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White vans, white lies and the white man’s burden Swiss embassy fiasco:

switz(Courtesy of The Island)

In what must surely be one of the strangest games of diplomatic brinkmanship to be played out in this country, the Swiss embassy in Colombo demands an investigation into an alleged ‘abduction’ of one of its local employees. However, it appears there is not a shred of evidence to support its case – not even a statement from the so called ‘victim.’ The new government of Sri Lanka – barely 10 days into office – having immediately ordered a probe into the incident, is in a quandary. Authorities find themselves at every turn obstructed by the very party that requested the probe.

The Embassy refuses to divulge the identity of the ‘victim.’ It pre-empts the police from getting a statement from her saying that “Due to a deteriorating health condition” she is “currently not in a state to testify.”

Nor will it allow a judicial medical officer to examine her and give a report on this ‘deteriorating health condition.’ An official statement on the Embassy website however claims that the mission is “fully cooperating with the Sri Lanka authorities.”

That statement, dated 29 Nov, says the mission had “immediately” lodged a formal complaint with the Lankan authorities. But the Sri Lanka Ministry of Foreign Affairs in its press release of 28 Nov. said, it was informed of the alleged abduction on the 27th. It is arguable whether two days late can be considered ‘immediate.’ In the interim, several news reports damaging to the image of the country and its new government appeared in the media, citing Swiss officials plus a lot of hearsay.

The embassy statement says: “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 their 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.”

CID investigation

The CID investigation showed that there was little truth in the Swiss allegation. Briefing the media on 04 Dec. Minister of Foreign Affairs Dinesh Gunewardena said, “All the evidence shows the victim’s position has no standing.” Asked what information the Ambassador had supplied, he said “A small note saying he has received this complaint from the victim. … There was no statement, no complaint.” Foreign Secretary Ravinath Ariyasinghe added, “He stated only that there was an abduction. Subsequently he presented a sequence of events.” Ariyasinghe said the ministry had informed the ambassador that his statement did not correspond with findings based on witness interviews and technical information including Uber records, CCTV footage, telephone records and GPS data.

The embassy has been pressing the government to allow the woman concerned to be flown out of the country in a special ‘ambulance plane’ in order to receive medical treatment. However, the court has issued an order preventing her from leaving the country till 09 Dec. and requiring a statement from her before that date.

If the Swiss genuinely want to cooperate with the investigation but are concerned about protecting their employee’s rights, why don’t they arrange for her to make a statement in the presence of her lawyer, at the embassy, where she would presumably feel safe – instead of trying to whisk her away and thereby preventing the law from taking its course?

The alleged victim’s absence at her residence as reported by the police, along with the embassy’s attitude, has opened up speculation that she is being accommodated in the Swiss mission. On 04 Dec the Embassy issued a notice to its nationals saying, “The Embassy of Switzerland in Colombo herewith informs that due to the current situation in Sri Lanka, and until further notice, the operation of the Embassy has been reduced.” What is this ‘situation’ in Sri Lanka that the embassy refers to? Apart from adverse weather conditions in some parts of the country, there is no emergency ‘situation’ – unless it has become a ‘situation’ for the mission to keep a Sri Lankan citizen (who does not have diplomatic immunity) within its premises indefinitely?

What will be the impression if the request to fly her out is granted without allowing access to law enforcement authorities? It’s not difficult to imagine the kind of sensational headlines that would appear in the international press about an ambulance plane evacuating the victim. Such reports could potentially suggest that the government was in some way associated with the alleged abduction (reported in Swiss media as if it were a fact). The very day after the incident was alleged to have taken place, the Embassy’s version was reported in Western media, embedded in a now-familiar anti-Rajapaksa Western narrative predicting doom and gloom.

White vans and death threats

It is intriguing how new information, the origins of which are not clear, have also got into circulation through media reports. Opposition politicians in Sri Lanka referred to the incident as a ’White Van’ abduction. The ‘White Van’ has by now become a brand name, the mere mention of which conjures up a picture of lawlessness and rampant crime. Another assertion, nowhere made by Swiss authorities upto now, is that the abducted woman was forced to reveal cell phone data on Sri Lankans who had sought asylum in Switzerland – including CID inspector Nishantha Silva who had been investigating cases brought by the previous government against the Rajapaksas. Silva is said to have fled the country on 24 Nov following death threats, to seek asylum in Switzerland – ‘according to reports’ and unnamed ‘sources.’

