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Vials worth Rs. 30 million in stock of potatoes :

Customs seize biggest haul of contraceptives



Containers being unloaded


Vials packed in sacks


Passport of Ashraf Muhammad



Customs Director Mali Piyasena

Sri Lanka Customs Revenue Task Force who thwarted an attempt to smuggle in a large stock of contraceptives worth over Rs. 30 million last week ponders whether the Pakistani consignee is backed by an influential local party. The suspect named Muhammad Ashraf who was evading arrest for over a week was nabbed by a special Customs investigating team near the Fort Railway Station on Friday afternoon. He will be detained for interrogation before being produced in courts.

The drug that came in 30,000 vials carefully hidden in a container carrying potatoes imported from Pakistan was seized by the Customs RTF on suspicion at the Orugodawatta clearing yard. The consignee, a Pakistani national engaged in a local business who had approached the Customs officials in a bid to clear his cargo of three container loads of potato, vanished soon after the former were about to detect the contraband.

The drugs that reached the country through an illegal channel is estimated to be the largest stock of contraceptives smuggled into the country in recent history. Although there were previous attempts to smuggle in contraceptives in small amounts through the airport this was the first time such a large quantity arrived.

Director Customs Revenue Task Force, Mali Piyasena told the Sunday Observer the contraband was hidden in one of the three containers carrying potatoes imported from Pakistan. The shipment of potatoes had arrived in the country on April 12 but nobody had turned up to clear the cargo until April 19. The consignee named Ashraf Muhammad of Lahore had come with his wharf clerk on April 19 to get his cargo cleared claiming they are all potatoes to be sold in the local market.

The search

The Customs decided to search open the containers on Monday, April 22 and the consignee was again summoned to the Orugodawatta yard. The long process of searching the three container loads of potatoes began by the Customs official with the labourers working continuously day and night. A stock of 66,000 kilograms of potatoes packed in 4334 sacks each containing 15 kilograms had to be released as quickly as possible as they were perishable, becoming unsuitable for human consumption. Each and every sack of potato had to be cut open and the stock had to be spread on the floor not only to find any suspicious items but because of the previous experience of narcotics such as heroin being hidden in bulks of potatoes made out of plastic.

The consignee who showed no signs of suspicious behaviour nor uneasiness stayed with the Customs officials right through the checking process until Friday, April 26 when the former had finished unloading two containers and was about to move on to the third one. By midnight the officers had emptied three quarters of the third container when they came across something strange hidden in the corner. Fifteen sacks of vials containing a liquid drug later found to be contraceptives was detected by the searchers and to their amazement the owner of the shipment had vanished by then.

Emigration alerted


Vials containing the vaccine

The Customs promptly informed the Emigration counters at the Bandaranaike International Airport and Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport of the consignee who would attempt to flee the country. But so far no such attempt had been made according to the airport immigration and emigration sources. It was later learnt that the suspect who was with the officers had given the slip leaving his wharf clerk when the third container was opened for checking. He had claimed that he would return after a cup of tea. On the other hand the officers could not detain the suspect until any unlawful item was recovered.

Depo - Provera

The drug was identified as a contraceptive vaccine named Depo - Provera, a vial containing 150mg/ml of Medroxyprogesterone Acetate, a popularly used contraceptive both by the government and private hospitals. The vaccine used by females could be injected to the thigh or the buttocks and a shot would last three months. The injection can be purchased from pharmacies on a prescription.

A vial reportedly costs about Rs. 1000. Samples of the seized drugs will be sent to the Cosmetics, Devices and Drugs Regulatory Authority Sri Lanka (CDDRA) for laboratory tests. The CDDRA is the institution on which the Health Ministry has vested authority to ensure that pharmaceuticals and medical devices and cosmetics available to the public meet the required standards of quality and are within the existing legislative framework with respect to the production, marketing and dispensing.

The vaccine has many reactions - Dr. Hemantha Dodampahala

Leading Obstetrician and Gynaecologist of Colombo National Hospital Dr. Hemantha Dodampahala told the Sunday Observer the contraceptive vaccine Depo - Provera  (medroxyprogesterone acetate) was popularly prescribed until recently when it started to give certain negative reactions to patients. The vaccine which is injected every three months was dispensed on prescription by both the government and private sector hospitals. However, the drug started to show reactions such as swelling and scratching making some patients sceptical whether to buy it. As a result the government hospitals have limited the issue of the particular drug. Yet, it is popularly prescribed by the private hospitals. However, reactions were found only on the vaccine and not in the tablets, the doctor said. Responding to the attempt to smuggle in a large stock of vials containing the vaccine Dr. Dodampahala said the quality of the drug is questionable whether it was actually manufactured in Pakistan, as the original product is imported from Switzerland and Germany. He said the drug has to be transported according to standard procedure whereas the product temperature of the drugs being smuggled in gunnysacks amidst potatoes cannot be approved for human treatment.

The drug prevents the penetration of sperm into the womb.

The RTF unit immediately launched an investigation and took the wharf clerk and an assistant of the consignee into custody and statements were recorded. It was revealed that the consignee who possesses a multiple entry visa to the country had registered his own business Iman International (Pvt) Ltd in November 2011. He had also maintained an account at a local private bank for more than two years where he had received large sums of money. He used three mobile phones and the investigators are checking his contacts.

He was originally from Faisalabad, Pakistan. Ashraf used three separate addresses including one in Slave Island and another in Maliban Street, Colombo 11 as his office. He lived in a house in Lilly Avenue in Battaramulla and had left the place two months ago. The Customs found an employee attached to the Ports Authority who had allegedly aided the suspect to find accommodation in Battaramulla. A statement was recorded from him and it was learnt that his wife is part of the senior nursing staff of the Colombo National Hospital. The officers are also investigating whether there is any connection between the suspect and this family for the distribution of the drug. The main question to the investigators is how the suspect would plan to sell or use such a large quantity of drugs by himself. The agent who imports the specific drug is a leading pharmaceutical company in the country.

The reports indicated that the suspect had brought in a similar shipment in January the contents of which are yet to be ascertained. Did the consignee smuggle a similar stock of drugs in that consignment, is a question posed by the Customs who are on the lookout for any local parties connected to the case, Mali Piyasena said.

"It was not an easy task to check three large container loads of potatoes. It consumed a lot of manpower as well as time but we could not simply take a chance and release the containers that could cause a grave problem to society," the Director said.

Potato price

The imported stock of potatoes is valued at $5000. The Customs believe that the suspect may have planned to sell the potatoes also if he managed to clear the shipment which could be an added bonus to him. If the cargo was cleared without any hindrance the suspect would have sold the potatoes for a cheaper price that could eventually cause a drop in the price of potatoes in the local market at the expense of the local suppliers.

The potatoes that had become unfit for human consumption has been ordered to be destroyed in due course. Customs also questioned the three lorry drivers of the containers and found that they were ordered to transport the potato load to Fourth Cross Street in Pettah by the suspect.

Revenue Task Force

Revenue Task Force is a special unit in the Sri Lanka Customs Department that has the authority to conduct raids and detections at any given place or time including airports, harbours and cargo clearing yards. The unit which acts like a flying squad is directly under the purview of the Customs Director General Jagath P. Wijeweera. The RTF is headed by Customs Director Mali Piyasena and his team, Deputy Director of Customs Siripala Edirimanna, Superintendents of Customs Parakrama Basnayake, J A S Jayakody, G B Gnanaraj, Assistant Superintendents Ambagahawatta, Aruna Piyasiri, Ajith Karunathilaka and R.C. Fernando who conducted the raid.

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