Mr. Rajapaksa queries, “How could anyone say that he went missing on Saturday? He has been missing since 1990! So this is indeed a very mysterious case – a missing person claimed missing.”
“It is wrong to term this man’s disappearance as ‘abduction’ or ‘enforced disappearance’ for the simple reason that he has been in hiding for a very long time. It was a voluntary disappearance. His very party – the so-called JVP dissident group – kept announcing that he was to make an appearance soon; that he was to come out on Monday. If he was not in hiding, why should they announce that he is going to come out?” the Defence Secretary queries.
Mr. Gunaratnam’s illegal presence in Sri Lanka
With the emergence of a new JVP dissident group, Mr. Gunaratnam re-entered Sri Lanka supposedly to give leadership to a new political party.
If the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) was to be a party in the conventional sense that engages in, if not in electoral politics, in popular politics, having a leader who is a wanted fugitive under a different name would have been a very doubtful and risky strategy.
For not only was he an escapee from a detention centre, Mr. Gunaratnam’s very presence was illegal having overstayed his tourist visa. This is quite apart from the issue of whether an Australian national is entitled to engage in local politics.
Nevertheless, the fact that this group and its followers opted for someone like him to be their leader and work with him casts serious doubts about the nature of this group and what they were trying to achieve in Sri Lanka. In that sense, the claims that this was not merely a political party but more a group willing to engage in subversive activities, gain credibility.
When rumours surfaced in September 2011 about Mr. Gunaratnam’s arrival in Sri Lanka, the Defence Secretary requested the Australian High Commission to provide details which could help law enforcement authorities to establish the identity and whereabouts of this person.
“I asked the High Commissioner to help us find the whereabouts of this person and even gave his wife’s telephone number in Australia,” recalls Mr. Rajapaksa.
This request was ignored, and on April 7, the Australian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka Robyn Mudie informed Mr. Rajapaksa that an Australian citizen known as Premakumar Gunaratnam was reported to be missing from a house in Gemunu Mawatha, Kiribathgoda.
Mr. Rajapaksa informed the High Commissioner that the Sri Lankan immigration records did not indicate the entry of a person by such a name.
“I told her, I asked you for details about this person in September 2011 but I was not furnished any information. At least now give me this person’s name and passport number. So she gave the name as Noel Mudalige, who had left Australia on September 3 and arrived in Sri Lanka on September 4. Only then did we come to know of this person as Noel Mudalige,” Mr. Rajapaksa explains.
Any logical assessment of the sequence of events would suggest that if this information was known earlier then Mr. Gunaratnam may have been traced and the open warrant issued against him could have been executed. However by deliberately failing to co-operate with the Sri Lankan authorities, the High Commission gave cover to a known fugitive, which is even more alarming, given that he was allegedly engaged in political activities. One must also question why the Australian High Commission gave PG/NM this special treatment and cover?
“There is a clear connection between this person and the LTTE, with whom he worked very closely in Australia. The timing of the purported abduction, just two days prior to the launch of the party, ensured that he got huge publicity and focused the attention of the international community against the government,” Mr. Rajapakse avers.
“If you read their party manifesto which came out recently, you will see that they don’t believe in democratic politics. How can the Australian government support a party that does not believe in democracy? The Australian government is directly or indirectly, willingly or unwillingly, supporting a party that does not believe in democracy. Australia has clearly acted wrongly in this case; it is a huge mistake on their part. They talk about transparency and good governance but where is the transparency and good governance in this case?”
“A relationship is always a two-way street, not one-way. We are helping them keep away illegal migrants and are working very closely with them. But on the other hand, they are hiding details from us. The Australian government has openly said that Sri Lanka is the only country that has effectively countered illegal migration into their shores,” Mr. Rajapaksa points out.
Contradictory statements and puzzling conduct of Australian HC
According to the statement Mr. Gunaratnam made to the CCD in the presence of HC Mudie, no complaint of harassment let alone sexual torture was made. He stated that his abductors treated him well and questioned him about his future plans for the party. However, once in Australia, another version is narrated to the Australian media.
The presence of the Australian HC at the CCD should, surely, have given adequate confidence to one who hoped to lead a political party in Sri Lanka to make a frank statement about what had happened. Thus far, HC Mudie has not offered any statement to contradict what Mr. Gunaratnam said in her presence.
What is most puzzling in this drama is the manner in which Mr. Gunaratnam’s passport came into the possession of HC Mudie. Mr. Gunaratnam didn’t have his passport with him when he reported to CCD. He declared that it had been handed over to the party headquarters. Then the High Commission was requested to give an emergency passport. After the initial call, HC Mudie said that there was no need for an emergency passport as the original passport was in her possession.
Exclaims Rajapaksa, “Just imagine, how original passport came into the possession of the High Commissioner! There are two possibilities. As soon as he came to Sri Lanka, he could have handed over the passport to the High Commissioner, or once she was told that this person doesn’t have a passport, the party headquarters was contacted and they gave the passport to her.”
