Basil Rajapaksa, the youngest brother of former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was arrested on Wednesday as the country’s new government closes in on the powerful family, which ruled the island nation virtually unchallenged for nearly a decade.
Police representative Ruwan Gunawardena confirmed that Basil Rajapaksa and two former officials of his Economic Development Ministry were arrested on suspicion of misappropriation of public funds. They were expected to appear before a magistrate later Wednesday, Gunawardena said.
“He has totally denied that any money was taken by him,” Rajapaksa’s lawyer U.R. De Silva told Al Jazeera.
Rajapaksa was a minister in his brother’s government in charge of economic development and reconstruction efforts in the northern and eastern provinces, which were at the center of fighting during Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war. He was also in charge of his brother’s re-election campaign.
Basil Rajapaksa is the first high-profile member of the family to be arrested —something unthinkable before his brother was defeated in the Jan. 8 presidential election. While Rajapaksa has been widely criticized internationally for allegations of abuses during the end of the war, he remained enormously popular within Sri Lanka, until voters grew frustrated with allegations of nepotism and corruption in his government.
Three days after the election defeat, Basil Rajapaksa and his wife left Sri Lanka, taking a flight to California. He had lived in California during the early 1990s and is a U.S. citizen. In late March, as part of an investigation into a multibillion-rupee subsidized housing program, police officials questioned former officials of Rajapaksa’s ministry and asked Rajapaksa to go to Sri Lanka to make a statement.
He returned to the island on April 21 and was welcomed at the airport by over 2,500 supporters. “The Rajapaksas have never stolen public money,” he told the crowd. Less than 24 hours after his arrival, he reported to police Financial Crimes Investigation Division. “He was asked to come and give a statement only,” De Silva said. But after giving his testimony, Rajapaksa was told that he would be arrested. De Silva said that he has not yet seen the charges against his client.
The arrest comes a day before conclusion of President Maithripala Sirisena’s first 100 days in office. Upon inauguration, he launched an ambitious 100-day program, which included pledges to prosecute corrupt public officials. Bribery investigators have also sought to record statements from Mahinda Rajapaksa and another brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was his defense secretary.
De Silva said that the charges against Basil Rajapaksa are politically motivated. “They wanted to show the world that they have arrested the biggest person by that time,” he said.
Two other former officials in Rajapaksa’s ministry, Nihal Jayatilake and Gen. R.R.K. Ranawaka, the former director of the housing fund, were also arrested. The officials earlier told investigators that all fund allocations were made under Rajapaksa’s directives.
De Silva said that if there were irregularities in the distribution of funds for the program, it would have been done by people who were under Rajapaksa. “He is not under a position to explain that,” De Silva said. “He has only taken the policy decisions, not the payments.”
De Silva said he plans to make a bail application when Rajapaksa is presented to the magistrate on Wednesday, but he is not hopeful that bail will be granted.
There was no immediate reaction from Mahinda Rajapaksa after his brother’s arrest or from Sirisena's government.