Alles, Mahinda Rajapakse
and Sarath N. Silva
By Frederica Jansz
really happened to Standard Newspapers and Tiran Alles?
The question isn't rhetorical. The tumultuous events
leading to the closure of the Mawbima and The Sunday
Standard newspapers and the arrest and subsequent
release of Tiran Alles, owner of Standard Newspapers
(Pvt.) Ltd. may have been shoved under the carpet and
all but forgotten, but the question still reverberates
in many quarters.
really compelled a regime that once courted Alles as a 'favoured
son' to turn against him and label him a 'traitor'?
What drove a President, on whose behest the Standard
Newspapers had its initial launch, to unleash a bitter
vendetta that culminated in the closure of the Mawbima
and The Sunday Standard? What really happened to
Standard Newspapers and Tiran Alles?
they say is often stranger than fiction. And in this
instance, truth lies in the behind-the-scene political
shenanigans that could be termed the 'greatest betrayal'
in any presidential campaign. Truth also lies in that
undeniable aphorism that there are no permanent friends
or enemies in politics. And more significantly truth
also lies in the fact that secrets no matter how deeply
they are buried have a way of being unravelled in the
most inappropriate of moments.
last truth is perhaps the most telling. For, what the
whole regretful saga of the arrest of Tiran Alles and
the closure of Standard Newspapers boils down to is the
fear of secrets being unravelled and a government's
pre-emptive move to prevent the boomerang effects of its
own criminal act, when close allies became bitter
Tiran Alles became a liability for the government and
his papers a casualty. Alles knew the big secret, was
even a party to it in a peripheral sense. And
significantly, he was also a close friend of a by now
bitter enemy of the government, who was liable to tell
all to the wider world.
the persecution of the man and his newspapers began. But
it does not explain how he got caught in the middle of
the mess, unless one regresses and begins at the
Alles, the eldest son of well-known educationist and
founder principal of D.S. Senanayake College, R.I.T.
Alles, is a businessman who stumbled into politics more
through a character trait than by design. He launched
Communication and Business Equipment (Pvt.) Ltd. (CBE)
in 1988 with just 10 employees. Later it became a group
of companies and today it has diversified into a
profitable venture providing communication equipment for
many multinational companies and employs several hundred
Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) signed in 2002 between the
Ranil Wickremesinghe government and the Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) saw the north and east
opening up for business. And being the far thinking
entrepreneur that he is, Alles joined Dialog Telekom
Plc. (mobile phone operator), and expanded his business
offering mobile phone services to the north and the
recalls the venture as being fraught with difficulties
as more often than not; he had to deal with the LTTE, to
obtain approval to venture into their territories. A
professional relationship was established, a fact that
may come to haunt him on a later date.
government changed in 2004. And with it Alles' fortunes,
that finally led to his predicament. Alles has been an
erstwhile companion of Mangala Samaraweera since a
little before the last general election and when the
United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government came
to power, Samaraweera who was appointed Minister of
Ports and Aviation, invited Alles to the board of
Airport and Aviation. In May 2004 he was appointed
Deputy Chairman of Airport and Aviation and subsequently
in August 2005, was appointed Chairman.
during Alles' tenure as Chairman that the massive
renovation project was undertaken at Bandaranaike
International Airport (BIA), which resulted in new
aero-bridges and departure and arrival terminals being
constructed. The restructure of the airport was widely
praised because it meant that BIA was now an airport of
international standard, which would hopefully encourage
more tourists and high profile visitors and airlines to
2005 the presidential election was scheduled and Mahinda
Rajapakse, who was the Prime Minister in the UPFA
government, was nominated as the Sri Lanka Freedom Party
(SLFP) candidate for president.
months prior to the November election, Rajapakse, who
knew about Alles' business dealings in the north and
east, approached him, seeking to get in touch with the
LTTE. It was not a request Alles could deny. Not when
the request essentially became an order from the Prime
Minister of the country to the Chairman of a government
corporation. Saying 'No' was not an option Alles could
entertain. So, in a move that was to haunt him later,
Alles complied and facilitated a meeting between Basil
Rajapakse and Emil Kanthan, who was living in Colombo at
that time and had connections to the LTTE.
