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Floating Armouries and Avant Garde Maritime Security Services PvtP:

Navigating the murky waters

The Government's love- hate relationship with Floating Armouries and Avant Garde Maritime Security Services (Pvt)Ltd. continues to create ripples in the Cabinet.

The CID is navigating the investigations through murky waters in which the Maritime Security Company has been operating in.

Last week it was revealed that there were 2,140 firearms on board the MV Mahanuwara, one of the three floating armouries operated by Avant Garde owned by ex-military official Nishanka Sendhipathi. The second, MV Avant Garde which was taken over last October is still under CID probe. Ongoing investigations have revealed that the serial numbers of some of the 840 weapons on board the ship had been tampered with.

Following a directive from President Maithripala Sirisena, on November 11, the Sri Lanka Navy took over operations carried out by Avant Garde. According to Navy spokesperson Captain Alavi, the Navy earned Rs. 22 million a day by providing arms handling and storage services to the Maritime security companies. However, this is not the first time the Navy has been involved in this venture. Before Avant Garde was given the responsibility of handling operations in 2012, it was the Sri Lanka Navy which kept these weapons in secure storage for different private maritime security companies. The service was first introduced in late 2009 during the peak of Maritime Pirate attacks along the coast of Somalia through to the Gulf of Aden.

Navy's role

The Sri Lanka Navy Camp, SLNS Dakshina, provided safe storage facilities and took over custody of all weapons belonging to Private Maritime Security Sompanies (PMSCs), which were mostly foreign at that time.

The Navy charged $ 10 per weapon per day. A proposal for the Navy to engage in operations to provide maritime security to commercial vessels was discussed but abandoned due to legal complications that may arise in such a venture. The Navy also made proposals to the United Nations to set up a Maritime Security force similar to the Peace Keeping force but the discussions fell through. However, with the tie-up, Rakna Arakshaka Lanka Limited (RALL), the government-owned company registered with the Registrar of Companies set up by the Ministry of Defence under the supervision of former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, between and Avant Garde, the Navy was relieved of its responsibilities. Local PMSCs hired weapons and personnel, from RALL until the operations were handed over to Avant Garde.

Floating armouries a relatively new phenomenon in international maritime security, just as it is new to Sri Lanka. As piracy incidents - attacks and attempts to take over commercial liners increased since 2005 commercial liners turned to use PMSCs to provide them with security needed for commercial vessels to pass through the high risk area spreading across the Arabian Sea, the northern Indian Ocean, and the south of the Red Sea.

However, since there are no international or national laws strictly governing these armouries and PMSCs, their services have received mixed reactions internationally.

Avant Garde becomes a monopoly

On September 18, 2012, the Ministry of Defence wrote to local and foreign PMSCs notifying them that the "Ministry of Defence and Urban Development had decided to deploy a Floating Armoury off Galle, South of Sri Lanka in the international waters from October 15, 2012."

According to the letter, the decision was taken "taking into consideration national security concerns," contrary to the concerns raised at present of the threat posed by having privately owned floating armouries off the coast of Sri Lanka.

A former Navy Commander referred to the move as "asking for trouble, especially in a post war country" while Captain Alavi too stressed on the national security threat an unsupervised armoury poses.

An agreement signed by RALL and Avant Garde on January 27 last year, established the public-private partnership which amalgamated six projects conducted by Avant Garde, namely

"1. Armouries project inter Alia Forward Operation Centres established in other countries including but not limited floating armouries but not limited to Fujairah and the Red Sea,

2. Fishing Trawlers project

3. Galle Floating Amoury Project

4. Air and Sea Transporation of Weapons Project

5. Un Armed Sea Marshals Project and

6. Rangala Weapons Depository Project.

The Agreement also gives Avant Garde exclusivity in the fields, while agreeing on $20 million as "liquidated damages not as a penalty" in the event of breach of contract.

