Monday, March 27, 2006

Lanka president wins tsunami case

Sri Lanka's Supreme Court has awarded President Mahinda Rajapakse $5,000 in damages after ruling that a probe into tsunami aid money breached his rights.

The investigation last year followed a complaint that donations were siphoned off in Mr Rajapakse's constituency when he was prime minister.

The court ordered the opposition MP who complained and two top police officers to pay the bulk of the damages.

Mr Rajapakse, who was elected president in November, always denied wrongdoing.

'Attempt to discredit'

The allegations arose last September when a magistrate gave police the go-ahead to investigate how 83 million rupees ($830,000) in public donations ended up in three private accounts in Mr Rajapakse's Hambantota constituency in southern Sri Lanka.

The opposition MP brought the court case... as soon as Mahinda Rajapakse was nominated as presidential candidate
Chief Justice Sarath Silva

Two weeks later the Supreme Court ordered the probe to be halted.

In their verdict on Monday, three Supreme Court judges unanimously ruled that Mr Rajapakse's fundamental rights had been breached.

They ordered the complainant, Kabir Kasheem of the opposition United National Party (UNP), to pay $1,000 in damages to the president.

National police chief Chandra Fernando and another senior police investigator must each pay $1,000 to Mr Rajapakse. The state was also ordered to pay him $2,000.

Chief Justice Sarath Silva said the court case had been brought as soon as Mr Rajapakse was nominated as a presidential candidate.

"The court sees this as an attempt to get political mileage for [UNP leader] Ranil Wickramasinghe and to discredit Mahinda Rajapakse."

'Not a cent'

Mr Rajapakse told parliament last year that the cabinet was aware of the existence of the private fund, known as Helping Hambantota.

His office said he had held donations privately to try to speed up the rate at which aid money was being handed out to victims of the 26 December, 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The money in question had been put in a state account and Mr Rajapakse had not taken "even a cent" for his use, his secretary Lalith Weeratunga told the AFP news agency at the time.

Sri Lanka received millions of dollars in foreign aid following the tsunami, which killed more than 31,000 people, left hundreds of thousands homeless and devastated long swathes of coastline.

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