got to know Emil Kanthan when the latter was the Public
Relations Officer at the Ministry of Reconstruction and
Rehabilitation, under Minister Jayalath Jayawardana. In
fact, it was Dr. Jayawardana who introduced Emil Kanthan
to Alles, when he was expanding his business to the
north and east. Subsequently the two developed a
friendship and when Mahinda Rajapakse sought to get in
touch with the LTTE, Alles facilitated an introduction
to Emil Kanthan.
in Alles' own words was the sum total of his involvement
with the 'great betrayal.'
alleged later that the Rajapakses sealed a 'pact' with
the LTTE which resulted in Mahinda Rajapakse winning the
2005 presidential election. (See box)
The favoured son
fact is, several newspapers reported that on November
18, 2005, when Tiran Alles walked into Temple Trees, the
newly elected President rose to greet him with a big hug
and the words "you made it possible."
President subsequently named Tiran Alles
chairman-designate of the newly formed Reconstruction
and Development Agency (RADA). The development agency
was established to spearhead Rajapakse's Jaya Lanka
programme to handle tsunami aid, including aid to areas
controlled by the LTTE.
new body replaced the Post-Tsunami Operational
Management Structure (P-TOMS) which outgoing President
Chandrika Kumaratunga established to share tsunami aid
with the LTTE.
Launch of Weekend Standard
weeks prior to the election, Mangala Samaraweera has
said that he and Mahinda Rajapakse urged Alles to start
an English newspaper that would serve as a vehicle to
take Mahinda Rajapakse, the presidential hopeful, to the
English-speaking Colombo masses. "We realised there was
no English newspaper that could effectively carry this
message. There was a need for such a paper if the
campaign was to be a success," Samaraweera said.
agreed and The Weekend Standard in tabloid format was
launched in August 2005 and managed to publish several
issues before the election.
However, even at the outset, there were rumblings among
Rajapakse acolytes who believed that the newspaper was
launched to build the image of Mangala Samaraweera,
using the presidential election as an excuse.
Undoubtedly, in the early part of the Rajapakse
presidency, Alles was a favourite since it was largely
believed that Samaraweera had been instrumental in the
presidential election victory. At a time when Mahinda
Rajapakse campaigned without his party's backing,
Samaraweera stood stoically by the then Prime Minister's
candidature, dragging Alles into the fray.
Samaraweera by his own admission says his reward for
this show of loyalty was the plum Foreign Ministry
portfolio in the new Rajapakse Cabinet. This was in
addition to the ports and aviation portfolio he already
persisted with the paper after the Rajapakse victory,
and subsequently decided to go mainstream with two
national newspapers. The Sunday Standard and Mawbima -
both in broadsheet format were launched in July 2006,
eight months after the election. This was the proverbial
'honeymoon' period where the Rajapakse benevolence still
found favour and Tiran Alles continued to thrive both as
Chairman, Airport and Aviation, and RADA while
continuing with his business ventures separately.
President not happy
newspaper business was a new challenge,' and Alles by
all accounts, from the outset had decided the papers
should be independent of political bias and accordingly
the editorial staff were given a free hand to run an
independent paper that would provide objective and
non-partisan coverage. In the process, issues like
corruption, mismanagement and government wrong doings
were exposed frequently, as were human rights violations
and issues highlighting the breakdown of law and order.
made President Mahinda Rajapakse unhappy, so much so
every week when the paper came out, he would contact
Alles and complain, "Your paper is criticising me."
