Political Interference To Prevent Prosecution

By Nirmala Kannangara

A Senior Minister has allegedly interfered in the prosecution by the Department of Wild Life Conservation (DWLC) of a person arrested for possessing a python, snake, monkey and an imported iguana for sale.

Despite interferences by this Senior Minister who was once an Environment Minister, wildlife officials are going ahead with the case against the suspect – Mohamed Rafeeq Mohommed Sadan Hamri of 252/3 High Level Road, Kirulapone, Colombo 6.

While accusations have been levelled against this Senior Minister for his attempts to get the accused released by bringing pressure on the wildlife officials, environmentalists commend the DWLC officers for ignoring the ministerial pressure and taking stern action against the accused.

Senior Minister Urban Affairs A.H.M. Fowzie is blamed of attempting to get the accused businessman released using his influence although the wildlife officers were determined not to heed his instructions.

“We were saddened to see how Minister Fowzie was trying to get this suspect released without levelling any charges. The Minister tried to say this businessman did not know that it is prohibited to keep restricted species with him and that it was also illegal to sell them.

We could understand if this was told by any other politician with no knowledge about wildlife rules and regulations. But it was surprising for a person who was a one-time minister in charge of Environment to interfere,” a wildlife officer on condition of anonymity said.

However, Fowzie while refuting the allegations said that he never tried to influence the wildlife officers but only spoke to Wildlife Minister Vijith Wijayamuni Soyza to find out what the procedure was when somebody was arrested for a minor offence.

“I never tried to influence the wildlife officers. The media is trying to drag my good name into this. I only spoke to the subject Minister to find out what the procedure was when somebody is arrested for such a minor matter. If this is a bailable offence what is the need to ask the wildlife officials to release the suspect,” Fowzie said.

However DWLC officials were adamant that they cannot discharge their duties if there is any political interference.

“This is not the first time Minister Fowzie has interfered in getting someone released. On an earlier occasion when a wildlife official arrested a man in Ahungalla a few years ago for keeping some restricted species with him, Minister Fowzie framed this officer and interdicted him. However the officer was able to prove that he was not guilty and was reinstated with all due payments after four years,” the source said.

After seeing an advertisement on Facebook about a person who was in the business of selling restricted species, the Wildlife Flying Squad had tried to find out who this person was.

“Although the Flying Squad had tried to find out who this ‘businessman’ was, they had failed in their attempts. As the orders were accepted through the internet our officers had got two outsiders to place an order through the internet and found out the address in Kirulapone,” added the source.

According to the source, a python was to be sold for Rs10, 000, a snake for Rs 4, 000 and an imported green iguana for Rs 17, 500.

Meanwhile one Flying Squad officer who was involved in the raid said that the sting operation was successful and added that the suspect was produced in the Magistrate Court Hulftsdorp and was bailed out on Rs100,000 surety.

“When our team raided the tiny pet shop where the suspect was running his illegal business over the past several years, there was a python, snake, monkey and an imported green iguana. Although the suspect has promised to supply two snakes to our agent, when we raided the place there was only one snake,” said the officer.

According to sources, the suspect had confessed that he had caught these species from a jungle in Kurunegala and had further said that he brought them once he received an order and sold them to locals.

“This was misleading. If the locals want they will get these species from the jungle for a lesser price. When we questioned the suspect further, he admitted that his clients are foreigners and that he had only been engaged in this trade for the past five months. This too was false because if he had been engaged in this business for the past five months only, then why had he been advertising on Facebook over the past two or three years,” said the source.

Furthermore, the suspect did not have the Convention of International Trade on Endemic Species (CITES) permit to import the green iguana which was in his possession at the time of the raid.
“Not only were the species that were taken into custody advertised for sale, but several endemic species as well.

This is a serious offence. Smuggling our species to another country will deprive us of getting the Patent License for them. We cannot allow the smuggling of valuable species like the way we lost the Patent License for our own Binara tree and Kothalahimbutu. These two varieties were smuggled to The Netherlands and Japan respectively and now those countries own the Patent License for the by-products,” said the source.

According to the Flying Squad officer, by-products of the snake and python are cheaper in Sri Lanka but added if any foreign country gets the Patent License for these by-products the country will have to spend foreign exchange in millions to buy them.

“Similar to the way we have to spend millions of rupees to purchase Kothalahimbutu by-products from Japan, we will have to import the by-products of these species in the years to come. The venom that is taken from snakes can be used to make the anti-venom injection and the oil taken from python is used to heal wounds. Since foreign countries have modern technology, they can breed any species under any environmental conditions in their own countries and claim the Patent License,” he added.

The Flying Squad officer further explained how dangerous it is to smuggle species from abroad that are harmful to the country.

“The green iguana that had been taken into custody is dangerous to cultivation.
In England and South American countries this animal has become the number one cultivation destroyer. If by any chance this animal was released to the wild, it would have been a disaster as it destroys crops,” said the source.

Meanwhile, Jagath Gunawardena Attorney- at-Law specializing in Environment Studies said that the sting operation carried out by the wildlife officials has to be commended.

“This sting operation was successful and we are also happy about how they conducted the investigation and produced the suspect in court despite the fact that Senior Minister Fowzie had tried to influence wildlife officers not to take any action against the suspect. This suspect advertised on Facebook under the name: ‘Exotic Pet Planet’ without revealing his identity.

If he did not know that it is a crime to retain and sell these species, why did he advertise under a pseudo name without revealing his identity,” said Gunawardena.

He further said that it is a bad precedent for a Senior Minister to interfere and try to get a person who has committed a crime, released.
“It is deplorable for a Minister who knew the subject to try to get the suspect released. In addition this suspect had an imported animal in his possession. How was he able to smuggle this animal into the country. This has to be investigated. These species could carry illnesses that are harmful to the human body as well.

These species can be predators, invasive or pet invasive. Had this animal been imported through the proper channels, it would have been thoroughly checked for all these criteria and would have been released only if it was found to be not harmful to the country. Otherwise the Customs Department would have confiscated it,” said Gunawardena.

Meanwhile, Deputy Director Customs (Bio Diversity, Cultural and National Heritage) Samantha Gunasekera said that he too had been following this same Facebook advertisement over the years but failed to trace the businessman.

“Although I came to know that this illegal business was going on in Kirulapone, all my attempts to get the address failed.

We want to find out as to how the green iguana was brought into the country, whether it is through Customs or otherwise.

According to the Customs Ordinance we can take action against this suspect for smuggling this animal and we can check also as to how many species he has smuggled into the country and what has happened to them,” Gunasekera added.

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