The new Swiss Ambassador, Dominik Furgler, presented his credentials to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Sept 30. Furgler, who succeedes Hanspeter Mock, steps in close on the heels of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), on political victimization, raising the issue of Inspector Nishantha Silva taking refuge in Switzerland. The PCoI directed the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to inquire into the whereabouts of the policeman. The PCoI wants him brought back to Sri Lanka.
Having comfortably won the 2019 Nov 16 presidential poll, Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed the PCoI to investigate allegations of political victimization, as well as interference and undue influence on the judiciary, and police, during the previous government. The PCoI consists of retired Supreme Court Justice Upali Abeyratne (Chairman), retired Appeal Court Justice Daya Chandrasiri Jayathilaka and retired IGP Chandra Fernando.
Furgler’s appointment took place amidst the on-going 45th session (Sept.14 to Oct 7) of the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council where the UN, as well as UK-led Core Group raised accountability issues. They focused on the war and post-conflict issues, including a suspect arrested in connection with the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks.
At the onset of the Geneva sessions, the Core Group rather surprisingly accused the government of stepping up harassment, intimidation and surveillance, targeting civil society, since the change of regime, in Nov. 2019. It could well be part of the old Western tactic to go on the attack, no sooner the Rajapaksas were re-elected by the masses, with an overwhelming majority.
The Rajapaksas are, no doubt, the bête noir of the self-appointed international community, led by the West, due to them not being servile as in the case of our ‘right to defend ourselves’ when threatened by terrorists.
We are not for a moment saying that everything is hunky dory here, far from it. We do have a long way to go. But we are definitely not the cannibals that the West would like to paint us.
A spokesperson for the BHC reiterated the allegation in response to several questions raised by The Island as regards the recent statement by the UK’s International Ambassador for Human Rights, Rita French.
The BHC spokesperson has sent The Island the following response, on Sept 26: “The statement from the Core Group, in Geneva, agreed among Canada, Germany, North Macedonia, Montenegro and the UK, reflects recent reporting, discussions and analysis by a range of sources on the operating environment for civil society in Sri Lanka. Concerns have been publically raised and documented about increased harassment, intimidation and surveillance by the High Commissioner for Human Rights and several international NGOs. The UK has regular and wide-ranging conversations on these issues with civil society, as well as the Government of Sri Lanka”.
Rita French alleged that civil society and human rights groups, in Sri Lanka, experienced an increasingly hostile operating environment. French alleged “Instances of intimidation, harassment and surveillance continue, including threats to families of disappeared persons. Individuals are detained indefinitely without appearance before court, such as lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah.”
Rita French conveniently refrained from mentioning why Attorney-at-law Hejaaz Hizbullah is in custody. The Attorney General compared Hejaaz Hizbullah’s conduct to that of the late British passport holder Anton Balasingham, the LTTE’s theoretician. Balasingham was buried in the UK, in Dec 2006. Nor did she mention the fact that Hejaaz’s case is before the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, the highest court in the land.
Though the West talks so much about human rights, their own record, even now, is appalling to say the least.
If the high profile project spearheaded by the Swiss mission in Colombo meant to humiliate the new Sri Lanka administration, in Nov. 2019, succeeded, the obviously staged abduction of Swiss Embassy employee Garnier Banister Francis, too, would have been put on Sri Lanka’s account with much glee in Rita French’s statement. The trumped up victim was formerly known as Sriyalatha Perera. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa thwarted the operation by rejecting the controversial Swiss proposal to evacuate Francis, along with members of her family.
Had the President succumbed to intense pressure, the Francis issue, too, would have ended up in the Geneva agenda. That is the undeniable truth. There hadn’t been a previous instance of a Western embassy employee being abducted and sexually abused by government agents. They cooked up unprecedented allegations to tarnish President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, both locally and internationally. Even before the Swiss Embassy brought the alleged incident to the notice of the government, New York Times reported, what later a section of the media called the Francis affair. However, a hasty NYT report dated on Nov 27, 2019, and the update, two days later, revealed the status of the operation, targeting Sri Lanka.
Fugitive inspector Nishantha-Francis link
The report headlined ‘Sri Lankan Critics Fear a Crackdown Is Underway, and Some Flee’ with strapline ‘A Swiss Embassy employee was abducted and asked about asylum applications and investigators were banned from leaving just days after Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected’ by Maria Abi-Habib and Sameer Yasir dealt with how government agents sought information from Francis on Nov. 25, 2019, regarding Nishantha Silva, who left the country for Switzerland on the previous day. NYT quoted a spokesman for the Swiss Foreign Ministry, Pierre-Alain Eltschinger, as having said: “We can confirm that a local employee of the Embassy was detained against her will on the street and threatened at length by unidentified men in order to force her to disclose Embassy-related information.”
