Political Editor of the Sunday Times, 5 January 2019, where the title runs “UNP leadership: Parliamentary group to decide next week”
Switzerland has publicly expressed regrets for challenging Sri Lankan “authorities’ commitment to due process” and for calling that “into question” over the saga involving an embattled staffer at the embassy in Colombo. Their about turn, embarrassingly coming down a few notches, was spelt out in an official Third Person Note (TPN) Bern sent on December 30, 2019 to the Ministry of Foreign Relations. This was after diplomatic consultations got under way with a special envoy to ease tensions between the two countries. The note was released both in Colombo and Bern simultaneously.
That lays to rest, at least for the time being, the barrage of accusations hurled against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his government over the handling of allegations made by the embassy’s Assistant Migration Officer, Garnier Banister Francis. She claimed she was abducted outside St Bridget’s Convent on November 25 by five men in a white Toyota Corolla car. Interrogators, who questioned her under the watchful eyes of her counsel and the embassy staff, believe that she is a compulsive liar. No such incident took place. She not only placed Bern and Colombo at loggerheads but also shocked Sri Lankans and the world outside with what has seemingly turned out to be her outrageous claims.
Even the world’s most renowned newspaper, The New York Times, was taken for a ride. Its report claimed that with the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President, the “white van abductions” have resumed. Now, it is known that it is fake news that was fed to the newspaper. Those who blamed the local media, including some foreign governments and select NGOs, will now have to eat their words. Of course, such NGOs will have to sing for their dollars and fall in line with interests of their donors and not of this country.
The move by Bern and Colombo is very significant. Bern is now privy to the exact sequence of events and that there was no political manipulation by the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)-led government over the arrest of Banister Francis. It is she who first alleged that she was abducted outside St Bridget’s Convent on December 25 by five men in a white Toyota Corolla car. She later made contradictory statements to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) saying the abduction took place elsewhere, inside an apartment. Her original claim turned out to be totally false and she could not substantiate the second one either.
With the UNP in crisis over the leadership, former prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is seen entering parliament for the ceremonial opening and the policy statement by new President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Mr. Wickremesinghe conceded the post of opposition leader to the party’s presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa, but he is under heavy pressure to hand over the party leadership also to Mr. Premadasa. Pic by Amila Gamage
The Sunday Times can reveal today that a Swiss intelligence team worked closely with their Sri Lankan counterparts in Colombo after the incident. The government went out of the way to extend help to them. The Swiss team’s own independent findings are now known by the Bern authorities. It has further helped them clear most misapprehensions over the embassy staffer’s claims. That also facilitated Bern to declare that it hopes for a “swift return to an environment conducive to resuming the positive cooperation between Switzerland and Sri Lanka.”
This has set the pace for better relationship between the two countries whilst the legal process against the staffer, in keeping with the country’s laws, will continue. She is to be indicted on the false statements she has made. Her statements have been forwarded to the Attorney General’s Department. Further investigations are also under way for what a CID source said was to “tie up loose ends.” The evidence gathered so far includes expert medical testimony to establish that she was of sound mind and was physically fit.
Political aspects of Swiss embassy saga
The political aspects of the Swiss Embassy saga are also under investigation. This is after wild allegations that President Rajapaksa and his government had a hand in the Swiss saga. A highly authoritative source, who cannot be identified for obvious reasons, said yesterday, “A pattern is clearly emerging to confirm that there was indeed a conspiracy. We are sure of that. That is all I will say for the moment. More will be revealed soon.”
However, the source said that a report in the world’s prestigious New York Times (NYT) that ‘white van’ abductions have resumed after Rajapaksa was voted President was “one major piece of jigsaw” that threw more light on the matter. Though it has turned out to be fake news, the government is yet to take up issue, not even with the Ombudsman of The New York Times. A response is now being studied. The NYT will then know that the report was fake news and a handmade product of “Gotabaya haters” who want the world not only to believe them but also learn to hate the President.
They were busy during the presidential election and are now gearing themselves for the impending parliamentary polls. A cabal responsible for this ‘operation’ have fled the country preventing detectives from questioning them. It has come to light that they are now carrying out their campaign from a foreign capital by buying their way through some obliging social media, bankrupt for news and fiercely opposed to President Rajapaksa and his government. Telephone records have revealed hectic activity and identified some of those linked.