Unheeding the complaints, the newspapers continued with
its criticism of the government, until things began to
unravel and the government began its countermoves of
unceasing harassment of both the journalists and the
management of Standard Newspapers (Pvt) Ltd. and the
parent company CBE.
began with accusations that Mawbima was sympathetic to
the LTTE cause and ergo, were LTTE sympathisers. The
bases for this were articles exposing human rights
violations in the north and east.
government used the accusation to coerce certain other
newspapers to portray Standard Newspapers as being
sympathetic to the LTTE.
harassment appeared to intensify with the arrest of
Mawbima journalist Munasamy Parameshwari on November 26,
2006. Parameshwari's crime was daring to expose the
white van abduction saga where Tamil businessmen were
being kidnapped for ransom. She was herself abducted in
a white van and was later detained by the Terrorist
Investigation Division (TID) for alleged LTTE
day after her arrest, several newspapers, without any
substantive evidence, reported that she was taken to
Mirigama (two hours drive from Colombo), where several
claymore mines and gelignite sticks were recovered.
December 2, 2006, a few days after her arrest President
Rajapakse privately requested Alles and the editorial
board of Mawbima not to launch a campaign regarding the
arrest and expressed his severe displeasure regarding
the criticism levelled against him in the political
column 'Me Against Me'.
abduction and subsequent detention, raised concern among
media rights and human rights activists here and abroad,
who called the detention a violation of human rights and
media freedom and demanded her immediate release. Her
arrest also helped focus attention on deteriorating
media freedom in the country where dissent was being
viewed as an act of treachery and increasingly the
independent media was being taken to task, at times
through violent means, for not toeing the government
line, especially with regard to the coverage of the war
and human rights situation.
Parameshwari was detained for 112 days by the TID and
was finally released without any charges brought against
her, compelling one to pose the question, how she could
be released, and that too with no charges, if, as it was
purported, she had connections with the LTTE and her
arrest led to the recovery of claymore mines and
gelignite sticks. Conversely, it also brings up the
question as to why she was detained for four long months
if there was nothing to prove her alleged LTTE
New Year brought no respite, for on January 18, 2007 the
Inland Revenue Department (IRD) raided CBE group of
companies, Standard Newspapers and Gateway College,
which is run by Tiran Alles' father, R.I.T Alles, his
mother Rohini Alles, and his brother, Dr. Harsha Alles.
Neither Gateway nor his family had anything to do with
February 10, Tiran Alles submitted his resignation as
Chairman Airport and Aviation. On the same day, Mahinda
Rajapakse convened a meeting of the Executive Committee
of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) where he severely
criticised Samaraweera, Sooriyaarachchi, Alles and the
Mawbima newspaper. Holding a copy of the newspaper in
his hand, the President said, 'Airport Chairman is
printing a paper that is criticising the government.'
The statement was given comprehensive coverage and
publicity by all media outlets in the country.
the harassment continued. On February 18, 2007, Director
Editorial, Standard Newspapers was allegedly threatened
with death if any adverse articles against the
Presidents brothers, Basil and Gotabaya Rajapakse were
published in the newspapers. The Director Editorial has
made a complaint to this effect at the Welikada Police
on the same day. However, to date no investigatory
action has been taken against this complaint.
February 22, it was revealed that government had taken
steps to block Alles and Finance Director of CBE,
Dushyantha Basnayake, from travelling abroad and ordered
Immigration authorities and National Intelligence Bureau
(NIB) to ensure they did not leave the country.
Subsequently, on February 26, 2007, Basnayake was
arrested by the TID on accusations that the company (CBE)
had given money to the LTTE. He remained in detention
for 71 days during which period he was subjected to
inhuman treatment and questioned relentlessly.
Basnayake was detained in a make-shift 6 x 4 cell in the
TID office. Tea was served in a polythene bag and lunch
was often a plate of plain rice with a semi-boiled egg.
The cell had no ventilation and toilet facilities were
dismal and often he had to wash it with his bare feet
prior to using it.
Basnayake paid a heavy price for the unhygienic
conditions he was forced to endure for 71 days, when he
contracted tuberculosis and his health deteriorated. He
was under treatment for several months even after his
harsh and unhygienic conditions were compounded by
psychological torture, where Basnayake was often woken
up at 5.00 a.m. for a continuation of the relentless
questioning. He was not allowed to see his children
during the entire period of detention and was permitted
to see his wife only for a brief 10 minutes once a week,
that too in the presence of TID officers who would
listen in on their conversation.
