By Nirmala Kannangara.
Questions have been raised as to who gave orders to Sri Lanka Customs to allegedly re-export an illegal consignment of Red sandalwood (Red Sanders) worth several billions of rupees secretly last month.
Sri Lanka Customs on February 21, 2014 detained 10, 000 Mt tons of Red Sanders which was declared as Calcium Carbonate and was piled in a 20-foot container. This container had come to Colombo from India via Dubai and was detected by the Customs Revenue Task Force.
However, 12 months after the detection, it is alleged that the same Revenue Task Force (RTF) who detained the Red Sanders consignment, has re-exported the goods to an unknown destination for an unknown reason violating the country’s obligation to the World Customs Organization.
“Although this consignment was detained by the RTF, such consignments have to be handed over to the Customs Bio-Diversity Unit for further investigations. Neither the consignment nor its documents were handed over to the Customs Bio-Diversity Unit for further investigations but kept in the RTF for ‘further’ action.
Instead of taking further action, the RTF re-exported them and is alleged to have made millions of ‘revenue’ to them,” sources claimed.
Accusing the RTF for re-exporting the consignment secretly, the sources said that it is questionable as to why this consignment of red sanders were not sent back to India as it had come from India but not any other country.
“Despite having bilateral agreements with India, Sri Lanka’s failure to re-export them to India cannot be considered as a good move. Our country’s image has already been tarnished because of the Customs failure to act in an appropriate manner in regard to illegal consignments that come to the Colombo port.
When this was detained, the RTF officials and the Director General Customs boasted that this is the largest ever haul they were able to take into custody. When much publicity was given to this detention, the World Customs Organization wanted the Customs Department to release details of this consignment where there were 10,000 Mt. tons in a 20-foot container.
However we did not provide the details they wanted,” sources added.
According to sources, this was a second haul of red sanders consignment and said the first consignment was detained in November 2013 where the weight of the goods were 4.5 Mt. tons.
“When the previous consignment of red sanders was detected by the RTF on November 9, 2013, which was valued over Rs.100 million, one higher official at the RTF made plans to re-export the consignment in October 2014. But due to protests by the environmentalists this officer had to abandon his decision,” sources claimed.
Meanwhile, a member of the All Ceylon Customs Service Union who wished to remain anonymous said that they were unaware of the second red sander consignment being re-exported and accused Sri Lanka Customs officials for engaging in illegal deals and added that the second consignment would have re-exported secretly because the unions thwarted an attempt to sell the first consignment in October 2014.
“Although a confiscated consignment cannot be released, these higher officials wanted to sell the first red sander consignment through a broker imposing a meager Rs.5 million fine. In addition, it is said that the Customs officials were given Rs.10 million bribe to felicitate the deal. The broker was a son of a former Customs employee who is an underworld character,” sources added.
According to the sources, in October last year, an attempt was made to re-export the first consignment to Hong Kong as a new shipment.
“As they cannot re-export the goods in the same container knowing that the World Customs Organization was keeping a tab on to these illegal consignments, the higher Customs officials wanted the consignment transferred to another container and re-ship as some other goods. Somehow we were able to thwart it.
As a result the five million rupee fine had to be paid back to the broker and it is said that the ten million rupee bribe taken by the Customs officers had to be returned. Then again in February this year they wanted to re-export the same consignment once again imposing a fine of hundred thousand rupees,” sources claimed.
The sources meanwhile accused the higher officials at the Customs Department in making money illegally and said that these officers do not allow honest officers to handle such cases as they do not leave room to any misdeeds.
“Failing to re-export for the first time in October last year by imposing a fine of Rs. 5 million, for the second time they wanted to re-export in February this year imposing a fine of hundred thousand rupees. This time they got the consignment transferred to another container and ship so it cannot be branded as an illegal consignment.
When these Customs officials tried to re-export the first consignment in February we took stern action and wrote to President Maithripala Sirisena and got their attempt prevented. If they have re-exported the second consignment secretly, it may have been done soon after we thwarted their plan on the first consignment,” he added.