This has connected the cabal to the fleeing from the country of Chief Inspector Nishantha de Silva who has now obtained asylum in Switzerland. One of them had described the CID officer, who fled without official permission, “the Sherlock Holmes of modern Sri Lanka.” This was contained in a note prepared earlier to stop his transfer outside the CID. The note, instead, had called for his promotion. Despite Gotabaya Rajapaksa winning a 1.3 million majority votes at the presidential election, a huge public endorsement, their target remains him. “We have found that the aim is twofold — one to set the ground for the UN Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva in March where the resolution on Sri Lanka will be taken up. The other was intended to launch a campaign during the upcoming parliamentary elections that people live in fear because of the white van syndrome,” said the source.
It is not usual for a government to release texts of a TPN — the medium of communication between foreign ministries of two countries. However, it is borne out by twin factors — the Swiss government’s keenness to correct the tough diplomatic line they took before and the Sri Lanka government’s commitment to emphasize that it acted according to the country’s law. They had in fact erred on the side of the purported victim allowing her lawyer to be present when making a statement besides Embassy personnel watching it from a distance. Even a female prison officer was on guard in “Y Ward” of the Remand Prison round the clock where she was kept with 19 others, some drug addicts.
It is noteworthy to read the full text of the latest Swiss statement: “The Embassy of Switzerland in Colombo presents its compliments to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and has the honour to state the following:
“Switzerland and Sri Lanka have maintained excellent relations for decades and have engaged in substantial cooperation in a variety of fields, to the benefit of both countries and their populations. Both countries value these relations greatly. In the last few weeks, this relationship was marred by misunderstandings surrounding an incident involving a local staff member of the Embassy, who was subsequently taken into custody by the Sri Lankan authorities. In this context, uncorroborated facts made it into the public domain, putting an unnecessary strain on the otherwise cordial relationship between the two countries. At no point during this time did Switzerland have the intention of tarnishing the image of the government of Sri Lanka.
“The Embassy regrets that these developments have led to the Sri Lankan authorities’ commitment to due process being called into question and reaffirms that Switzerland, like Sri Lanka, is committed to upholding good governance and the rule of law. The Embassy hopes for a swift return to an environment conducive to resuming the positive cooperation between Switzerland and Sri Lanka. Recognizing that local staff is subject to local laws, the Embassy is convinced that both sides will remain attentive to the working conditions and the wellbeing of all staff of diplomatic missions. Switzerland recalls that it is the responsibility of any government to protect the diplomatic missions of other states on its territory.
“Attaching great importance to its relationship with Sri Lanka, committed to maintaining and to further strengthening these relations in a constructive manner, and convinced that both countries will together continue to build relations which are based on mutual respect, the Embassy of Switzerland in Colombo avails itself of this opportunity to renew to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka the assurances of its highest consideration.”
The thaw in Bern-Colombo relations was brought about by Switzerland’s special envoy to Colombo, former Swiss Ambassador Jorg Frieden. He is now the Swiss envoy in Vietnam and served earlier in Nepal. He has been shunting between his five-star Colombo hotel and the Foreign Relations Ministry having rounds of talks mostly with Foreign Secretary Ravinatha Aryasinha. He has thus clinically dissected the issues and narrowed down the differences. He was also appreciative that Colombo’s investigation was within the parameters of the abduction claim and related matters and not on Banister Francis’s work in the embassy.
The latest Swiss turnaround brings to focus on one of their veteran diplomats, Hans Peter Mock, as Ambassador in Sri Lanka. He has returned to Bern last month. Like any unsuspecting Colombo-based envoy, he believed the original version of Banister Francis. It is this move that incensed Bern after he reported the matter. Adding weight to this was the hurried move to arrange an air ambulance to ferry her to Bern. By hindsight, one could say with some certainty that there was an error of judgement on his part. [Hanspeter Mock] did not check on the veracity of Banister Francis’ claim perhaps placing full faith in her as an Embassy employee who holds many a secret. From the evidence that has transpired so far, he had not been privy to her local involvements or personal contacts with a group identified as “violently anti-Rajapaksa and his government.” Yet, the government is likely to accept Hans Peter Mock to continue his term in Sri Lanka because he has acted in good faith. In marked contrast to the latest conciliatory Swiss statement, it earlier issued strongly worded ones that cast doubts on the government.
