COLOMBO: The Sri Lankan Law and Order Minister, Tilak Marapana, resigned on Monday, after some influential fellow ministers vehemently opposed his decision not to pursue a high profile case against Avant Garde Maritime Services Ltd., (AGMSL), a controversial company which maintains a floating armory and supplies weapons and Sea Marshals to vessels plying in pirate infested areas of the Indian Ocean.
Ministers Rajitha Senaratne, Champika Ranawaka and Arjuna Ranatunga charged that Marapana wanted the case dropped because he had been the company’s lawyer before becoming cabinet minister. Marapana’s argument that he was only following the Attorney General’s advice, fell on deaf ears.
Those opposed to him insisted that the company and its former patrons in the Defense Ministry, including former Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, had breached the law repeatedly. They also said that President Maithripala Sirisena’s “Good Governance” regime would become a laughing stock if the “thieves” were let off the hook. Sirisena has reportedly decided to pursue the case and supervise the investigations himself.
AGMSL, which employs Sea Marshals from various countries including Sri Lanka, was chosen by the former Lankan Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa to be a partner of Rakna Lanka Ltd (RLL), a commercial security company floated by the Defense Ministry. The choice was made without any competitive bidding. Because of its close links with the Rajapaksa regime, AGMSL was able to flout rules regarding the use of ports and storage of weapons. Investigations into these were started after the Rajapaksa government fell on January 8.
Police found unauthorized weapons in unauthorized places. In early October, an AGMSL vessel lied to the Lankan navy at Galle port, about the arms and ammunition on board. It even lied about the name of the captain. While formal permission to enter Galle port was granted only to three seamen and specific weapons, the vessel with 816 rifles and 202,674 round of ammo, entered the port when it ought have been anchored in international waters. On inspection, it was found that on some weapons, the serial numbers had been erased. All this evoked suspicions about the vessel’s activities.
According to Sunday Times, India had raised the issue of floating armories in the Indian Ocean region at the recent annual Sri Lanka-India Defense Dialogue in New Delhi. As per the minutes of the meeting, the Indian Defense Secretary highlighted India’s concern over the existence of a large number of Private Maritime Security Companies (PMSCs) to counter piracy. He said that in the absence of a regulatory mechanism, unlawful use of these armories cannot be ruled out. The Lankan Defense Secretary said that his government is reviewing the existing regulations and assured that India’s concerns will be adequately addressed.
India has had a couple of bad experiences with foreign Sea Marshals. The killing of two Kerala fishermen by Italian Marines guarding a commercial vessel had triggered a diplomatic row between India and Italy.