Sri Lanka ex-leader slams new regime over graft probe

COLOMBO - Former Sri Lankan strongman Mahinda Rajapakse Wednesday accused the new government of pursuing a witch-hunt against his family as he and his brother prepared to be interrogated by anti-corruption investigators.

The 69-year-old, who was toppled in a presidential election in January, accused his successor Maithripala Sirisena of trying to intimidate him by portraying his decade in power as being riddled with corruption.

Sri Lanka's main anti-corruption panel is to question Rajapakse on Friday over allegations that he bribed a high profile opposition figure to defect and accept a cabinet portfolio just before January's polls.

"They have no evidence. They are making wild allegations. This is a witch-hunt," Rajapakse told AFP in an interview at his home in a suburb of Colombo where he is protected by police and military guards.

"Neither I nor any member of my family has ill-gotten money. At first, they said I had money in Swaziland, then in Dubai. Show us the money, where is the evidence?

"They said I owned a hotel in Dubai. Then they said all the hotels in Sri Lanka are owned by me and (brothers) Gota (Gotabhaya) and Basil," Rajapakse told AFP. "This is a joke."

Although the former president was initially summoned to appear before the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) on Friday, authorities later agreed that he could be questioned at his home following uproar by some of his supporters.

Gotabhaya, who served as defence secretary under his brother and was seen as the real power behind the throne, is due to be grilled by CIABOC investigators on Thursday although he has requested a delay.

The new government has accused Rajapakse and his inner circle of siphoning off billions of dollars during his time in office, in part by inflating the size of Chinese-funded infrastructure projects.

The former and current central bank chiefs are also being investigated over large-scale corruption allegations while several mega defence deals are being probed over suspicions Rajapakse cronies received kickbacks.

The ethnic Sinhalese strongman remains popular among big sections of the island's largest community for overseeing the defeat of the Tamil Tiger separatist rebels in 2009.

Rajapakse was however shunned by many of his fellow world leaders after he refused to probe claims that tens of thousands of civilians died in the final months of the 37-year conflict.