Basnayake's detention was also traumatic for his family,
especially his 10-year-old daughter, who had to receive
psychological counselling and treatment, even long after
CBE staff harassed
CBE employees were also subjected to relentless
harassment during this period. TID officers questioned
and recorded statements from more than 40 staff members,
including female officials, on a daily basis for nearly
45 days. On numerous occasions they were ordered to
report to the TID office and were frequently questioned
as to whether they knew of any dealings, financial or
otherwise, the company had with the LTTE. The constant
harassment forced many of the employees to submit their
was also called to the TID office two to three times a
week to record statements. Sometimes he was questioned
throughout the day without any respite, he says.
dealership suspended, bank accounts frozen
March 5, 2007, the CBE office was raided by officers of
the TID who seized all financial documents and
correspondence. A day later the government suspended the
mobile phone distributorship for the north and east
awarded to CBE. This was implemented on the orders of
the Defence Secretary, who instructed the
Telecommunication Regulatory Commission to instruct
Dialog to suspend the dealership on security grounds.
venture, begun shortly after the signing of the CFA in
2002 was CBE's primary source of revenue.
days later, on March 7, 2007, the government under the
directive of the President froze the accounts of CBE,
Standard Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. and Gateway College.
However, realising that freezing the accounts of Gateway
was a mistake, they released it the next day.
Freezing of the accounts forced the company to close the
newspapers. The last issues of Mawbima and Sunday
Standard were published on March 24, 2007.
government wheels were churning to choke out the
existence of Standard Newspapers and CBE, political
manoeuvring was taking place at the highest level in a
bid to get the Standard Newspapers to desist from
criticising the Rajapakse brothers.
meeting facilitated by a prominent figure in government,
three weeks prior to the closure of Mawbima and Sunday
Standard, Tiran Alles says that his father R.I.T. Alles
and his brother Harsha were taken to Temple Trees for a
face-to-face with the President and the Defence
they were shown copies of all articles critical of the
government and the Rajapakse brothers published in the
Mawbima newspaper, and were told "Tell Tiran to change
his stance and all his troubles will be over."
this period further political manoeuvring was evidenced
in the government's bid to get Mangala Samaraweera back
into the Rajapakse fold. Samaraweera said that during
this period the President sent a vehicle along with
Governor Western Province Alavi Moulana, in early April,
to bring Samaraweera to Temple Trees for reconciliation
Tiran Alles arrested
these negotiations were going on, the incessant
harassment of Tiran Alles and daily TID incursions into
CBE ceased. Dushyantha Basnayake was also released on
May 8, 2007 on a court order. No charges were brought
16, Samaraweera ended the talks, rejecting the Rajapakse
overture. And the very next day the TID was back in the
CBE premises. Alles' interrogation recommenced on May
17 and continued for several days.
the course of the interrogation, Alles developed an
allergic condition that was life threatening and was
admitted to hospital. He was arrested on May 30, 2007,
while he was receiving treatment at the Nawaloka
Following his arrest, Alles was transferred to a
government hospital. This was against medical advice,
where doctors cautioned TID officials that Alles'
condition was life threatening.
two weeks of his arrest, the Magistrate's Court granted
bail and Alles was released on June 13, 2007.
that it may, Tiran Alles and the CBE filed five
Fundamental Rights petitions in the Supreme Court
against the police and government authorities seeking
justice for unfair, unwarranted and excessively harsh
treatment by a government in a democracy that is
expected to uphold the rule of law, and ensure human
rights are not violated.
- Dushyantha Basnayake filed a Fundamental Rights
petition in the Supreme Court challenging his arrest
while in the custody of the TID.
- Tiran Alles filed a Fundamental Rights petition
challenging his arrest.
