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3rd January 1999

Fag racket blows hot

Gang wars: police going behind crooked shadows

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Fag racket blows hot

By Frederica Jansz

The busting of a massive cigarette smuggling racket involving at least two army personnel has led to a full probe on what is thought to be a multi-million rupee smuggling chain involving top businessmen.

Two army personnel are being investigated for allegedly accepting bribes of upto Rs. 100,000 for smuggling huge stocks of cigarettes camouflaged as army equipment.

An Army sergeant and a corporal are alleged to have forged a letter issued by Major General C.S. Weerasuriya on behalf of the then Army Commander, altering the airway bill number, flight number and the name of the carrier agent and city.

The sergeant is now under arrest for having smuggled cigarettes and other items declaring the consignments as spares for communication equipment for the Army. He is alleged to have accepted huge payoffs from local businessmen.

Twenty nine packages of cigarettes were smuggled in last month, causing a loss of several million rupees in customs revenue by avoiding the high excise duty on cigarettes.

The sergeant has allegedly confessed to Customs that he and the corporal had made false declarations by altering documents.

An official of the Military Police who are also conducting an inquiry told The Sunday Times that the corporal was still absconding, after deserting his post.

Investigations reveal that a letter to the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, dated November 17, 1998, and signed by Major General C. S. Weerasuriya, now Commander of the Army, has been photocopied and forged using Major General Weerasuriya's signature.

The original letter by the Major General asks for clearance for a consignment of spares for communication equipment ordered by the Army from M/s Marconi SPA - Italy.

The genuine consignment arrived at the Colombo Airport on September 21 last year, on AirLanka flight No. 313.

Major General Weerasuriya, unaware that his signature was being used to smuggle in items, states in his letter that the clearance for this consignment would be handled by the sergeant and the corporal concerned.

The fraud was discovered on December 18, when a customs officer stopped the sergeant and demanded to see the file he had.

Perusing the file Customs found that the documents were photocopies and had been altered, changing the airway bill number, flight number and the name of the carrier agent and city.

This letter specified the name of the agent as M/s Obaid, Dubai, U.A.E. The letter however had the identical dates as the original, except for the date of flight arrival which states December 13, 1998, on Qatar Airways Flight No. 300. The original letter stated the date of arrival on Air Lanka flight number 313 as September 21, 1998.

What has baffled Customs however is that this document which is clearly a photocopy with typed insertions was rubber stamped by a superintendent of Customs, approving the release of the illegal cargo.

Some officials say it is normal practice to accept only original documents with manual signatures.

Photocopies, they say are used when smuggling goods.

The twenty nine packages of cigarettes valued at some eleven million rupees, weighed 3350 kilos and contained over two million cigarettes.

Two businessmen from Pettah have been taken into custody along with nine others as Customs continue their probe. Customs say there is evidence that at least twelve consignments addressed to the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army, had been cleared last year falsely declaring the goods as telecommunication equipment, camouflage kits and spare parts for communication equipment.


Gang wars: police going behind crooked shadows

By Chris Kamalendran

Members of an underworld gang visited a bar in the night and ordered liquor for six. The booze went on for more than five hours well past midnight. Waiters and the management staff had to stay up beyond the usual closing hours.

The staff managing the bar knew that any type of resistance would be detrimental if not dangerous as they were aware of the power and influence the gang members were holding.

The gang ended up consuming a stock of foreign and local liquor with the bill topping Rs. 2,500. The men left waving at the bar attendant and waiters leaving the bill unpaid.

The owners of the bar are aware that this takes place frequently, yet they couldn't do anything about it. They know that any protest would lead to an attack on the bar and possible death for the owner, the employees or their families.

Many of the liquor shops, betting centres, drug dealers and those running brothel houses and even shop owners are reportedly paying protection money to the underworld gangs.

Collecting of kappam has been one of the main sources of income for underworld gangs.

Police investigations have revealed that some of the recent killings go beyond rivalry and revenge. With the increasing number of gangs mainly around the city the gangs are also concerned that their earnings have been dropping. The gang members have been taking revenge whenever they come to know that rival gangs are encroaching on their areas and tapping their sources of income.

The recent spate of killings of underworld gang members including Arambawalage Don Upali alias Soththi Upali are believed to have been carried out by rival groups for revenge.

Police believe the resurgence in underworld warfare is also linked to the loss of political patronage for some of the gangs.

Yet there are still instances where government politicians are known to be backing or covering up for criminals and pressurising the police to be soft on them.

Police believe that at least six big gangs are operating in Colombo. Some of them have the backing of politicians and certain police officers.

Besides Soththi Upali, three other gang leaders have been eliminated 'Kaduwela Raja' and 'Chutti' from Kolonnawa along with PA Municipal Councillor M. Imtiaz.

Police believe that Imtiaz had been killed on a contract given by a notorious Wellampitiya drug dealer known as 'Sudha'.

'Soththi Upali' was reportedly gunned down by a gang linked to 'Kaduwela Raja' who in turn was killed 10 days after 'Soththi Upali' was killed .

'Kaduwela Raja' reportedly had a long- standing grudge against 'Soththi Upali' for killing his brother.

Police have so far not arrested any suspects, raising questions as to possible links between the police and the criminals.


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