The first statement issued by the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) after the incident said, “At the end of November, a local employee at the Swiss Embassy in Colombo was detained on the street and threatened by unidentified men to force her to disclose embassy-related information. The FDFA responded to this incident through a series of demarches.” The same statement quoted State Secretary Pascale Baeriswyl as telling Sri Lanka Ambassador to Germany, Karunasena Hettiaratchchi, (concurrently accredited to Switzerland) that Bern remained “ready to take the necessary steps to restore confidence between Switzerland and Sri Lanka.”
In other words, as pointed out earlier, she publicly admitted that the Swiss government had no confidence in Sri Lanka. Going by her assertions, the alleged abduction episode had ruptured it. The statement came after Ambassador Hettiaratchchi’s meeting where a Swiss request for an air ambulance to evacuate the local staffer was discussed. In another statement the FDFA also urged that “due process be followed.” The Swiss TPN has now corrected the position.
As the crisis grew, the Swiss Federal Chancellor (Foreign Minister equivalent) Ignazio Cassis also telephoned Foreign Relations Minister Dinesh Gunawardena in December. Among other matters, he “expressed his regret at the decision by the examining magistrate to place the local employee concerned in pre-trial detention, where the conditions do not take into account her state of health in any way.”
Foreign policy victory
The resolution of issues between Bern and Colombo, no doubt, is a foreign policy plus point for the government and a vindication of its position. This is notwithstanding the earlier claim that “due process” has not been followed. More so when a group of Sri Lankans themselves were in a game to turn it for their political ends. It also clears the air for other diplomatic missions, particularly those in the West, that the correct procedures have been followed despite wild propaganda by a disgruntled few who are now fugitives.
Kalinga Indatissa, President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, said in a three-page statement on Friday that certain material contained in the (latest) Swiss Embassy statement conveys a wrong and misconceived impression about the role of the judiciary in Sri Lanka and the concept of “Due Process.” In its capacity as the largest professional body of the members of the Legal profession the BASL said it condemns the Swiss claim that “Due Process” had not been followed. Giving a catalogue of reasons for taking up that position, the BASL President said; “We request the makers of this statement to immediately disclose the areas of “Due Process that have not been followed in this instance.” The statement adds: “Without mentioning such specific instance, to issue a bare statement, as has been done in this instance, amounts to a serious undermining of the judiciary and other Law enforcement agencies in Sri Lanka which are more equipped to follow the accepted norms.”
The BASL also declared that; “being a responsible Nation, as claimed, the Government of Switzerland should be mindful of Article 41 of the Vienna Convention which clearly states that all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities have an equal duty to respect the Laws and Regulations of the receiving State, in this instance, Sri Lanka. It is further illustrated in Article 41 that there should not be any interference in the internal affairs of the State. It is best that the Government of Switzerland would try to understand their role in making comments about the judicial system and the Law enforcement system of a separate, independent, and sovereign State. The BASL accused Switzerland of “attempting to undermine our core values in the judicial system which we have followed and treasured for more than two centuries.”
Amidst the thawing of strained diplomatic relations with Switzerland, there were other priorities engaging the attention of the government. On the foreign relations front, it is the UN Human Rights Council sessions due in March. In the light of a marked policy shift with the advent of the new government, how some of the issues should be addressed is receiving attention. Among matters under consideration is to propose amendments to the resolution. However, it is not clear whether this is workable. In his policy statement after the ceremonial opening of Parliament on Friday, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said the country’s foreign policy was “neutral.” He made no reference to being nonaligned. It is not clear how much backing Sri Lanka would receive should it go ahead to propose amendments.
ALSO NOTE THESE ITEMS
Island News Item: “Bar Association canes Swiss Embassy for Its Garnier Act,” 4 Janaury 2020, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2020/01/04/bar-association-canes-swiss-embassy-for-its-garnier-act/
Tamara Kunanayakam: “Swiss Power-Plays a Violation of Sovereignty,” 12 December 2019, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2019/12/12/swiss-power-plays-a-violation-of-sovereignty/
An Informed Western Scholar: “Kunanayakam hits the Mark. USA behind the Swiss Hit,” 13 December 2019, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2019/12/13/kunanayakam-hits-the-mark-usa-behind-the-swiss-hit/
DBS Jeyaraj: “The LTTE and Its Treasury in Switzerland in Its Halcyon Days,” 16 Deecmber 2019, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2019/12/16/the-ltte-and-its-treasury-in-switzerland-in-its-halcyon-days/