- A further three Fundamental Rights petitions were
filed challenging the freezing of the bank accounts and
the suspension of the mobile phone distributorship.
Supreme Court has granted leave to proceed in all five
cases. Subsequently it ordered that all the money be
released and that the TID could not record statements
from Alles without permission from court.
Alles' damning statement
Accordingly, the TID, with permission obtained from the
Magistrate's Court, recommenced recording Alles'
statement in August 2007. The Sunday Leader learns that
Alles made a detailed statement which was recorded
giving dates, names of the parties involved, eye
witnesses to the entire saga of a government pay-off to
the LTTE and how the money was obtained to execute the
senior TID officers, SSP Chandra Wakishta, Director TID
and Chief Inspector Prasanna de Alwis, OIC TID, recorded
this statement in full. The recording of this statement
lasted through August to September 2007.
Supreme Court takes government to task
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court on November 10, 2008 issued
an interim order directing the suspension placed on CBE,
preventing it from operating in the Eastern Province, be
Justice (CJ) Sarath N. Silva, chairing the three-judge
bench comprising Justices Shiranee Tilakawardene and
Saleem Marsoof, delivering the order took the government
to task for its delaying tactics and said in open court
that in the 17 months since the Fundamental Rights
application was filed, the state had been postponing the
case on the pretext of carrying out further
pointed out that the state had frozen the bank accounts
of the company and that the petitioner was forced to
come to the Supreme Court to get the money released. He
said the government had also suspended the business
activities of the company and claimed the action taken
by the state amounted to torture and harassment.
deemed the government action disgraceful and said the
petitioner could have even gone to the Human Rights
Council in Geneva.
Commenting on the action taken to prevent CBE from
continuing with its business, he said it was evident
that the government was working towards destroying the
company and that in view of how things had transpired,
the whole issue looks suspicious.
Government strikes back
days after the Supreme Court ruling, the Attorney
General's (AG) Department, on November 17, struck back
with indictment notices on Tiran Alles and Dushyantha
Basnayake, breaking an 18-month long silence following
Alles' full and detailed discolour of the Mahinda
Rajapakse-LTTE pact to the TID.
indictment was filed in the Colombo High Court, three
hours after the Supreme Court was informed that charges
had been filed. At the time the Attorney General's
Department gave notice, there was no indictment filed in
the High Court registry.
charges filed by the AG's department were that Alles and
Basnayake had bought a land and a house for Ms. Anthony
Lukshmi, the mother of Anton Emil Kanthan, an alleged
LTTE member, thereby providing funds to a terrorist
organisation and promoting it.
indictments stated that by these acts Alles and
Basnayake had violated a Gazette notification issued on
October 16, 2001 based on the United Nations Act of 1968
which provides for the government to give effect to any
decision taken by the UN Security Council.
However, the indictments was based on legal provisions
that had no validity or force of law in Sri Lanka, as no
such Gazette notification was issued, nor the motion
tabled in parliament.
SC reprimands AG's Department
and Basnayake filed Fundamental Rights petitions against
the indictments in the Supreme Court on November 28. In
granting relief to proceed with the motion, a
three-judge bench chaired by Chief Justice Sarath N.
Silva and comprising Justices Ms. Shiranee Tilakawardane
and K. Sripavan, on December 4, stayed all legal
proceeding, and observed the AG had filed indictment
based on legal provisions that had no validity or force
of law in Sri Lanka.
Supreme Court also stayed all further proceedings in the
High Court of Colombo in pursuance of the indictments
and directed the Attorney General to show cause for
filing a case based on non-existent legislation.
Chief Justice, delivering the stay order, severely
criticised the AG's Department and observed that it was
clear from the proceedings so far that the AG's
Department had attempted to harass, and defame Tiran
Alles and file cases in whatever form against him. The
CJ also reminded court that when giving relief on the
CBE dealership case he had told the AG's Department not
to file indictment just for the sake of filing an
indictment. "But you did the very same thing," he said,
pointing out that the Attorney General had filed
indictments making use of laws that had no validity in
Fundamental Rights petitions were taken up for hearing
on January 19, 2009. On this date the AG's Department
asked for more time to file another indictment with
different charges. The Bench fixed another date for all
the FR cases for February 16, 2009.
