Disgraced US diplomat’s case reveals more deals of Mahinda-era lobbyist

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Muna Habib, a Pakistani journalist who had an affair with disgraced US diplomat Richard Olson while he was Ambassador in Islamabad, got money to study at the prestigious Columbia University from a shady American lobbyist who also had ties with the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration.

This week, Olson was sentenced to three years of probation and ordered to pay a US$ 93,350 fine for helping Qatar influence US policy and for not disclosing gifts he received from US-Pakistani political fixer Imaad Zuberi.

Former US Ambassador Olson: Sentenced to three years of probation and fined US$ 93,350

In 2015, Ms. Habib was accepted to the Columbia University’s journalism programme but couldn’t afford the nearly US$ 100,000 tuition, news reports say. Olson offered to introduce her to Zuberi, who agreed to pay her US$ 25,000 to help with the fees.

Zuberi is now serving a 12-year prison sentence in the US for tax evasion, foreign influence peddling and campaign finance violations. Among his crimes was pocketing the bulk of the US$ 6.5mn that the
Sri Lankan Government wired to him throughout 2014 to buy favour in America and to right the administration’s bleak post-war image.

Olson has also admitted to lying about receiving a first-class roundtrip airfare from Zuberi while still employed by the Federal Government. The trip, from New Mexico to London, was for Olson to attend a job interview with an unidentified Bahraini businessman who offered him a US$ 300,000 annual contract at his company.

The Associated Press reports that Olson is the only former government official associated with Zuberi to face any criminal charges despite prosecutors saying the former political donor’s case showed “pervasive, corrupt foreign interference with our elections and policy-making processes.”

They have alleged Zuberi used illegal campaign contributions to gain access to top US officials, which an Associated Press investigation found, included then-Vice President Joe Biden.

Zuberi got those meetings—and many others with influential U.S. officials and lawmakers—thanks, in part, to an illegal straw donor scheme in which he paid for others’ donations, prosecutors said.

The AP’s investigation found several instances where Zuberi-linked donations to members of Congress occurred within a few weeks—or even days—of him receiving something in return.

“To boost his profile, Zuberi also donated to or hired several Washington advocacy groups, lobbying shops and public relations firms,” AP reports. “He also hired former officials to assist him on business projects. Those officials included Olson, former NATO supreme commander Gen. Wesley Clark and former acting director of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement John Sandweg.”  

Prosecutors indicated earlier this year they had dropped a related investigation into retired four-star Gen. John Allen for his role in a behind-the-scenes effort to help Qatar shape U.S. policy in 2017.

Working with Zuberi and OIson, Allen helped Qatari officials strategize on how to gain the upper hand in Washington when a diplomatic crisis erupted between the country and its neighbours, according to an FBI affidavit in support of a search warrant to obtain records from Allen, Olson and Zuberi.

It remains unclear what, if anything, Zuberi delivered for the Sri Lankan Government.


Minister on collision course with railway trade union leader

Transport and Media Minister Bandula Gunawardana on Friday (15) lodged complaints with both the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and the Bribery Commission regarding a statement made to the media by Indika Dodangoda, a railway trade union leader.

Mr Dodangoda had alleged that Minister Gunawardana was involved in a corrupt deal with an Indian company regarding a railway project and called him the “most short-sighted and corrupt” minister to hold the Transport portfolio. The comments were given wide airplay on television.

Minister Gunawardana told the Cafe Spectator that his complaint to the Bribery Commission was the first complaint to the Commission under provisions of the new Anti-Corruption Act, which came into force on Friday (15).

Meanwhile, the minister’s lawyers have also sent a letter of demand to Mr Dodangoda demanding the payment of Rs. 1 billion as compensation for damages to their client’s reputation.



CP governor gets stern with police

Questions have been raised as to how the Police Department had been occupying a land claimed by the Matale Municipal Council for over 10 years.

The Police have argued that they had been given the land in question via a Cabinet decision.

Central Province Governor Lalith U. Gamage however, has noted that the Cabinet has no authority to simply ‘give’ lands belonging to a municipality to another entity.

The matter was raised this week during a meeting held at the Governor’s Office in Kandy. Mr Gamage expressed surprise that the police had been in occupation of the land claimed by the municipality for over 10 years. He ordered that this question of the land should be resolved immediately.

Speaking at the meeting where a number of departments concerned in this matter were present, the Governor made a stern order that public officers should follow protocol and serve the people rather than treat decisions of the Cabinet as matters of course.


CEPA-pusher coming back to Lanka as new Indian High Commissioner

The appointment of Ambassador Santhosh Jha as the new Indian High Commissioner in Colombo came this week as a little surprise for those who have been closely monitoring Indo-Lanka ties for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, Ambassador Jha, a career diplomat who currently serves as India’s Ambassador to Belgium, is not a new face for Colombo since he served as Economic Councillor at the High Commission during the 2007–2010 period, focusing on strengthening bilateral economic ties following the end of the war.

He was instrumental in promoting negotiations over the once-controversial pact, the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with India. It failed to materialise due to a combination of factors.

Secondly, with Sri Lanka being indebted to India for its timely interventions to provide critical support through credit lines and direct funding amounting to USD 4.5 billion, the regional power is more focused on cultivating bilateral economic ties between the two countries.

