My people need me

Mahinda Rajapaksa sits at a desk in his party office beneath a photo of himself. He’s not especially tall but solid in the chest and arms; like an old rugby prop, his head seems to rest on his shoulders without much need for a neck. He’s never seen in public without his brown scarf, supposedly signifying the sweaty rags of Sri Lanka’s hard-toiling farmers. On his fingers this man of the people wears three chunky gold rings and on his wrist a bracelet of jade balls. Everyone here still calls him Mr President.

The photo hanging over him was shot a few years ago, back when he was Mr President, and back when things were very different for the Rajapaksa clan. His rule was absolute. The Rajapaksas controlled the treasury and Sri Lanka became one of the most expensive places on the planet to “build” a road. He and his family ran the country as if they owned it. They acted with impunity. His sons, ordinary footballers by all accounts, were selected to play rugby for Sri Lanka. Foreign coaches who dropped them were deported. They were lucky; others who displeased the clan disappeared.

The Rajapaksas — president Mahinda, defence secretary Gotabaya, economic development minister Basil and a couple of bus-loads of sons, cousins and aunts who held various government posts — felt the nation owed them for having crushed the Tamil Tigers, ending the ugly 26-year civil war. Then, in 2014, the voters of Sri Lanka turfed Mahinda out.

And now the many bodies buried during his long reign are being exhumed, figuratively and with shovels. In January, Rajapaksa’s second son, Yoshitha, a naval officer, was arrested over allegations he had transferred millions of government dollars into a sports network owned by the family.

His eldest son, Namal, his anointed political heir, is under investigation in several money-laundering cases.

The family’s minister for war, Gotabaya — said to have been more powerful than his brother and certainly more feared — has been implicated in a $130 million corruption case. It has been alleged some of the money was used to fund an armoury for the family’s private militia that was then used to terrorise political opponents.

His other brother, Basil, the clan’s man for economic development, has been arrested four times on charges of corruption, financial irregularity and abuse of state property. Interpol warrants have been issued for Mahinda’s cousin, a former ambassador to Russia, over $18m that went missing in a deal for MiG fighter jets. The list goes on.

Mahinda Rajapaksa — now leader of the opposition — tells me the myriad charges against his family are part of a grand conspiracy headed by the incumbent government. Britain, India, Switzerland, the US, the World Bank and others have all recently signed agreements with Sri Lanka to help recover billions of dollars alleged to have been siphoned off and hidden overseas. These countries and the World Bank are in on the conspiracy, Rajapaksa says, along with the UN.

“I will cut my neck if they find a dollar in one of my accounts,” he bellows. What about your family, I ask, will you slit your throat if they find money in accounts associated with them?” “Yes,” he says, less forcefully. “Yeah, yes. Yes, I would, of course. With my sons and brothers.”

Cabinet ministers in the new government have claimed that many billions of dollars are missing and serious efforts are now being made to recover it.

But JC Weliamuna, chairman of the Presidential Task Force on the Recovery of Stolen Assets, says it’s an incredibly complex task that will take time and international co-operation. “Let me put it this way, it can’t be a small amount if you are doing an operation of this size about looted assets … the problem was that Sri Lanka did not have the capacity to investigate huge financial crimes of this complex nature. We have now built up this capacity.”

Rajapaksa doesn’t often talk to the foreign press; perhaps Inquirer has been granted an interview because of his fondness for our former prime minister Tony Abbott. Rajapaksa is keen to reminisce about his friendship with Abbott and how they would meet in the gym for chats at international forums. “He’s an interesting man,” he says of Abbott. “Very friendly.”

Abbott praised Rajapaksa in a recent essay, saying he was sure the former Sri Lankan president was pleased Australia didn’t join the “human rights lobby against tough but probably unavoidable actions taken to end one of the world’s most vicious civil wars”. It was a human rights “lobby” that included the US, Canada and Britain and many of the leaders of the Western world.

The UN estimates that 40,000 people died in the final months of the conflict, mainly civilians. Many died at the hands of the ruthless Tigers, shot as they tried to escape to safety. The annihilation of the odious Tigers was undoubtedly a victory for humanity, but many thousands of civilians also died from indiscriminate shelling by the Sri Lankan forces.