February 16, the AG's Department accepted that
everything that had happened was wrong. The arrest,
indictments filed, etc., and stated that there would be
no more proceedings, no more investigations, they were
closing the case.
almost two years since the regretful saga of persecution
and harassment of Tiran Alles, his company and his
newspapers began. All that the government has been able
to do is file two indictments based on legislation that
is not valid in Sri Lanka. The Supreme Court has
severely criticised the government's continued
persecution of Tiran Alles and his company. And the
whole episode has received wide and comprehensive
international coverage and condemnation.
Several Human Rights bodies and media rights
organisations, including Amnesty International, Human
Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, Asian Human
Rights Commission, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
and International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), have
repeatedly condemned the closure of Standard Newspapers
and the arrest of Tiran Alles, and have cited the
incidents as evidence of the government's disregard for
human rights and media freedom.
have also urged the government to rectify the situation.
The arrest of Tiran Alles was also highlighted in the US
State Department HR report which mentioned that no
charges had been brought against him (US Country Report
on HR Practises 2007).
Mangala Samaraweera's version of events
At the time journalist Munasamy Parameshwari was
arrested in November 2006, Mangala Samaraweera, as
Foreign Minister says he was cautioning both the
President and his brother, the Defence Secretary,
about human rights violations in the country and the
adverse impact it was having abroad, especially in
the donor nations. The cautioning, viewed as
criticism of the government's war efforts, did not
find favour with the Rajapakse regime, he said.
By January 2007, Ministers Mangala Samaraweera and
Sripathi Sooriyaarachchi were increasingly becoming
disillusioned with the Rajapakse regime and in open
defiance started pointing out the deteriorating
human rights situation and other issues of
corruption and mismanagement. When the government
refused to pay heed, Samaraweera claims that both he
and Sooriyaarachchi wrote direct to Mahinda
Rajapakse about their concerns, with Samaraweera
pointing out human rights violations and the adverse
image the Rajapakse regime was creating among the
international community, and Sooriyaarachchi,
highlighting the rampant corruption within
President Rajapakse reacted to this show of dissent
by sacking both ministers from the cabinet on
February 9, 2007. Immediately after the sacking, the
two dismissed ministers held a press briefing at the
parliamentary complex, and Sooriyaarachchi charged
there had been a deal between Rajapakse and the LTTE.
To date there is no proof of this deal other than
what Samaraweera and Sooriyaarachchi have alleged.
At this press conference Samaraweera and
Sooriyaarachchi claimed that Mahinda Rajapakse who
at the time was not yet President, nominated his
brother Basil Rajapakse, now a national list MP in
parliament and his senior advisor, to negotiate with
Emil Kanthan, who was representing the LTTE.
They charged that a 'pact' was sealed during these
negotiations which led to a Tamil boycott at the
behest of the LTTE of the 2005 presidential
elections. A boycott which resulted in an election
win for Mahinda Rajapakse by a wafer this margin.
(See box for comment by Basil Rajapakse.)
Emil Kanthan remains un-contactable.
Meanwhile, Sooriyaarachchi was arrested on March
17, 2007 on charges of using a government vehicle
after he was sacked as minister. He was detained in
prison for more than 40 days and was released by the
Magistrate's Court on April 30, 2007, which also
closed the case.
On May 16, Samaraweera asserts he ended the talks,
rejecting the Rajapakse overtures.
Basil says no comment
Basil Rajapakse, Senior Advisor to the President and
National List MP when asked if he had indeed
facilitated and executed a "deal" with the LTTE
which resulted in a Tamil boycott of the 2005
presidential elections said, "I cannot say anything
on this. A parliamentary select committee has been
appointed and I have already made my submission to
them in that respect."