Russian Embassy At The Centre Of A Multi Billion Rupee Land Grab
- Russian Embassy maintains deafening silence
- Foreign Ministry alleges land owned By Russian Embassy
- Land Registry documents show M. Thahir as owner
- Strange but true: Diplomatic immunity gone astray
By Faraz Shauketaly
The heiress of a murdered turfing contractor has instituted legal action against the Russian Federation, the Ministry of External Affairs in Sri Lanka and a host of others in an attempt to regain control of a prime block of land in Colombo, valued at between Rs. 2 Billion and Rs. 4 Billion. Nazeera Sali Begum, whose husband Mohamed Thahir was shot dead in Borella in February 2007 – on the day that he received his copy of the Interim Order from a Colombo court returning the land to his control, says she is virtually ‘destitute’ and that she is in hiding as she fears for her life and that of her family. Nazeera Begum told The Sunday Leader that ‘almost 150 relatives’ live in and around the land that has been owned by her late husband’s family for ‘at least 50 years’.
Recounting her tale of sorrow, Nazeera Begum who changed the location and time in the interests of security, told us that the trouble started when in 2006 her husband was approached by MP Mervyn Silva who asked if their bare land could be used as a car park for the Dayata Kirula 2006 programme. They wanted use of it for one week and her husband had agreed. The area was then cleared and sections were even carpeted. A week went by and they found it impossible to regain control of their own land. That resulted in them going to Court and the Interim Order permitting them to regain control was granted in February 2007. A week later – Nazeera claims on the day that her husband received the Order physically – and whilst he was in the process of affixing copies of the Order around his property, he received a call on his mobile phone. He then went to Borella to meet someone – she is unaware of the identity of the person or the reason for the meeting – where he was shot dead. Nazeera Begum says that investigations into her husband’s murder is still on-going and she has little incentive to believe that the Police will find his killers.
The prime plot of land, at the Kanatta end of Bauddhaloka Mawatha is 680 perches in extent and has been valued conservatively at Rs 2,040,000,000 (Rs 2 Billion) and optimistically at Rs 3,400,000,000 (Rs 3.4 Billion) and has clearly attracted a lot of interest from various parties. The Thahir family, has carried on their family business of turfing for landscapes from this location for as long as most can remember.
Currently, this is the area in which The Russian Embassy is now constructing a new complex. Quite how the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Sri Lanka became involved is far from clear. We tried to contact the Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs Karunathilaka Amunugama. He was out of Colombo so we were passed on to the Director General of Public Communications, Ministry of External Affairs. His telephone rang incessantly but no one answered. We tried Professor G. L. Pieris as a last resort. He too was unavailable but we were told that his office would attempt to give us an answer especially because Professor Pieris was reported in the Press as having laid a foundation stone on the property marking the start of building the new Russian Embassy Complex. We specifically wished to ask the Minister whether in fact he was present for such a function and on what basis this land was being used for building the new Russian Embassy Complex.
Nazeera Begum’s Manager, Mohamed says that it is impossible for them to verify whether there is such a foundation structure in place as the Police post on the property does not allow the owners access to their land.
Diplomatic behaviour, practice and standards are guided by a set of agreements known as the Vienna Conventions. The Vienna Convention is explicit that “without prejudice to their privileges and immunities, it is the duty of all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities to respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State.”
Nazeera Begum with two young children and a moral duty of care towards her late husband’s extended family – as is customary within her community – numbering around 150 persons in all, is adamant that the Russians have not acted with ‘respectb to the laws and regulations’ of Sri Lanka as is envisaged in the Vienna Conventions.
Two agreements were made for the sale of this land but for various reasons the transaction did not reach completion. Nazeera Begum says she has arrangements to repay both parties who paid advances but did not complete, once the sale of her land goes ahead.
Various attempts have been made to ‘help’ Nazeera Begum to sell this land for her. One, a contractor named Noor Mohamed Mohamed Ikram of Reid Avenue Colombo 4, allegedly offered to sell the entirety of the land in May 2009 for a trifling Rs 2.5 Million! In the agreement Noor Mohamed Ikram apparently passes off ownership of the land as his own. In later proceedings it was established that the documents supplied by Noor Mohamed Ikram were patently false.Another, Ukwatte Lalith Wijetunge of Ethul Kotte, the President of the United Lanka People’s Party (Eksath Lanka Podhu Jana Pakshaya) offered to ‘sell and dispose’ the land in a letter addressed to Ramasamy Luxman, a property broker.
Nazeera Begum states she has not appointed Wijetunga or Luxman as her brokers. The ownership of the land appears not to have been disputed in the aftermath of Mohamed Thahir’s murder. Nazeera Begum sought and obtained Administrative papers following a testamentary case during which time no objections were received by the Courts. As part of the proof that they have owned this land the Court of Appeal has been supplied with various documents showing that for example, local taxes have been paid to the CMC by the Thahir family. Almost bizarre but certainly strange, is the fact that the CMC has now started to send out tax bills to the Ministry of External Affairs for the same property. Nazeera Begum also receives CMC bills for the same property. Nazeera Begum was so frustrated at the injustice being meted out to her from all quarters, she complained to President Mahinda Rajapaksa. An enquiry was launched but got nowhere as the Ministry of External Affairs confirmed the property ‘was owned by a foreign mission’.
Utterly distraught and on the verge of destitution with two children and a host of extended family, Nazeera Begum bemoans the involvement of various parties and says that it is apparent that there are no rights for the ‘common man’. Her sentiment may well be felt by others – especially when she can see that someone, somewhere is robbing her off her rightful inheritance in front of her very eyes. “It is like seeing Rs. 3 Billion slipping away while I watch,” she said. If Nazeera Begum does succeed in getting her land back and sells it for anything like the prices mentioned in this article, she will go straight into The Sunday Leader’s Rich List and join the ranks of Sri Lanka’s Billionaires. firstname.lastname@example.org
Our Mail To The Russian Embassy In Colombo
We also called and wrote to the Russian Federation’s Ambassador to Sri Lanka. We received no response from the Russian Embassy at the time of going to press. In essence this is what we asked the Russian Federation’s Embassy: “Very recently the Colombo Municipality has started to issue local taxes for this same property purporting it to be in occupation by an “Embassy” – yet continue to also issue invoices in respect of the same taxes to the lawful owners, the heirs of the late Mohamed Thahir.
I am writing a story based on the injustice that is apparently being meted out to a Sri Lankan family which includes several women and young children, who appear to have lost their ancestral lands to the Russian Federation. Please be so kind as to comment on exactly what basis the Russian Federation has come into acquiring this property which has been valued at between Rs. 2 Billion and Rs. 3.4 Billion”