Rajapaksa says he has no regrets over how the war was conducted. “No regrets at all. I did my duty to the people, to the nation, and I am happy about it. It was my duty.” But he was, indeed, very pleased for Abbott’s support when Britain’s David Cameron and many others were raising the country’s alleged complicity in torture, kidnappings and war crimes.

“At that time we needed it, we needed your support,” he says. “We solved some of your problems because people were going there, boatpeople. We managed to stop that. We helped your government and they helped us (by not criticising the regime) … they gave us some (navy) ships.”

The fact is, of course, that since Rajapaksa was voted out Sri Lankans are no longer fleeing in great numbers. The fear that gripped Sri Lanka has dissipated.

We move on to several murders that now have been linked to the clan.

Lasantha Wickrematunge, an old friend of Rajapaksa and editor of The Sunday Leader, became a strident critic of Rajapaksa’s government. He was shot dead in broad daylight in Colombo in January 2009, a few days before he was to give evidence about Gotabaya’s alleged corruption in an arms deal in a defamation case.

Wickrematunge’s body was exhumed in September this year, two months after a military intelligence officer was arrested in connection with his murder. The off­icer then committed suicide, leav­ing a note claiming responsibility for the editor’s death. Now the officer’s body also has been exhumed after suspicions were raised over the suicide and the note.

Wickrematunge predicted his own death and left an editorial on his computer that was published after his murder. He said if he were to be killed it would be at the hands of the government. Addressing his old mate Mahinda, he wrote, “In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too.”

“I was very sad, of course, he was a friend,” Rajapaksa says of the editor’s assassination. “I knew him when he was a schoolboy.” He denies any family involvement in his death.

What about Sri Lankan rugby player Wasim Thajudeen, I ask. Did you know him? Thajudeen was one of the stars of the national rugby team, a solid, hard-running outside centre and fullback, selected because of his skills, not his parentage. He played in teams with and against Rajapaksa’s sons and Mahinda went to all the games. In May 2012 Thajudeen was found dead in a burnt-out car in Colombo, aged 28.

“I think I must have met him because all these rugger players used to come to my place,” Rajapaksa says, shifting his bulk in the leather chair. “I have seen him but I can’t remember him exactly. I would remember him because he was a big guy.

“I mean, can you imagine,” he continues, palms open, in a charmingly dismissive tone, “it was an accident. I believe it was an accident and this is another political game here. They will use anybody. First, they blame my second son … then they blame my first son. It was an accident.”

No, Mr President, Thajudeen’s death was no accident. It was when you were president but not now.

Rugby in Sri Lanka is a bit like polo or big-yacht racing in Australia. It’s a game for the elite. Thajudeen came from one of these families. His father was a successful businessman and his brother Asfan is an accountant living with his family in Melbourne. His sister Ayesha is a dental surgeon in Colombo. Wasim Thajudeen was a manager for an international travel agency and was due to complete an MBA from the Australian College of Business and Technology Colombo, an offshoot of Perth’s Edith Cowan University. He was handsome and charismatic, and in 2008 was voted Sri Lanka’s most popular rugby player.

One Sunday afternoon I meet up with his sister Ayesha in her dental surgery in Colombo as she’s attending to the last of her patients, an old man in a shalwar kameez and a prayer cap. Wasim, she tells me, after saying goodbye to her patient, was extremely popular and very happy.

“You must have seen his pictures in the media, there is not a single one without a smile … he seemed not to have any enemies,” she says. But it seems he did.

On the night of May 17, 2012, Ayesha returned home from work — she was then an officer in the Sri Lankan Air Force, working in its medical corps. Wasim, she was told by her mother, had gone out with some friends who had dropped in to pick him up.

Early the next morning, about 1am, two police officers knocked on the front door. Wasim had been in an accident and they asked her to come and identify the car he’d been driving, a Toyota hatchback belonging to her.

At the scene, she looked at the charred vehicle and thought her brother must have been taken to hospital. For more than an hour the police questioned her about who he’d been with and what he’d been doing. It was odd, she thought, to be questioned like this about a car accident.

“Then eventually they told me, ‘You need to come tomorrow to identify the body.’ And only then I understood that Wasim was no more.” Her brother was dead in the incinerated vehicle beside the road. She relays all these facts as if she is on autopilot. “I have been through a lot,” she says at one point. “Now I have come to a numb state.”

