Sea-food exporter Upali Karunaratne accused of masterminding the recently exposed US visa scam in which Sports Minister Jeevan Kumaratunga`s name transpired, last night denied any wrongdoing on his part.
Speaking to The Island from Nigeria, Karunaratne said that he was in touch with the Nigerian police and the US Consulate in Lagos investigating the scam. Fielding questions, he claimed that a US company which offered job opportunities to a group of Sri Lankans directed him to a Nigerian Immigration Consultant. `The Nigerian was introduced as their recruiting agent responsible for securing work permits and Visas,` he said.
`When asked as to why we cannot get visas from the U.S. Embassy in Colombo, we were told that the US employer obtained the approval for the Nigerian consultant to secure work permit and visas through the U.S. Consulate in Nigeria,` he said.
He claimed that he submitted the complete correspondence with the Nigerian consultant to Nigerian and Sri Lankan authorities. According to him the main culprit is in Nigerian custody and he confessed his role in the scam. The police recovered a substantial amount of USD from his account.
According to him Minister Kumaratunga opened a special unit in his Ministry to explore employment opportunities for youth locally and internationally managed and implemented under the supervision and directions of Asoka Kotalawala.
`Since my Company is engaged in Seafood processing and exports, and as I have a large number of clientele around the world in seafood industry, I received an inquiry for employment of 79 youth in a seafood-processing factory in the U.S. We channeled this opportunity to send Sri Lankan youth for work in the U.S. through a foreign employment agency registered with the Foreign Employment Bureau,` Karunaratne said.
Karunaratne emphasised that the China Airline staff issued the required air tickets only after verifying the authenticity of visas with the US embassy in Colombo. He said that passports stamped with the US visas were handed over to the China Airline for this purpose. The US bound workers were arrested on February 23 at the BIA even after boarding passes were issued, he said, adding that Asoka Kotalawala, who was at the airport to assist workers, informed him of the situation over the phone. `I was furious to hear such news as to the best of our knowledge the visas were genuine as we were advised by the China Airline. And I advised Kotalawala to appear before the C.I.D. at the airport and explain. He was, arrested together with passengers,` he said.
He dismissed reports that he fled the country using a forged passport. `I am using my original, legitimately issued passport and I left on January 19, 2006 by Emirates flight EK 559 and my passport is being stamped by an immigration officer who was on duty bearing 155, a copy of the stamped page has been sent to C.I.D Headquarters in Colombo.`
`We honestly embarked on this U.S. employment project thinking this will help our Sri Lankan youth but it turned out to be a scam in the hands of Nigerian fraudsters,` he claimed.