An attempt to trace the provenance of these stories shows that the ‘White Van’ element was introduced on 26 Nov. by a pro-UNP website, which added that the abductee had been questioned on Nishantha Silva. Also on 26 Nov., the German-language Swiss newspaper Neue Zurcher Zeitung (NZZ) citing ‘Sri Lankan media reports’ said Silva had received death threats after the change of government. But the local reports too cited unnamed ‘sources.’

So who was the original source of this information? What are the ‘reports’ that could have appeared just a day after the incident allegedly occurred, even before the foreign ministry had been informed? NZZ is “the most important and prestigious Swiss daily newspaper published in the German language” said a well informed source, adding that it was “highly influential also in Germany and Austria, indicating big time manipulation.” Information from NZZ and LNW was also picked up and circulated by swissinfo.ch website.

It would appear that CID inspector Nishantha Silva who, police confirmed, left the country, is in fact the main player in this drama, to which the abduction story is but a sequel. Local media reports (citing unnamed sources) say Silva and his family left the country three days after his boss, CID Director Shani Abeysekera, was transferred to a lesser post – suggesting that he lost protection as a result. However, it is unlikely that flights and visas to Switzerland could have been arranged in three days, and would more likely have been organized well ahead. MP and former minister Wijedasa Rajapakshe has pointed out that “high ranking military officers had been denied visas whereas relatively junior policeman and his family had received visas in record time.” He further alleged, in remarks to The Island 27.11.19 that Silva ‘worked closely with the foreign missions.

The Swiss Embassy has not denied that Silva has sought asylum. In its statement of 29 Nov. it only rebuts the allegation that the Swiss government “rejected a request for the extradition of an employee of the Sri Lankan Criminal Investigation Departmet (CID) and his family,” saying “No such request has been submitted.”

For those who scripted this drama, a CID inspector’s unauthorised departure from Sri Lanka may not have constituted a story big enough to make international headlines. But the story of abduction of a Western embassy employee the following day, being forced to divulge details of his asylum application, has the potential to become a diplomatic scandal with serious repercussions. Readers need to ask themselves how likely it is that a local embassy employee would be entrusted with sensitive information of this nature in the first place, and still less, that she would be carrying it around on her cell phone.

Upcoming UNHRC session

With the UNHRC sessions in Geneva due in March, the possibility that there is mischief afoot cannot be discounted. This episode comes against the backdrop of President Gotabaya having publicly rejected Resolution 30/1. It is likely that the new government will present Sri Lanka’s case against the war crimes allegations targeting its security forces and wartime political leaders, using the considerable body of evidence contradicting these charges, that was ignored by the former regime. The ‘war criminal’ label may then get unstuck, and this will not be to the liking of Western powers that introduced the resolution. It is relevant to note here that the Swiss Federal Court very recently acquitted 12 suspects from charges of fundraising for the LTTE, and went on to declare that the LTTE is ‘not a criminal organization.’

The election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President of Sri Lanka has caused ripples in the Western world, which appears to be in overdrive in its attempt to manage the new situation. Is there a tacit threat in recent moves, to warn the fledgling government that if it fails to fall in line with Western strategic objectives, it may have to face pressures from a newly unleashed pro-LTTE diaspora?

If a state of chaos is required by those who seek to impose hegemony, then the promise of stability held out by the new government will not be to their liking. The president leading by his own example has set about changing the political culture, shedding the vulgar trappings of power, trimming waste and mapping out plans for accelerated development. He has reached out to the minorities in the North and East (who ‘did not vote for him’) with the promise of a better life. Once these communities begin to enjoy the fruits of development they may begin to cooperate with the government’s efforts– if they are seen to be genuine. This, in turn, would narrow the space for imperialist forces to use the age old ploy of ‘divide and rule’ in Sri Lanka, to secure control in this strategically important region. No wonder the West is worried.

 By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya



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