The recent visit by President Ranil Wickremesinghe to New Delhi, where both parties agreed on rapid economic growth, unveiled “Promoting Connectivity, Catalysing Prosperity: India-Sri Lanka Economic Partnership Vision” in July as well.

The priority of the new incoming High Commissioner, according to foreign policy analysts, would be pushing for the materialisation of the vision into a reality, though not similar to the unsuccessful CEPA pact over a decade ago. According to India’s Ministry of External Affairs, he is expected to take up the assignment shortly.


Ambassador Rodney Perera with Yoshitaka Shindo and right, with Yuko Obuchi

Major boost for Lanka in Japan’s Cabinet reshuffle

Sri Lanka-Japan relations received another major boost, this time by way of this week’s Cabinet reshuffle carried out by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

In the changes effected by the Japanese PM, two senior parliamentarians serving as President and Secretary-General of the Japan-Sri Lanka Parliamentary Friendship League were elevated to key positions in the new cabinet and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Yoshitaka Shindo takes over duties as Minister of Economic Revitalisation and Startups and as Minister of State for Economic and Fiscal Policy, while Yuko Obuchi is appointed as Head of the Election Strategy Headquarters of the LDP.

In May this year, the Japan-Sri Lanka Parliamentary Friendship League, under the stewardship of President Shindo and Secretary-General Obuchi, hosted visiting President Ranil Wickremesinghe and First Lady Maithree Wickramasinghe to a special meeting followed by lunch with the attendance of about 50 members of the Japanese House of Representatives (Lower House) and the House of Councillors (Upper House).

Sri Lanka’s Ambassador Rodney Perera wasted no time in congratulating the two new appointees. Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi’s removal came as a big surprise. The 62-year-old Harvard-educated pianist, who visited Sri Lanka only recently on his way to India, was replaced by 70-year-old Yoko Kamikawa, a three-time Justice Minister.

Prime Minister Kishida, who recently attended a trilateral summit with US President Joe Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, said, “I would like to lead foreign policy”, when asked by reporters the reasons for removing Hayashi. Speculation was rife in Japan that Hayashi was a contender for Kishida’s job in the internal politics of the faction-led LDP.


Ex-Air Force chief nominated as Nepal ambassador

Former Air Chief Marshal (Retd.) Sudarshana Karagoda Pathirana has been nominated as Sri Lanka’s new Ambassador to Nepal. The Parliamentary Committee on High Posts is due to examine the suitability of his nomination.

The diplomatic post in Kathmandu has been vacant since January after then Ambassador Himalee Arunatilaka was appointed as Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations in Geneva.





President’s question to Mamata makes big news in India

A brief encounter with President Ranil Wickremesinghe at the Dubai International Airport lounge on Thursday turned out to be something for West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. It was a question posed by President Wickremesinghe, and the Indian media ran with it.

President Wickremesinghe asked whether she would be leading the joint opposition alliance called INDIA after politely asking for permission to ask a question, knowing very well the presence of journalists.

With elections around the corner, Chief Minister Banerjee is also among the leaders who are strongly expected to lead the opposition alliance that comes under the umbrella of the Congress party. Its aim is to deny a third term to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Caught off guard by the question, the West Bengal Chief Minister, who is widely known in her state as ‘Didi,” meaning eldest sister, responded by saying, “It depends on people who believe in democracy.” On a customary note, President Wickremesinghe also invited her to visit the country. It is hoped that the powers-that-be in Delhi will take the chance meeting in good humour.

China’s envoy: No debt traps, only non-development traps

While China is yet to come fully on board with restructuring Sri Lanka’s foreign debt, it uses every opportunity that comes its way to counter what they say is an oft-repeated myth from the West, known as ‘debt diplomacy’.

On Tuesday, a high-level panel discussion organised by a think tank, Geopolitical Cartographer, which has President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s interest, brought together some of the top diplomats in Colombo. The discussion was titled “Recent high-level visits and their Indian Ocean aspects.”

Along with presidential Chief of Staff Sagala Ratnayaka, taking part were Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay, Chinese Ambassador Qi Zhenhong, French Ambassador Jean-François Pactet, and Japanese Ambassador Hideaki Mizukoshi. The session was moderated by Foreign Secretary Aruni Wijewardane.

Ambassador Qi made it clear at the outset that what Sri Lanka and the region are facing today is not the so-called “Debt Trap” but the “Non-Development Trap”.

“China has always been Sri Lanka’s strategic and reliable partner and appreciates that Sri Lanka has always been a friend to China and has stood by China on issues that are related to China’s core interests. China also firmly supports Sri Lanka in safeguarding its sovereignty, independence and national dignity,” he said.

Seating next to the Chinese envoy was outgoing Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay, who stressed that India is a” powerhouse” when it comes to economic growth.

“This rapid growth and transformation of India is acknowledged in technological advancement, and Sri Lanka’s own trajectory towards sustainable growth is now coming into the future. It gives us an enormous opportunity to usher in prosperity not only for both countries but for the region as a whole,” the High Commissioner noted.

The current effort of India and its leadership, according to the Indian envoy, is essentially to rediscover the role of the region and to work with other like-minded partners as well.

Among the audience were President Ranil Wickremesinghe and former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya.


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