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Tiran: Truth finally revealed

Tiran Alles, Mahinda Rajapakse
and Sarath N. Silva

By Frederica Jansz

What 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.

What 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?


Truth 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.

The 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 enemies.

So 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.

And so 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 beginning.

The beginning

Tiran 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 people.

The 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 east.

Alles 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 change

The 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.

It was 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 the island.

Rajapakse-LTTE pact

In 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.

Two 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.

Alles 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.

That in Alles' own words was the sum total of his involvement with the 'great betrayal.'

It was 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

The 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." 

The 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.

The 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

A few 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.

Alles 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 held.

Alles 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

'The 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.

This 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.

It 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. 

The government used the accusation to coerce certain other newspapers to portray Standard Newspapers as being sympathetic to the LTTE.

Parameshwari arrest

The 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 connections.

The 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.

On 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'.

The 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 connections.

Harassment intensifies

The 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 CBE.

Alles resigns

On 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.

Death threat

And 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.

On 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.

Basnayake arrested

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 release.

The 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 his release.

CBE staff harassed

The 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 resignations.

Alles 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.

Mobile dealership suspended, bank accounts frozen

On 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.

This venture, begun shortly after the signing of the CFA in 2002 was CBE's primary source of revenue.

Two 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.

Political manoeuvring

While 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.

In a 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 Secretary. 

Here, 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."

During 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 talks.

Tiran Alles arrested

While 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 against him.

On May 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.

During 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 Hospital.

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.

Within two weeks of his arrest, the Magistrate's Court granted bail and Alles was released on June 13, 2007.

FR cases

Be 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. 

The 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 pay off.

Two 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 removed forthwith.

Chief 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 investigations. 

The CJ 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.

He 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

Seven 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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

Alles 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.

The 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.

The 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 Sri Lanka.

The 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.

On 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.

International concern

It's 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. 

They 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 government ranks.

 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."









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