Meanwhile, sources further said that unless strict action is taken against these corrupted higher officials at Sri Lanka Customs, the country’s image cannot be stopped from further deterioration.
He said that the country’s name has been tarnished by the previous government politicians and added that Customs Department should be accountable for the present situation.
“The best example was the detention of blood ivory in 2012. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) considers that when a country takes a decision to publicly destroy its confiscated ivory stockpiles, it presents a unique opportunity to draw public attention to the scale, nature and impact of this serious crime and to let it act as a deterrent to the illegal trade. Instead of destroying the blood ivory, some powerful politicians in the previous regime wanted to sell them illegally in the guise of offering them to temples,” sources alleged.
It has now revealed about an unsuccessful attempt to remove the blood ivory by the previous regime, which was seized by the Sri Lanka Customs on May 14, 2012.
“Without considering the obligations we have to follow, the previous regime, in a letter dated December 19, 2012 to the Director General Customs, directed the Customs Department to hand over the blood ivory which is worth around US $ 4 million, to the Presidential Secretariat to be offered to the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.
When Buddhist temples or any place of religious worship do not keep blood ivory other than the tusks taken from animals that have died due to natural causes, what made the previous government to get the stock released pretending to gift it to the Temple of the Tooth.
The letter further stated that this whole process would be handled by a local company, Colombo Logistics, which is said to be owned by yet another politician,” sources alleged.
The sources observed that it is the obligation of the country to follow the recommended guidelines of CITES in order to stop animal slaughter.
“Sri Lanka is a signatory to CITES in 1979 and although there are no rules and regulations imposed, the countries that signed at the CITES have an obligation to conserve endemic species even at global level. The best way to stop these illegal cross boarder activities is to inform the country that these elephants have been massacred in herds and then destroy them to show the racketeers that Sri Lanka does not care for these blood ivory,” sources said.
This blood ivory has being smuggled out from Kenya and was on its way to Dubai via Sri Lanka.
“After confiscating the entire shipment of blood ivory it has to be destroyed in public as per the CITES regulations although the previous regime wanted to sell it through one of their companies pretending they were to be gifted to the temples in the country,” sources added.
This unacceptable conduct was questioned at the CITES symposium in Bangkok by the National Advisory Councilor at World Wildlife Fund (WWF) – a leading international body in wildlife conservation and endangered species two years ago whether the politicians in the then government was attempting to misappropriate the seized blood ivory.
“However this claim was denied by the then government representative who is in the judicial service although documentary evidence shows that the Director General Customs received a letter from the Presidential Secretariat that there is a plan to offer the blood ivory to the Temple of the Tooth.
“When the then Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe raised this issue in parliament in 2013, the minister concerned once again refuted the allegations. How could they say so when the Presidential Secretariat has instructed the Director General Customs in writing to hand over the entire stock of blood ivory to the Presidential Secretariat immediately to be handed over to the Temple of the Tooth through Lanka Logistics,” sources said.
Meanwhile, Director Legal, Customs and Media spokesman Lesley Gamini said that the first Red Sander consignment was to be re-exported in October last year after imposing a fine of Rs.5 million from the shipper but due to a petition, it had to be halted.
“As there was a petition against the decision we had to stop re-exporting and the Director General Customs re-inquired into to the matter and finally forfeited imposing a hundred thousand rupee penalty from the shipper,” Gamini said.
When asked as to who gave the authority for the Customs Department to re-export the 10, 000 MT ton Red Sanders last month, Gamini said that he is not aware of it and had to speak to the relevant section.
“This has to be inquired from the relevant department. As you say if the RTF has not handed over these consignments to the Bio Diversity Unit, we need to find out as to why the RTF did not abide by the regulations,” Gamini said. With regards to the former regime’s attempt to smuggle the blood ivory, the media spokesman confirmed that there was a request from the Presidential Secretariat to hand the blood ivory to them.
“Although they gave instructions to the Customs Department to release the blood ivory to the Presidential Secretariat, they did not turn up to remove them from the Customs. We kept the consignment ready for the removal but since the Presidential Secretariat did not send their representative to remove them, the blood ivory is still lying at the Customs Department,” Gamini added.