Government’s economy first, economy second, economy third policy will come into direct conflict with the laudable aim of EU’s new GSP scheme, that the economy must walk hand in hand with a nation’s political rights to achieve true progress and true stability. There cannot be economic development based on a phony calm.

The fear is that the SLPP Government might reject it yelling ‘economy, economy’, the same way Mahinda Rajapaksa rejected the GSP bonanza in 2010 roaring ‘sovereignty, sovereignty’. And see what a criminal loss it caused the state?

Consider this. The value of Sri Lanka’s exports to the EU in 2004, the year before the GSP was granted was US$1.8 billion. In 2009, the year before it was withdrawn, it was US$2.9 billion.

On 5 July 2010, the European Union announced it was withdrawing Sri Lanka’s preferential trade access to EU markets as the Lankan Government failed to improve its human rights record. The concessions were stopped on 15 August after the Government refused to implement human rights conventions.

Freshly crowned with war victory and soon to be reinvigorated with reelection in November that year, Mahinda Rajapaksa was in no mood to be dictated to by the EU on how he should run his country. His reply was typical for a man experiencing the onset of megalomania.

‘If the EU doesn’t want to give it, let them keep it. I don’t want it. Our sovereignty is more important than any GSP benefit.’

And the adulating masses gave rapturous chorus to the words of the sole ‘war winning’ saviour of the nation, and cast, to the nationalistic winds that blew that July 10, 2010, all fears that their own human rights might soon fall under the jackboot of dictatorial power.

It took the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration of 2015 to avail themselves of the open door and return to talk with the EU to regain favoured status and the GSP concession. It was a painstaking process to earn the GSP and regain the lost credibility of Lanka’s commitment to democracy and its institutions.

Even after the enactment of the much-hailed 19th Amendment as well as the Right to Information Act, and various other acts to strengthen the democratic institutions and maintain the independence of the judiciary, it still took two years more for the EU to relent and finally restore GSP status in March 2017.

In 2021, with the Rajapaksas returned to the seat of power a year and a half earlier, all the tireless effort by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration to regain GSP for Sri Lanka, stood poised to stand reversed and rendered naught when the EU’s monitoring team found Lanka wanting in her human rights record.

In June 2021, the then out-of-office UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe reiterated the importance of EU’s GSP preferential status to Lanka. He said: ‘If Lanka loses access to Europe’s GSP Plus trade concessions, thousands will lose their jobs, and the rupee will further depreciate. The government should take immediate action to protect the concession’.

Today Lanka is at the same crossroads as she was in 2010 and in 2021. Will Ranil Wickremesinghe, no more in the opposition benches but on the Presidential throne, see the EU’s GSP Plus in a different light than he did two years ago on 13 June 2021?

Will he proceed with eyes blinkered on the ‘economy only’ solitary road, rebuffing GSP’s Euro billions? Or will he take the high road with economic targets and people’s rights, each tucked under his arms, as but fitting charges to carry to safety across the burning Caucasian bridge with a GSP safety net for added protection?

If he takes the high road and accepts the EU’s new terms of eligibility for GSP Plus, then not only will the public coffers receive a welcome Euro boon of billions but the people will gain the protection and benefit of 27 international conventions shielding them from assault on their human rights.

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