She went home in shock and at 5am returned to the crash site. Ayesha noticed something peculiar; the petrol tank was out of the vehicle on the road. “When I asked the police why, they said that they had to break open the petrol tank to cease the fire,” she says.

She was given the ghastly task of looking in the vehicle to identify her brother — he was unrecognisable apart from his massive frame.

But something else was very odd; Wasim was in the front passenger seat, not the driver’s seat. “When I asked the police officer why Wasim’s body is like this, he told me, ‘The seatbelt had got burned and he has fallen over.’ ”

The car was in a drain, but there didn’t appear to have been an impact great enough to cause the vehicle to catch fire or for Wasim to be rendered unconscious and hurled from one side of the small vehicle, over the console, and for his feet to land on the other side.

His body then was taken to the police mortuary to be examined by the chief judicial medical officer, Ananda Samarasekara. The family wanted to take Wasim, a Muslim, to be buried within 24 hours of his death, as is the custom, but the JMO seemed to be stalling and was refusing to sign the certificate to release his body. He claimed it could not be properly identified.

Ayesha recalled that Wasim had surgery on his knee and had metal plates and pins inserted. A second set of X-rays was ordered.

“When the second set of the X-rays from the body came, I saw the JMO was like furious and he was throwing tantrums at the juniors (doctors),” she says. “I didn’t know why. I heard him shouting. He was not behaving professionally or calm.” He refused to show her the X-rays and then refused to release the body until he had evidence from the surgeon who performed the operation.

When his hospital records were finally obtained, the JMO still refused to sign the body over, saying Ayesha’s affidavit had to be witnessed by a justice of the peace. Many friends had gathered to comfort the family and one was a JP; he said he’d sign it. The JMO then refused to accept this until it had the JP’s official seal on it. Fin­ally, another JP was summoned, with a seal, to witness Ayesha’s declaration.

The JMO then moved Wasim’s body back into the mortuary, again, before releasing it to the family. Ayesha says she knew by this stage that her brother had not died a natural death. His body was wrapped in plastic so that blood would not seep into the white burial cloth. He was buried after sunset, about 7pm.

As they were returning home from the funeral, Ayesha’s father got a call from a police station, not the one involved in investigating Wasim’s death. Someone had found Wasim’s wallet on the street and handed it in. It was found about 5km from the crash site.

The day after that, her father was called to a meeting at the Colombo police headquarters with the second most senior police officer in Sri Lanka, deputy inspector general Anura Senanayake, and Sumith Perera, the officer in charge of the Narahenpita Police Station which was investigating the crash. The police were in a conference when he arrived and when they emerged Senanayake said to him, “Your son’s death; we had a meeting and we have concluded it was an accident.”

The JMO then stalled and stalled on issuing a report into Wasim’s death. Nine months later he issued what he termed “a preliminary report” stating Wasim’s death was caused, Ayeshsa says, from “injuries sustained to the head and because of excessive burning, and possible carbon monoxide poisoning”.

Then Rajapaksa was voted out of power. The new President, Maithripala Sirisena, handed the case over to the Criminal Investigation Department and one of the country’s best detectives was assigned. It was only then, with Rajapaksa gone, that the JMO submitted his final report, which indicated possible foul play.

It was decided that Wasim’s body needed to be exhumed and re-examined by a fresh and independent team of doctors. This was done on August 10 last year.

Ayesha was allowed into the morgue to view the procedure. Her brother’s remains were laid out on a large slab and it was immediately obvious that something was horribly wrong: both of Wasim’s thigh bones were missing. The report from the new team of doctors was different to the JMO’s preliminary findings, but closer to his final report. It found he had multiple fractures to his ribs, to his left tibia and his fibula. His teeth had been smashed. His hip was fractured. There was a stab wound to his throat. There was an injury to his skull. And his femurs were missing.

It was clear what had happened. Wasim Thajudeen had been bashed, tortured and then murdered. His body was driven to the alleged crash site and the vehicle set on fire to make it appear like an accident. Then the apparatuses of the state, the country’s second most senior police officer and its senior judicial medical officer and their underlings, conspired to cover it up.

The matter is now a murder investigation in the hands of Colombo’s Additional Magistrate. The two senior police have been arrested and are in custody on charges of hindering an investigation and concealing evidence.

