Tilak Marapana, who resigned as Minister of Law, Order and Prison Reforms over a conflict of interest issue pertaining to the controversial business entity Avant Garde told his side of the story to Piyasena Dissanayake. The following are excerpts of the interview.
Q: There’s considerable concern in the country about the operations of Avant Garde….
A: First of all it must be mentioned that this is a company that is involvedin local and international operations legally.
Q: What is the status of your relationship with Avant Garde?
A: There is no relationship at present. I first met Nissanka Senadhipathi, Chairman of Avant Garde, way back in 1993. He was at the time a member of the security staff of President D B Wijetunga. I didn’t meet him or speak with him after that until very recently. In fact I was not even aware of his association with Avant Garde. It was only in the last week of January this year that I met him. He came to see me along with a lawyer. This was at a time when stories about arms deals and Avant Garde were splashed all over newspapers.
Q: What made him come to see you?
A: Around that time there were all kinds of stories in the media to the effect that Avant Garde ships were being raided in search of illegal weapons which were being illegally used. He told me that the Government was taking steps to freeze his bank accounts and that if this was done it would cause a lot of problem to thousands who were employed by him. He also said that would create problems for the country. He sought legal advice from me that could out a stop to all this.
He also said that he had held four rounds of talks with the Nigerian Government, along with officials of the Defence and Foreign Ministries. Talks had centred around four key issues: 1.Obtaining vessels for the Sri Lanka Navy from the Nigerian Navy, 2. Servicing ships owned by the Nigerian Navy, 3. Training for Naval staff in Nigeria, and 4. Deploying military experts of Sri Lanka to train those in the Nigerian security forces. An agreement related to the first of these was to be signed the following month, i.e. February 2015. Unfortunately, even by that time the raiding of Avant Garde ships had begun and Mr Senadhipathi’s passport had been impounded by the court. He wanted me to take steps within the existing legal framework to enable the signing of the agreement. He gave me all documents relevant to the issue. Consequently I made representations to the Attorney General.
Q: So this means that Avant Garde retained your services to represent them legally?
A: Yes. I gave them legal advice. I was neither a minister nor a Member of Parliament at the time. Mr Senadhipathi was one of many who sought my professional services. Consequent to my representations, Mr Senadhipathi was able to leave for Nigeria. The second time when he wanted to go abroad there were other issues that came up. These too I sorted out. I never represented him in court. He heads many institutions and they have their own lawyers. All I did was offer him legal advice.
Q: It is alleged that you are still working as a legal advisor to Avant Garde.
A: I reject all such allegations. I am no longer retained as a legal advisor by Avant Garde.
Q: If that is the case why did you make a controversial statement regarding Avant Garde in Parliament during which you also referred to the Attorney-General? Whose interests were you serving?
A: I did not serve anyone’s interests. I only did my duty towards the people of this country.
A: The Attorney-General had stated that all arms in the possession of Avant Garde were legal and that as such it was not possible to prosecute Avant Garde for any wrongdoing. I did justice to that statement. I also have a duty as a Member of Parliament and a minister to reveal the truth. This too I did. I had studied all the relevant documents. It was armed with documented proof that I made the statement.
Q: Well, you have been forced to resign. What do you have to say now? Are you disappointed?
A: Not at all. I am absolutely happy that I was able to reveal the truth.
Q: You have claimed that the vessels contain arms that have been licensed by foreign governments. Does an ordinary citizen have the right to bring such arms to Sri Lanka?
A: The arms were not brought to Sri Lanka. This was done in accordance to something called the Bonded Warehouse System. The Ministry of Defence has given the green light for the vessel to come to Sri Lanka. All this was done in accordance to the regulations that govern ports. I have seen the relevant approvals. There are international laws pertaining to floating armouries. There are special UN regulations that cover such things. The general public is unaware of this. That’s why there’s a controversy.
Q: Several ministers claimed that there were illegal weapons in the Avant Garde vessels. Are you saying that they lied?
A: All such allegations were reduced to the state of falsehoods and rumour subsequent to the Attorney-General’s statement.
Q: If as you say there was nothing illegal, doesn’t the Government have to take the responsibility for all the harm done?
A: The Government did not take legal action following the observations of the Attorney-General. There were of course those who alleged that the Attorney-General had been bribed. Some of them are from our side, this is true. We promised the people that we would investigate large scale financial crimes. I think it is silly to put all that on hold and go after Avant Garde where allegations cannot be substantiated.
Q: Can the Government disregard the observations of the Attorney-General?
A: A wise Government would accept the Attorney-General’s opinion. An unwise Government would not.
Q: Did you resign because of these allegations?
A: I am not scared of allegations. Some people are calling for a fresh investigation. Some of them believe that as the minister under whom the Police Department comes I would sweep such an investigation under the carpet. I resigned so that there’s no room left for such suspicion. Now they should conduct a proper investigation.
Q: Your own party members called for your resignation. What do you have to say?
A: It is unfortunate and disappointing certainly. But now they can proceed with investigations without harbouring any doubts.
Q: What would you do if Avant Garde solicits your services at a future date?
A: I would refuse since someone could say that as the former minister I could compromise such an investigation.
Q: You were once retained by Avant Garde. If it was alleged that as a minister you were looking after the interests of the company, it would be hard to counter, wouldn’t it?
A: I was retained by Avant Garde a long time ago. At the time I was appointed minister, I was no longer representing Avant Garde. I have never used ministerial powers to make unnecessary interventions. I only took policy decisions but never got involved in cases.
Q: What are your plans for the immediate future?
A: I haven’t decided yet.
(Source: Sunday Island)