Top Sri Lankan official out after counterfeit drug scandal arrest

A Sri Lankan Cabinet minister has resigned after being arrested in a scandal over the government’s alleged purchase of counterfeit drugs during the country’s economic crisis.

A government statement Tuesday confirmed that Environment Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, who previously served as health minister, has resigned. He was arrested on Friday for alleged involvement in the procurement of counterfeit intravenous human immunoglobulin, which is used to help fight infections and cancer, and was ordered held for investigation until Feb. 15.

His resignation follows mounting pressure from opposition lawmakers, activists and health groups for him to be removed and for a transparent investigation to be held into the scandal.

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Five other senior Health Ministry officials and the supplier of the alleged counterfeit drugs have also been arrested.

Rambukwella is accused of using the economic crisis as a pretext to bypass the usual tender process in purchasing many types of medicine and allegedly favor a particular supplier.

He served as health minister until last October, when he was removed and appointed environment minister. In September, he survived a no-confidence motion submitted in Parliament by opposition lawmakers who accused him of failing to secure enough essential drugs and laboratory equipment, resulting in preventable deaths in hospitals.

Sri Lankan flag

The Sri Lankan flag flies in Colombo, Sri Lanka, January 31, 2024. (Photo by Thilina Kaluthotage/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The no-confidence motion was easily defeated since the governing coalition has a majority in the 225-member house.

Rambukwella could not be reached for comment. He has previously rejected the allegations against him.

Sri Lanka provides free health care through state-run hospitals, which experienced a shortage of medicines and health workers, especially doctors, as a result of the economic crisis.

Several patients died or suffered impairments, including blindness, while being treated at the hospitals over the last two years under circumstances that are being investigated by the Health Ministry. Their relatives, medical trade unions, activists and opposition lawmakers alleged that low-quality drugs led to poor patient care.

Sri Lanka has been struggling with an economic crisis since declaring bankruptcy in April 2022 with more than $83 billion in debt, more than half of it to foreign creditors. The economic crunch caused severe shortages of food, medicine, fuel, cooking gas and electricity in 2022, which led to massive street protests that forced then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign.

Sri Lanka has secured a $3 billion bailout package from the International Monetary Fund and is taking steps to restructure its domestic and foreign debts.

The shortages of food, fuel and medicine have largely abated over the past year under new President Ranil Wickremesinghe. But public dissatisfaction has grown over government efforts to increase revenue by raising electricity charges and imposing heavy new income taxes on professionals and businesses. The new taxes are part of the government’s effort to meet the conditions of the IMF bailout.

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Because of the crisis, thousands of Sri Lankans are leaving the country for better paying jobs abroad, including about 1,500 doctors who have left over the last year, according to a doctors’ union.

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