[The RALL-AGMSL vessel MV Mahanuwara, the floating armoury at the Galle Harbour during the police inspection. Pic by Sajeeva Wijeweera]
By Sunday Times Political Editor-
- Defence Ministry-sponsored private army links up with private maritime company supplying arms
- Huge armouries of private firms kept in Galle Navy camp and at BMICH; potential threat to C’wealth leaders and Pope
- President calls for explanation from new Defence Secretary for trying to defend predecessors actions
Revelations of corruption, abuse of power and a multitude of other illegal acts under the reign of the previous UPFA Government are unfolding day by day.
In this midst, the role of a private security company which ran a veritable army in a controversial tie-up with a Defence Ministry sponsored security agency, is now under investigation by the Police and has raised some alarming questions. Police sought the advice of the Attorney General as several aspects were uncovered.
They were told last week that the legal issues arising from the tie-up between Rakna Arakshaka Lanka Limited (RALL) and the privately owned Avant Garde Maritime Services Ltd. (AGMSL) needed very close and careful study. Hence, the Attorney General has said that a team of State Attorneys have been appointed to go into all aspects of the matter and advice on the follow-up action required. The team’s task will begin next week. Among matters to be examined is the legality of the operation and whether the Government of Sri Lanka had the legal right to transfer weapons in its possession to a private security company. That too without the approval of the Cabinet of Ministers and without any calls for international tenders thereafter.
The AGMSL website notes that the company’s role is “provision of Sri Lanka Government Owned Weapons and Associated equipment to PMSC’s (private maritime security companies)” which is returnable to ports in Muscat and Mauritius, both as is clear, outside Sri Lanka. Among the weapons are Chinese made T-56, Russian Kalashnikovs (AK 47s) assault rifles, 7.62 ammunition for these weapons, Light Machine Guns (LMGs), ballistic helmets, body armour, Night Vision Goggles, Radio Sets (for communications) and flashlights.
RALL questioned by COPE
The RALL was the brainchild of former Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The company is registered with the Registrar of Companies and is not answerable to Parliament. It is yet a Government undertaking. This is what last year’s report by the Parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) had to say:
The Committee enquired about the category of personnel who were recruited to the Company – It was stated that the ex-security personnel, those who have retired or legally resigned from the Sri Lankan Armed Forces and Police Service were recruited and they were being paid a salary in addition to their pensions.
It was enquired whether the Company, as a unit of providing maritime security, has taken any action on the threat caused to Sri Lanka Fishermen by the Indian Fishermen in the Northern Sea: It was stated that this matter has not yet been considered by the Company.
It was questioned about the matter pointed out at the last Committee meeting that the Company has invested funds without obtaining Treasury approval – It was stated that being a private company, it was not required to obtain Treasury approval and the problem had been regularised by obtaining the approval of the Board of Directors.
It is not clear whether RALL declared dividends to the State. After all it has not only used state funds entirely but all other state assets including weapons belonging to the Government. Among those who were on the board of directors was Mohan Peiris, the Chief Justice, who is now at the centre of a heightening controversy. RALL has won contracts to provide security in different state institutions and state-backed institutions ousting other private operators. Many lost employment opportunities in the latter. RALL also operates catering services and restaurants competing with the private sector. RALL’s strength at present is 4,000.
The AGMSL is a subsidiary company of Avant Garde Security Services (Pvt.) Ltd. located in Kotte. The prime mover in this private venture is a former commando, retired Major Nissanka Senadipathy and the company’s website boasts of an employee strength of 6,500 which is almost a quarter of the strength of the Sri Lanka Air Force. It is also six and half times bigger than the Sri Lanka Coast Guard. On Friday, Senadipathy was banned from leaving Sri Lanka by Colombo’s Chief Magistrate Gihan Pilapitiya. Top armed forces and Police officials who are retired, including at least two former Navy Commanders, have been employed by this company for whopping wages. Senadipathy is a strong supporter of the UPFA and campaigned for former President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the January 8 presidential election. He is also considered a close confidant of former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
It was a top Sri Lanka Navy officer who once recommended that the tasks now being carried out by Avant Garde Maritime Services could not be handled by his institution. The move did surprise senior Navy officers then. Some alleged this was pre-arranged but this could not be confirmed. Their concerns were heightened by the fact that the Navy had been equipped; its strength multiplied and better organised professionally to cope with a terrorist threat when RALL was formed in October 2006. This not only paved the way for the RALL-AGMSL tie-up but also led to the officer concerned being recruited to a top slot after retirement. He is receiving a six figure monthly salary, a luxury SUV and other perks.
The probe itself began by chance after the discovery of weapons on board the fully air-conditioned MV Mahanuwara, a vessel owned by AGMSL, when it was at the Galle Harbour. It came on a tipoff to the Harbour Police. The new Defence Secretary, B.M.U.D Basnayake, told the media last week that “it was a legitimate project” with the military hardware found on this vessel described as a floating armoury. Police investigations were still under way when he made those remarks. In a separate statement, Basnayake also said that a bank account of the MoD, opened by his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa “is not a personal account and has been operated by the Ministry within legal parameters.” In effect, Basnayake was publicly contradicting Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake who made the disclosure to the media. Karunanayake was wrong when he said it was a “personal account” but a question about legality remained.