“Switzerland regards this incident as a very serious and unacceptable attack,” he said, adding that the Swiss government was “demanding an immediate and complete investigation into the circumstances surrounding the incident.”
The NYT asserted those who had carried out the abduction tried to find information regarding Inspector Silva investigating Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The detective fled to Switzerland, with his family, on Sunday, Nov. 24.
Hanspeter Mock wouldn’t have undertaken such a high profile operation without consulting political authorities in Bern. The accusations, as regards Francis‘ abduction were meant to justify Nishantha Silva fleeing the country. NYT claimed Nishantha Silva fled because Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidential election. The Swiss operation went awry primarily because the President thwarted a bold bid to hastily evacuate Francis in a special flight brought exclusively for that. Had that happened, the Swiss could have denied Sri Lanka an opportunity to examine Francis, who claimed she was sexually abused. Luckily the Swiss bid failed. Subsequently, one-time Swiss Ambassador in Colombo, Jörg Frieden, was sent to inquire into the incident. Sending Frieden was nothing but a face-saving measure taken by the Swiss in the wake of the exposure of the clandestine operation.
Sustained media coverage humiliated the Swiss, though they received initial propaganda advantage thanks, to a NYT report. The Swiss debacle coincided with the exposure of a propaganda operation undertaken by the then Minister Rajitha Senaratne in the run-up to the Nov 2019 presidential election. Dr. Senaratne’s project was meant to propagate the lie that Gotabaya Rajapaksa operated death squads. Obviously, Dr. Senaratne’s project and the Swiss operation contributed to Western efforts to demean Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Swiss eat humble pie
The Swiss made a desperate effort to pressure Sri Lanka to admit wrongdoing on her part. The Swiss backed by their Western allies, like a pack of hounds, sought to bring the case to an end by evacuating the woman, along with her family, in a special air ambulance, kept waiting at the BIA. In sheer desperation, Hanspeter Mock met President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Dec 16, 2019 to bring negotiations, regarding the alleged abduction to a conclusion, in a manner favourable to them.
Alleging that the whole thing was nothing but total fabrication, the President told Mock that there was irrefutable evidence such as Uber reports, telephone conversations and CCTV footage that point to that fact. “The Embassy official must have been compelled by some interested parties to bring myself and my government into disrepute. It is not clear why the alleged victims acted in such a manner”, the President told the Swiss Ambassador.
By then, they had been fully exposed with Francis surrendering to the CID, on Dec 16, 2019. In spite of that, the Swiss accused Sri Lanka of violating the rule of law, in respect of Francis.
Investigations revealed Francis blatantly lied. Did the Embassy employee take such a course of action in consultation with some other interested parties? Did she receive the backing of the Embassy? And, most importantly, why did the Swiss consider Nishantha Silva’s life at risk and, therefore, felt the need to provide him political asylum, while cooking up this extravagant drama?
While the Swiss had been fighting a desperate battle to save face, the mother of Francis, and her three children, left for Singapore. This was revealed before Colombo Chief Magistrate Lanka Jayaratne on Dec 30, 2019, during the proceedings that led to Francis receiving bail. The UNP, too, had a hand in Garnier’s defence with Ranil Wickremesinghe and Dr Rajitha making statements, whereas an aide to Wickremesinghe, and a friend of the writer, Attorney-at-law Sudarshana Gunawardena, too, played a role. Gunawardena’s right, however, to assist the defence, as an attorney, cannot be disputed in any way.
When Senior State Counsel Janaka Bandara alleged that Francis could receive political asylum in Switzerland as her mother and her three children had already left for Switzerland, Defence Attorney Upul Kumarapperuma said they were in Singapore.
In a piece titled ‘The alleged abduction of Garnier Banister Francis’ posted on Dec 13, 2019, a writer declared the victim had been hunted. Examination of hand phone data revealed the Swiss Embassy employee was in touch with the then Director CID, Shani Abeysekera, Inspector Nishantha Silva, Observer Editor Darisha Bastian et al. Bastian had been a regular contributor to NYT. The sim card used by Francis had been issued to journalist Lakna Paranamana, the recipient of the Denzil Pieris Young Reporter of the Year award at the 2011 Editors’ Guild awards and a junior to Bastian at the now defunct The Nation newspaper. Investigations revealed that Inspector Nishantha Silva had been in touch with SSP Abeysekera, before the former left for Singapore.
