Among the kleptocrats revealed in the recent Pandora Papers leak is a Sri Lankan couple, the wife of whom is a cousin to the president and prime minister (who are brothers) who have managed to amass a huge amount of wealth and sent it overseas.
In early 2018, workers in a London warehouse carefully loaded an oil painting of Lakshmi, the Hindu deity of wealth, onto a van bound for Switzerland.
The painting, by 19th-century Indian master Raja Ravi Varma, depicts the four-armed goddess clad in a red sari with gold ornaments and standing atop a lotus flower. It was one of 31 works of art, altogether worth nearly $1 million, that were being shipped to the Geneva Freeport in Switzerland. That vast, ultra-secure warehouse complex, larger than 20 soccer fields, stores among its many treasures what the BBC once called “the greatest art collection no one can see.”
The owner of “Goddess Lakshmi,” and the artworks in transit with it, as recorded on the packing slip, was a Samoan-registered shell company with an unremarkable name, Pacific Commodities Ltd. But a cache of leaked documents from Asiaciti Trust, a Singapore-based financial services provider, indicates that a politically connected Sri Lankan, Thirukumar Nadesan, secretly controls the company and thus is the true owner of the 31 pieces of art. His wife, Nirupama Rajapaksa, is a former member of Sri Lanka’s Parliament and a scion of the powerful Rajapaksa clan, which has dominated the Indian Ocean island nation’s politics for decades.
The confidential documents, obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, show that as the country was ravaged by a bloody, decades-long civil war, the couple set up anonymous offshore trusts and shell companies to acquire artwork and luxury apartments and to store cash, securities and other assets in secret. They were able to amass and hide their fortune in secrecy jurisdictions with the assistance of financial services providers, lawyers and other white-collar professionals who asked few questions about the source of their wealth – even after Nadesan became a target of a well-publicized corruption investigation by Sri Lankan authorities.
As of 2017, Rajapaksa and Nadesan’s offshore holdings, which haven’t previously been made public, had a value of about $18 million, according to an ICIJ analysis of a Nadesan trust’s financial statements. The median annual income in Sri Lanka is less than $4,000.
In emails to Asiaciti, a longtime adviser of Nadesan’s put his overall wealth in 2011 at more than $160 million. ICIJ couldn’t independently verify the figure.
There is no way that anyone in Sri Lanka could have amassed this much wealth legally. The Rajapaksa family has long been accused of massive corruption. If a mere cousin could do this, imagine what the two brothers must have accumulated.
A long time ago, there was a law in Sri Lanka whereby if someone could not explain how they obtained their wealth legally, they were by default considered to be guilty of bribery and other forms of corruption. I suspect that that law has long since been rendered ineffective.
This is just one case. What the Pandora Papers reveal is that it is multiplied thousands of times in countries all over the world.