Sri Lanka pledges to recover stolen Rajapakse billions

January 22, 2015

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Former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Photo by: AP/Sanka Gayashan
Former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Photo by: AP/Sanka Gayashan

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka's new government pledged Thursday to trace billions of dollars in stolen wealth stashed abroad by members of the previous regime and said experts from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank had agreed to help.

Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa and his powerful family are accused of siphoning large sums of money from the public coffers during his decade in power, which ended when he was voted out this month.

The new cabinet agreed at its first meeting Wednesday to track down the cash, and said forensic experts from India's central bank, the World Bank and IMF would assist.

“We will go after the foreign assets of Sri Lankans,” health minister and cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne told reporters in Colombo.“Billions of dollars have been stolen and taken out of the country. We are taking steps to bring them back.”

Sri Lanka's anti-graft body has already slapped overseas travel bans on the former central bank governor Nivard Cabraal and Sajin Vass Gunawardena, a key Rajapaksa aide, pending a corruption investigation.

Energy Minister Champika Ranawaka said a preliminary study by a local university showed the cost of new road construction in Sri Lanka in 2013 had been inflated by 200 billion rupees ($1.53bn).

Ranawaka accused Rajapaksa and his immediate family, who controlled nearly 70 per cent of the national budget, of siphoning off Rs700bn ($5.38bn) from the national economy.

The new government of President Maithripala Sirisena took power on a pledge to investigate allegations of corruption under Rajapaksa.

Rajapaksa was the minister of finance, highways and ports, while all his immediate family members also held powerful positions in the administration.

The government also announced a 20 per cent reduction in fuel prices and accused the former regime of imposing unfair taxes at a time when world oil prices had tumbled.

“The former regime used taxes from fuel and basic food items to finance their luxury lifestyles of racing cars and extravagance,” Ranawaka said.

The two ministers said the cabinet also appointed a high-powered “rapid response team” to look into corrupt land transactions, stock market price-fixing and the abuse of state funds for political purposes.

The government will also review mega projects awarded to Chinese companies, including the construction of a $1.4bn port city just next to the Colombo Harbour.

Agreements with foreign lenders will also be reviewed amid allegations of huge corruption, the government said.