Dharisha Bastian, too, left the country, in November 2019, amidst the investigation. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in a statement datelined New York condemned the Lankan police probe, especially the seizure of Bastian’s laptop. The statement quoted Aliya Iftikhar, CPJ’s senior Asia researcher as having said: “CPJ strongly objects to the seizure of journalist Dharisha Bastian’s laptop and is concerned it could further endanger her sources. Sri Lankan authorities should immediately end this intimidation campaign against Bastian, which is clearly a retaliation for her critical reporting.”
The Swiss project ended up in disaster for those who planned the Blitzkrieg against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
A Swiss statement dated Nov 29, 2019
At the onset of the operation, the Swiss remained confident of bringing it to a successful conclusion. In spite of a section of the local media taking a hostile view, Mock, as part of his overall strategy, issued the following statement: “On 25 November 2019, a serious security incident, involving a local employee of the Embassy of Switzerland, in Colombo, occurred. The employee was detained against her will in the street, forced to get into a car, seriously threatened at length by unidentified men and forced in order to disclose Embassy-related information.
Several false pieces of information are circulating in the reporting of this incident. The Swiss Embassy in Colombo is issuing the following clarifications:
- The Swiss Embassy immediately lodged a formal complaint and is fully cooperating with the Sri Lanka authorities in order to support police investigation and initiate an inquiry over the case, while duly considering the health condition of the victim and their relatives.
- Due to a deteriorating health condition, the victim is currently not in a state to testify.
- It has been alleged that the Swiss government rejected a request for the extradition of an employee of the Sri Lankan Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and his family. No such request has been submitted.
The Swiss denied receiving a formal request from Sri Lanka for the extradition of Nishantha Silva. There is absolutely no dispute over that. The Swiss statement, issued in less than a week after Nishantha Silva reached Switzerland, stated the obvious. But, strangely, Sri Lanka hadn’t made a formal request for the fugitive policeman’s extradition, 11 months after he left the country. The PCoI taking up the disappearance should prompt police headquarters to take tangible measures in this regard. Wouldn’t it be the responsibility of Foreign and Defence Ministries to take up this matter at the highest level? Ideally, the issue should have been taken up at cabinet level, as well, as the National Security Council (NSC). Foreign and Defence Ministries owed an explanation as regards the failure on their part to address Nishantha Silva’s issue till PCoI raised it recently.
Having played politics with Sri Lanka, Switzerland demanded Sri Lankan judicial authorities ensured that the personal rights of Embassy employees were better protected and that national law and international standards complied with in the further proceedings.
The government never made an attempt to establish why the Swiss accommodated Nishantha Silva on its political asylum programme. The government lacked the will to inquire into the circumstances leading to Nishantha Silva ending up in Switzerland. Francis, too, would have ended up there if not for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s intervention. Now that the PCoI issued directions to secure Nishantha Silva’s repatriation, it would be interesting to see how those responsible proceed with the task.
The government unnecessarily getting embroiled in ‘20 A’ fiasco may neglect the missing CID officer’s case or Francis inquiry. The cases should be considered together and also examined against the backdrop of overall accountability accusations arising out of the 2015 Geneva Resolution. British Human Rights Ambassador French’s statement as well as other statements delivered/reports submitted at the on-going Geneva session underscored Sri Lanka’s responsibility to defend her armed forces.
Western powers continue to repeat the same accusations regardless of constant denials by Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s Acting Permanent Representative in Geneva Dayani Mendis during ongoing sessions pointed out the UN strategy.
Over a decade after the conclusion of the war successfully against the LTTE, despite numerous odds, Sri Lanka is still struggling to answer war crimes allegations. Sri Lanka’s failure to properly exploit Lord Naseby’s Oct 2017 bombshell disclosure is a mystery. Can it be deliberate? Or sheer negligence on the part of successful political leaderships? How can one justify such ignorance from those elected representatives? Handling of unsubstantiated war crimes allegations as well as the contentious Swiss matter is certainly not satisfactory. In spite of Sri Lanka withdrawing from the Geneva Resolution, the process continues as underscored by UN/Core Group statements made during the ongoing sessions and Sri Lanka’s response. Sri Lanka cannot ignore the threat posed by the Geneva process et al. Handling of the Swiss Embassy matter would indicate the incumbent government’s readiness to address overall threat on the human rights front.
By Shamindra Ferdinando