Sri Lanka arrests eldest son of former president Rajapaksa

Namal Rajapaksa (center), son of former Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa, leaves with prison officers at the court after being arrested in Colombo, Sri Lanka, July 11.
Namal Rajapaksa (center), son of former Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa, leaves with prison officers at the court after being arrested in Colombo, Sri Lanka, July 11.PHOTO: REUTERS

COLOMBO - The oldest son of Sri Lanka's former president, Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa, was arrested on Monday (July 11) on charges of money laundering in the government's latest effort to prosecute members of the previous administration - many of whom have been under investigation since Mr Rajapaksa's election defeat last year.

The son, Namal Rajapaksa, 30, who is a member of Parliament representing his father's home district of Hambantota, was placed in police custody by a magistrate in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, on charges of accepting US$480,000 (S$650,000) from a real estate company.

During the last 18 months, several high-ranking members of the Rajapaksa family have been arrested on corruption charges. Namal Rajapaksa is the third member of the former president's immediate family to be arrested. He was widely believed to be his father's heir apparent.

The new government, led by President Maithripala Sirisena, came to power in January 2015, promising to investigate corruption allegations against the Rajapaksa administration.

But critics say the authorities have been slow to act, with a spate of interrogations, arrests and bail applications leading to very few actual indictments and prosecutions.

The case against Namal Rajapaksa centres on an agreement signed with a real estate company while his father was still in power. The company leased state-owned land in the heart of Colombo for a mixed-use development plan valued at US$650 million that included residential skyscrapers, a luxury hotel and shopping.

The project grew contentious after opposition party members accused figures of the Rajapaksa administration of accepting secret payments to secure the land deal.

The current deputy foreign minister, Mr Harsha de Silva, then an opposition lawmaker, said in 2013 that the names of several high-ranking members of the Rajapaksa administration had been linked to the transactions.

The police asked the magistrate in Colombo to place Namal Rajapaksa in custody for a week to allow the Financial Crimes Investigations Department to continue its investigation unimpeded.

As the police led him to court Monday, Namal Rajapaksa made his disagreement with the proceedings known, saying sarcastically, "This is what they call good governance?"

Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former president, was allowed to visit his son at the Welikada Prison in Colombo on Monday evening.

"All I have to say is, 'Well, is the government happy now?'" the former president asked, grinning broadly at television cameras as he left the prison complex. "This is nothing more than a witch hunt, and it's becoming quite routine," he said.

In January, the authorities arrested the former president's second son, Yoshitha, also on money laundering charges. He has been released on bail and is awaiting trial.

Last year, the former president's brother Basil, who had served as economic development minister, was arrested on charges of financial misappropriation. He has been released on bail on that charge and several others.

The former president's wife, Shiranthi Rajapaksa, and his younger brother, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who served as defence secretary, are also being investigated by the authorities on multiple allegations, including financial misappropriation.