A further $20 million is payable to Avant Garde if the contract is breached by RALL. This amount is payable within two months of written notice of a breach.

Questions are being asked about the validity of these agreements. In February 2015, JVP MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake questioned in Parliament about the process in which the agreements were signed as no national or international tenders have been called for the projects before entering into a partnership with Avant Garde. Dissanayake repeated his concerned in August questioning why no action has been taken regarding the issue.

Business of Avant Garde

After the tie up with the RALL, Avant Garde established three floating armouries, registered with the Ministry of Defence. Their website, states that these three armouries are "strategically placed in three key locations around the High Risk Area (HRA)" namely MV Seapol One in the Gulf of Oman, MV Avant Garde in the Red Sea and MV Mahanuwara in Galle, and "provide storage facility of firearms owned by both PMSCs and the government of Sri Lanka as well as accommodation for sea Marshals".

"Weapons owned by the Government are available for hire on per-transit basis to Private Maritime Security Companies (PMSCs) along with "sea marshal provided by RALL" "accompanied by an authorization letter issued by the Ministry of Defence - Sri Lanka, for a specific vessel for a transit".

Of the 2140 Weapons stored on board MV Mahanuwara has now been taken over by Navy following the Presidential directive. The floating armoury MV Avant Garde which was apprehended by the Navy and taken into custody is under investigation by the CID. The armoury was said to have only three weapons along with three sea marshals. However it was later found that the vessel was carrying 840 weapons, belonging to the Sri Lanka government.

The company is also engaged in training and certifying sea marshals and has at its "disposal all facilities and resources to conduct any type of Firearms Training Course with Rifle, Handgun or Shotgun". The training given to Maritime Security is only a 'One-Day Refresher Course' as the company claims all those hired were former forces personnel. According to the company website, over 2000 such personnel has been certified so far. Regulations on recruitment and training process needed for certification of sea marshals for PMSCs in Sri Lanka is still a grey area. A number of local PMSCs which operated in before 2012 slowly went out of business owing to diversified business portfolios.

Political controversy

The political drama of Avant Garde unfolded when the floating armoury MV Mahanuwara berthed in the Galle Port was inspected by the Galle Port police. Questions have risen on how and why the vessel was given permission to enter the Port, as the Navy claimed it was not informed of such movements. Following the raids Senadhipathi's passport was impounded by Court.

An investigation conducted by the CID revealed that the company was earning up to Rs. 15 million from its floating armoury operations. In taking action against the company, Additional Solicitor General Wasantha Navarathna Bandara in a memo - which was later leaked to the media - outlined three different grounds under which the Avant Garde owner could be prosecuted :

1. Unauthorised importation of firearms to Sri Lanka (under the Firearms Ordinance and Explosives Act)

2. Possession of firearms and ammunition without valid licences (also under the Firearms Ordinance and Explosives Act)

3.Conspiracy in aiding and abetting to commit the above offences.

However, the AG's Department later told Court that there was no case and Avant Garde was now in troubled waters. In the meantime, the Court lifted the travel ban imposed on Senadhipathi and allowed him to travel to Nigeria on business. On his own admission senior lawyer and close Government ally, Thilak Marapana said that he represented Senadhipathi in getting his travel clearance. Marapana's statement regarding his legal advice given to Senadhipathi also cost him his ministerial position in the government, as he was forced to resign from office as Minister of Law and Order.

Two other Ministers are at war over the legality of the floating armoury owned by Avant Garde. Minister of Justice Wijeyadasa Rakapakshe and Minister of Health Rajitha Senevirathne have been battling it out making accusations and counter charges against each other over the issue. Rajapakshe claims that there is no provision under which Avant Garde could be prosecuted, as the business was legal, a statement which received heavy criticism in Parliament as well. However, Minister Seneratne demands an independent investigation. Last week, a third, Minister Harin Fernando was dragged into the battle as he was accused of defending Avant Garde during a television interview.

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