Basnayake’s assertions became the subject of a lengthy discussion at the first meeting of the Cabinet of ministers of the National Unity Government last Wednesday evening. It was revealed by Finance Minister Karunanayake that the account in the Taprobane Branch of the Bank of Ceylon was registered as that of “Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Secretary, Ministry of Defence…” He said in terms of Financial Regulations, no Ministry Secretary was allowed to open accounts and deposit proceeds from the sale of state property. They have to be deposited in the Consolidated Fund in The Treasury, he said. The monies had accrued after the outright sale of land adjoining Army Headquarters including the sale of the Army’s former playground to Shangri La Hotels.
Instructions to secretaries
The ministers decided that Public Administration Minister Karu Jayasuriya should send out instructions that Secretaries to Ministries should “strictly follow the rules and regulations under the Establishment Code in issuing Press Releases by State Officials.” In other words, the new Government which assured greater transparency and media freedom (besides a Right to Information law) has now gagged State officials from speaking to the media. This is just after only eleven days in office. Ironically, it was not for the fault of the media. It is only because one of the state officials, obviously inexperienced, unaware and more importantly ignorant about the Government’s own policies made the wrong remarks while holding a highly responsible position. On top of that, President Maithripala Sirisena’s official Government spokesman, Minister Rajitha Senaratne, revealed at a media briefing on Thursday that he (the President) had called for Basnayake’s explanation. An official of the Department of Information was to interject to say that even the proceeds from the sale of its publication Desathiya (fortnightly) were being periodically deposited in the Consolidated Fund with the Treasury.
Finance Minister Karunanayake claimed at a news conference last week that Rs 7.5 billion was found in a bank account in the name of former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He said that the money had since been transferred to the Treasury. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, however, strongly rebutted claims that it was a personal account and charged that “the remarks were grossly misleading and an attempt to discredit him.” At Wednesday’s meeting, ministers pointed out that no prior approval had been obtained from the Cabinet of ministers to hold the funds in a separate account and that aspect should be probed further. “If every minister sells state property and deposits the proceeds in separate bank accounts, there is no need for a Treasury,” said a minister commenting on the move. It has to be probed in detail to ensure such ‘irregular practices’ do not occur in the future, he said speaking on grounds of anonymity. The Cabinet of ministers decided that the subject should be taken up at a two-day debate in Parliament. Party leaders, who meet the Speaker, Chamal Rajapaksa, are to fix the dates. The Minister added that similarly the role played by RALL and AGMSL should be fully probed.
The Sunday Times is able to reveal exclusively today that Avant Garde Maritime Services held three container loads of arms and ammunition in the Sri Lanka Navy Camp “SLNS Dakshina” in Kaluwella, Galle. Rear Admiral D.E.C. Jayakody, Commander, Southern Naval Area told K.D.A. Weerasinghe, Senior Superintendent of Police, Galle, that AGMSL, the owner of MV Mahanuwara though the armoury was inside the Navy camp, that neither those in the armed forces nor the Police had any control. They could not even check on the armoury. They were not provided details of what had been stored. The only proof there was a private armoury inside the Navy camp came in the form of a letter retired Army Major General Palitha Fernando signed on behalf of the former Defence Secretary.
He is Military Liaison Officer in the Ministry of Defence and is not legally authorised to issue letters to military camps to locate private armouries in their premises. Nor has he said under which provisions of the law he was acting when he issued those “orders.” Making the situation worse is the fact that he is also Chairman of the RALL. His letter only conferred powers on the Southern Naval Area Commander to “maintain the armoury” but did not say what it meant. Ironically, other than taking note that such an armoury existed, the area commander was not authorised to inspect or conduct regular checks. The keys were not in his possession. The purpose of the letter, a Navy source said, was only “to facilitate the setting up of the armoury.” The source claimed no payments were made to the Navy but this could not be verified. The AGMSL has been charging clients a fee for every weapon issued. However, the Navy was not able to determine how many such weapons were in the armoury in its base because the Navy was not allowed to check the armoury or given a list.
A similar situation existed even in a secret armoury held by RALL at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) for some years. Ironically, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) was held there in November 2013 with the security staff accompanying leaders blissfully unaware they were close to a secret arsenal of weapons. An intelligence source said even advanced security teams that visited ahead of the summit were not told about the existence of the secret armoury. This was out of fear that they would have sought the removal of the weapons in view of the danger it may pose to those of whom they were protecting. Similarly, when Pope Francis visited Sri Lanka last week, his advance security team, a Police source said, was unaware. The Pope went to the BMICH to address an inter-religious event. When a Police raid was conducted, only 152 weapons were found. A total of 3,322 weapons had gone missing. Officials told the Police they had been issued to different parties. Police now want to ascertain who granted permission for a private party to have an armoury in the BMICH and whether any payment was made for the purpose.
