Corruption charges dropped as Gotabaya Rajapaksa has immunity as new Sri Lanka President

A handout photo made available by the President Media unit shows Sri Lanka's new President Gotabaya Rajapaksa assuming his duties at the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Nov 19, 2019.
A handout photo made available by the President Media unit shows Sri Lanka's new President Gotabaya Rajapaksa assuming his duties at the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Nov 19, 2019. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

COLOMBO (AFP) - Corruption charges against Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa were dropped on Thursday (Nov 21) by a court, which handed his passport back as he acquired immunity from prosecution after being elected last weekend.

Under Sri Lanka's Constitution, no court proceedings can be maintained against a serving president. However, action could be taken after he leaves office.

The High Court had indicted Mr Rajapaksa in September last year on charges of siphoning 33 million rupees (S$251,100) in state funds to build a memorial for his parents.

The court also released his passport, which had been impounded, allowing him to make his first overseas trip as President to India next week at the invitation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Mr Rajapaksa, 70, was being tried before a special court established by the former government to expedite high-profile corruption cases. He had pleaded not guilty.

Six others were also charged along with Mr Rajapaksa and their fate will be decided when the case is taken up for a hearing on Jan 9, the court said.

Official sources said Mr Rajapaksa was also entitled to claim foreign sovereign immunity in respect to two civil cases filed against him in California for allegedly causing the death of a senior newspaper editor and for torture.

He has denied responsibility for the killing of anti-establishment editor Lasantha Wickrematunge in 2009 and torturing suspects when he headed the Defence Ministry under brother Mahinda's presidency between 2005 and 2015.

Mr Wickrematunge was murdered days before he was due to testify in a defamation case brought by Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa after his paper accused him of corruption in a deal to buy MiG jets from Ukraine.

 

Mr Rajapaksa was elected President on Saturday and was due later on Thursday to swear in his brother Mahinda as prime minister.