“They blame them,” Rajapaksa says incredulously to me, “just for doing their duty.”

The Sri Lankan Medical Council has told the magistrate that the JMO will face disciplinary proceedings and could face criminal charges.

When detectives from the Criminal Investigation Division began delving into phone records they found that on the night of the murder numerous phone calls had been made between the senior police in question and someone at the Presidential Secretariat. Other phone calls were made to the president’s official residence, Temple Trees. There were more calls still between members of the president’s security team and the police.

When the detectives sought to recover the official phone records they found they had been wiped. The CID detectives called in international experts and are said to have recovered the lost data.

A source privy to the investigation, not authorised to speak to the media, told Inquirer “the investigating magistrates already know the handlers. They have identified how it has been done. The only missing link is who gave the orders.” They have all the scientific evidence they need to bring about charges.

Now, they are trying to crack who it was within the presidential circle who ordered the killing.

The problem, he says, is that while Rajapaksa was voted out, his powerful military intelligence remains. It, too, has much to fear from a conviction in this and other cases. “The military intelligence is blocking this investigation as far as it possibly can,” the source says.

But why did someone want Thajudeen dead?

There has been speculation in the Sri Lankan media — a matter that has been investigated by detectives from the CID — that Thajudeen had been having an affair with the girlfriend of Mahinda’s second son, Yoshitha. Ayesha Thajudeen doesn’t think that’s the case. She and Wasim were close and he shared all his secrets and details of his private life with her.

Inquirer’s source says the detectives also believe the affair theory to be unlikely. The more plausible explanation, which is also under investigation, is that Mahinda’s eldest son, Namal, had been behind a syndicate that was trying to buy the Havelock Sports Club to redevelop it.

Wasim was the captain of its rugby team, its best and most influential player. He opposed the sale to Namal Rajapaksa’s syndicate. He didn’t particularly like or trust the family. He went in hard when playing against them, when others would generally go soft. He stood up to the Rajapaksas.

The motive could be as pathetic as that, Inquirer’s source says. “That it is all over some petty ruggerite jealousy.”

Ayesha Thajudeen says she will not rest until she gets justice for her brother. Her brother was one of many hundreds who died in nefarious circumstances during Rajapaksa’s rule but is one of a few that can be directly linked to the family.

Mahinda Rajapaksa is still immensely popular in Sri Lanka for having ended the civil war. But this case in particular has the potential to dent that popularity as Sri Lankans have found this crime particularly repugnant. Nishan de Mel from the think tank Verite Research says Sri Lanka has a long history of “using violence as a means of governance” to oppress political opponents and journalists, but that the murder of Wasim Thajudeen was something else.

“This one stands out,” de Mel says, “because it appears to be a personal vendetta.”

But, he says, the present coalition government, headed by Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe could well blow this opportunity to ensure that another Rajapaksa does not come along in future.

“These kinds of political moments don’t come along often,” de Mel says. “Sri Lanka needs to find a way of entrenching law and order and good governance with independent commissions like they have in Hong Kong or Singapore and their failure to do that has been their biggest failure … if you don’t entrench that institutional change and you simply offer change that still depends on political discretion then that change can be gradually eroded.

“Sri Lankans are so accustomed to politicians being the source for remedies for whatever problem they have, be it a land dispute, getting their kids into a school, trouble with the courts and police … that has to change and the institutions strengthened.”

Many believe that Rajapaksa, now 70, is hanging on in politics to do whatever he can to stymie these cases against his family. They say he is using his contacts within the military intelligence to pull strings. He has publicly attacked the investigating detectives. They say he wants to hold out until he can pass the baton to his eldest son, Namal.

But the man himself tells me he is staying on for the good of the people of Sri Lanka, for the commoners who have approached him in droves, begging him to stay. He watched on in horror as his son was driven off in a police van earlier this year. If they can do this to his family, he says, what chance do the ordinary folk have?

“My people need me,” says Mahinda Rajapaksa.

In the weeks following our interview Basil Rajapaksa split from the Sri Lankan Freedom Party to form the Sri Lankan People’s Front. Mahinda has indicated he will soon join and lead that new party.

Sri Lanka has not seen the last of Mahinda Rajapaksa and his clan. (The Australian)

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