“That means he went with the consent of his party to Australia; in other words willingly. This is a plot hatched by people with vested interests who want to discredit Sri Lanka at this juncture in the international fora,” the Defence Secretary is unhesitant to say.
Not a case of deportation
The Defence Secretary insists that Mr. Gunaratnam’s return to Australia is not a case of deportation as is being reported. “His visa was only valid for one month. Not only did he overstay his visa for almost six months, he committed an even graver offence of engaging in subversive political activities, which he is not entitled to in any way as an Australian citizen.”
An order for deportation has to come from the Commissioner of Immigration. In his case, Mr. Gunaratnam has a ticket, a valid passport, he wanted to go to Australia and the High Commissioner requested the same. However, there was a penalty of Rs. 80,000 applicable for overstaying his tourist visa which Mr. Gunaratnam could not pay.
“Such persons can only re-enter Sri Lanka if they pay the relevant penalty. Had he been kept at the immigration detention centre until he was able to pay, then another complaint of a human rights violation would have come our way,” Mr. Rajapaksa asserts.
“This is a person who had violated visa regulations. Not only this, he is an Australian citizen. Once you take citizenship with one country, automatically Sri Lankan citizenship gets cancelled – that is our regulation. Here they talk about allowing him to engage in politics. As far as Sri Lanka is concerned, he is an Australian who was on a tourist visa for 30 days. This is a grave offence,” the Defence Secretary contends.
False charges: ‘Enforced’ or ‘voluntary’ disappearances?
According to police sources 88 abductions/disappearances were reported since 2011 out of which 55 cases were solved with the re-appearance of the missing person. The remaining 33 cases are not all complaints against the security forces, and include even elopement, disappearance of mentally unsound persons, and ransom cases.
“I don’t know of any human rights or social activist who has been abducted. Businessmen have been abducted but we have solved most of those cases. Businessmen are abducted not only here in Sri Lanka but all over the world for ransom.”
“When the war ended, we had around 4,600 detainees. As of today, we have 239 in detention – the rest have all been released. We have only one detention camp in Boosa. We have given access to family members, lawyers, foreign counsellors (if the detained person is a foreigner), the ICRC, spiritual persons, and human rights activists.”
“That we have denied access is an absolutely false charge.”
“Ambassador Stephen Rapp of the US, the Australian Deputy High Commissioner, the UK deputy High Commissioner, parliamentarians from Canada, UK, Norway, the LLRC, and officers of the Attorney-General’s Department have all been given access. A permanent Magistrate works in Galle district, inspecting and supervising their welfare. The Karapitiya Hospital provides all medical facilities and there is a small medical faculty inside.
“Completely wrong information is being pumped out,” states Mr. Rajapaksa.
According to the Defence Secretary what most people fail to realise or refuse to accept is that almost all those reported as missing are criminals such as Thelbala, Veleysuda, and Ice Manju (responsible for Major Muthaliph’s killing), who have links to the underworld.
“Sometimes they may be in Sri Lanka, but are declared as missing for their own benefit. These are criminals, and they use human rights organisations and the media to their advantage. Identifying the background of the missing person is important.”
“I am not defending the security forces killing or abducting even criminals or terrorists, it is not acceptable. But it is wrong to keep blaming the security forces without any evidence when there may be many other plausible reasons for their disappearance such as rivalry between underworld groups.”
“Who are the innocent people who have gone missing? In post-war Sri Lanka, has anyone been abducted from the main political parties such as the UNP, JVP, TNA or SLMC? So far, only the cases of Mr. Gunaratnam and Dimuthu Attygalle have surfaced and there are serious doubts over that drama,” Mr. Rajapaksa asserts.
Unanswered Questions How did the Australian High Commission come into possession of Gunaratnam’s passport when he claimed it was at his party headquarters? Why didn’t Australia cooperate with Sri Lanka on this matter? Why was his case so important that the High Commissioner personally got involved?
How would Australia have reacted if Sri Lanka had facilitated the entry of a wanted Australian fugitive to Australia on a Sri Lankan passport and thereafter not cooperated with the Australian authorities in tracing this fugitive – particularly if there were allegations that he was in the country with the objective of giving leadership to an underground and possibly even violent group?
Australia, over the past few years, has engaged with Sri Lanka with the objective of keeping unwanted people from Australia. In fact Australia itself has stated that Sri Lanka is the only country that effectively cooperates in regulating migration of people into Australia. One would have expected Australia to extend the same level of cooperation towards Sri Lanka. In that context, the conduct of the Australian High Commission in withholding information when requested for by the Defence Secretary in September 2011 in tracing Mr. Gunaratnam is disappointing to say the least.
The involvement of a foreign mission to pressure a sovereign state to bail out one of its citizens who should have been prosecuted under its judicial system is certainly questionable. All this begs an answer to the question, was it a plot against the Sri Lankan government? An explanation from the Australian High Commission in Colombo would be most welcome.