The AGMSL website confirms that “Weapons are owned by Sri Lanka Government. Hence origins of weapons are indisputable. Each of these will be accompanied by an ‘End User Certificate’ issued by the Ministry of Defence. They will always be accompanied by a Sri Lankan Sea Marshal of Rakna Arakshaka Lanka (RALL) as Custodian during passage of the ship…” When the Government of Sri Lanka procures military hardware from a foreign supplier, it is required to declare who is the end user. It is to such a party that an End User Certificate is issued. In this instance it is the Government of Sri Lanka. Re-issuing of such a certificate by the Ministry of Defence to a private party, it is pointed out, violates the assurance given to the supplier. It is not clear whether payments have been made to the Ministry of Defence for the weapons by the AGMSL. It has also come to light that the diplomatic machinery of the Government has been used vigorously to obtain recognition for the AGMSL from international bodies. They were unaware that there were local irregularities. An official source said before arrangements between RALL and AGMS were worked out, the Attorney General’s Department had not been consulted to determine legal positions.
Major General’s letter
If the Navy did not have access to weaponry stored within its own premises by a private party, there was more. Even the rooms in the Seva Vanitha building in the Navy camp in Galle were given for storage of weapons and ammunition. Here again, the Navy had no access to these rooms. They have been allocated after the Chairman of RALL, retired Major General Palitha Fernando wrote to the Commander of the Southern Naval Area as far back as November 20, 2012. He has signed the letter as “Army Co-ordinating Officer.” What such a retired officer from the Army had to do with the Navy is not made clear. Even worse, how he issued orders to allow a private party to establish an armoury inside a security forces establishment is even more intriguing. This is what his letter said:
“1. Armed security officers belonging to the naval security division of Rakna Arakshaka Lanka Company, established under the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development, have been deployed with arms and live ammunition for the protection of cargo ships.
“2. The CEO of Rakna Arakshaka Lanka has informed us that the armoury in the Galle Fort that they have been provided with is insufficient as the company, due to the high quality of its services, is facing higher demands.
“3. I kindly require that the company be provided with an armoury in the Dakshina Navy Camp in order for them to continue providing international-quality services.”
Retired Major General Fernando’s assertion clearly confirms that “a naval security division” was functioning under RALL, a Government owned business undertaking. This raises an all important question – can there be another armed and equipped naval entity when the Sri Lanka Navy, set up by statute, continues to function? Ironically, the Navy has been denied this task that would have earned them large amounts in foreign exchange. Besides the Navy, which is tasked to protect the country’s territorial waters among other responsibilities, a Coast Guard was also set up. Instead, the Navy was allowed to carry on with a less lucrative whale watching safaris in the south and operate restaurants. Naval personnel were assigned as drivers, cooks and household help to VIPs. Female cadres were similarly assigned as escorts to female VIPs.
Besides posing the question of illegality, there are also constitutional issues. The President, as Commander-in-Chief, has been designated as the head of the armed forces and the Police. True, there are other ancillary units like the Coast Guard and the Civil Defence Force with a strength of 35,000 tasked with “maritime law enforcement,” sometimes duplicating the role played by the armed forces, but they are essentially with the state. They have come in as institutions where retired officers successfully found employment. Here is an instance where a private company has been delegated a role that should be played by the Navy and that too for commercial gain.
The fact that an armoury was located inside a Navy camp raises a number of issues over how national security could have been endangered. Though it has not happened, there was always the likelihood of someone with access to a cargo vessel seeking weapons from the RALL-AGMSL. There is nothing to prevent them from harming the Sea Marshal and carrying out a terrorist attack or holding ships to ransom. Higher ups at Police Headquarters have come up with a string of serious questions. Among them:
Who is empowered to authorise RALL-AGMSL to operate a maritime security service extending from Sri Lankan waters to the Red Sea and under which laws has anyone given authorisation to RALL-AGMSL to use weapons belonging to the State? Who authorised them to collect monies for them?
Have weapons belonging to the Army, Navy and Air Force been given to RALL-AGMSL after the Tiger guerrillas were militarily defeated? Who has the authority to do so?
Was any approval from the armed forces or the Police obtained before RALL-AGMSL was allowed to set up an armoury? In this instance, was permission from Navy Headquarters sought? Has the Commander of the Navy been consulted?
What happens if the property belonging to the Government of Sri Lanka (the weapons and ammunition) is used against a friendly force or party? Who takes the responsibility for such action? Who will pay compensation if demands are made?
Why could not the Sri Lanka Navy, relatively less busy after the defeat of Tiger guerrillas, have undertaken this task? Did this not deny the Navy the possibility of earning millions of dollars in foreign exchange? How much of funds have the private security company earned as a result of this?
Who has the authority to transfer weapons obtained declaring the Sri Lanka Government as End User to a third party? Are such licences issued to foreign vessels valid?
Who bears the responsibility of a floating armoury if it falls into the hands of unauthorised persons? Is there insurance cover for the personnel?
Is there any agreement between RALL and the Government of Sri Lanka over sharing of profits or other forms of revenue? Is there a similar agreement with AGMSL?
Sunday Times ( excerpts from longer article)