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Sri Lanka graft busters question Rajapakse brothers

Amal Jayasinghe
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Sri Lankan supporters of former president Mahinda Rajapakse take part in a protest outside the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption department Colombo on April 23, 2015

Sri Lankan supporters of former president Mahinda Rajapakse take part in a protest outside the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption department Colombo on April 23, 2015 (AFP Photo/Ishara S.Kodikara)

Two brothers of former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapakse faced questioning by anti-corruption investigators on Thursday as the new government stepped up its crackdown against the old regime.

Hours after the former leader's youngest brother Basil was arrested on his return from a trip abroad, another sibling, Gotabhaya, was hauled before the country's main anti-corruption body over claims of kickbacks he allegedly received while he served as defence secretary.

Gotabhaya, widely regarded as the real power behind 69-year-old Rajapakse during his decade-long rule, angrily denounced the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) as he arrived at their headquarters on Thursday.

"They are taking action against policy decisions we took," the 65-year-old told reporters in downtown Colombo.

"At this rate, they can arrest the entire (former) cabinet for taking decisions. This is ridiculous.

"I have not done anything wrong. I was an honest government officer."

Hundreds of Gotabhaya supporters carrying photos of him defied a court ban on protests as they massed outside CIABOC.

Many also carried doctored versions of the Sri Lankan national flag, without the green and saffron stripes that represent the minority Muslim and Tamil communities respectively.

Gotabhaya was questioned behind closed doors, although sources said that it was a brief session and he would return for a more lengthy interrogation early next week.

Basil, who was economic development minister under his brother, faced his own interrogation behind bars at a Colombo prison hospital over allegations that he embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars in a controversial government housing scheme.

The 64-year-old, who has dual Sri Lankan and American citizenship, fled to the United States soon after his brother lost the January 8 election to Maithripala Sirisena, a former ally of Rajapakse before he jumped ship to challenge his old mentor.

The US embassy in Colombo said it could not comment on whether it was providing consular assistance to Basil, who faces two weeks in remand, "due to privacy considerations".

Police said they will question him over the next two weeks, after which formal charges are expected to be framed. Basil maintains he is innocent.

In an interview with AFP on Wednesday, Rajapakse slammed the string of corruption probes against his relatives as part of a "witch-hunt" instigated by his successor.

- Questioning delayed-

The former president had also been summoned to CIABOC on Friday, but following a demand by lawmakers loyal to him, anti-graft investigators agreed to visit him at home and have not said when that will occur.

"I have received a letter from them (CIABOC) saying they will visit me to record a statement. They have not said when," the former president told AFP.

An ethnic Sinhalese, Rajapakse remains popular among big sections of the island's largest community for overseeing the defeat of the Tamil Tiger separatist rebels in 2009 after a 37-year conflict.

Parliament remains packed with Rajapakse loyalists, complicating the new leader's plans to overturn a raft of constitutional changes brought in by his predecessor, who awarded himself a host of new powers.

Sirisena had originally pledged to dissolve the 225-member legislature this week, but instead addressed the nation on Thursday night and vowed to fight corruption that he said had flourished under his predecessor.

He did not refer to his pre-election pledge to dismiss parliament, but urged lawmakers to support his reform plans.

"I appeal to all MPs to vote for the reforms. It is necessary for good governance and rule of law," Sirisena said in a 30-minute televised address. "I will go all out to fight waste and corruption. I have shown the way by reducing the presidential staff by more than 1,000 employees."

Deputy foreign minister Ajith Perera said the president was likely to call fresh elections after the legislature votes on a statute amendment that would establish independent commissions to run the police, the public service and the judiciary, among others.

"We can expect a dissolution soon after the 19th amendment (the reform bill) is put to a vote in parliament next week," the minister told reporters in Colombo.