On March 22, the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported that the son of an ex-president of Sri Lanka was barred from entering the U.S. “after a trip to Russia.” According to the story, Namal Rajapaksa had traveled to Russia after being invited to serve as an “observer” for the March 18 presidential election. On March 21, Rajapaksa himself tweeted from Moscow’s Domodedovo International Airport, claiming that officials with Emirates Airlines would not allow him to board his flight to Houston, Texas.
Rajapaksa implies three possible reasons for being prevented from flying to the U.S., one being his “travel to Russia.” A reader of RIA Novosti’s headline could not be faulted for jumping to a similar conclusion:“Son of the ex-president of Sri Lanka not allowed into the U.S. after a trip to Russia.”
It turns out the reason he could not travel to the U.S. is more straightforward. According the U.S. government he lacked “a valid visa.”
Let’s look more closely:
On his personal website, Namal Rajapaksa, 31, describes himself as follows: “A Proud Citizen of Sri Lanka. A Member of Parliament. A Lawyer. A Philanthropist. A Rugby Player. A Yoga Enthusiast.” One thing he does not mention is any history of being an election observer. Rajapaksa also claimed he received no explanation from U.S. authorities as to why he was barred entry.
If one were to read further down in the RIA Novosti article, however, there is a sentence which suggests a more likely reason why airline officials didn’t allow Rajapaksa to board his flight to the U.S.
“According to The Daily Mail, the ban on entry to the U.S. may be connected with the fact that in his homeland he has been accused of money laundering,” the text reads.
A cursory search reveals a number of news reports about the incident in Moscow and Rajapaksa’s legal case. The New Indian Express, for example, reported that:
“U.S. authorities do not comment on individual cases, but official sources said his name was likely on a travel watch list as a result of money laundering charges he faces at home.”
The Daily Mail, the source cited in RIA Novosti’s story, notes that Rajapaksa’s passport had been “impounded” by Sri Lankan authorities, but that he was granted a two-month exception by a judge to travel to Russia and Nepal.
Polygraph contacted U.S. Border Patrol, which provided the following statement:
“All travelers arriving to the United States must possess valid travel documents. For foreign nationals, this includes a current passport and a valid visa or visa waiver issued by the U.S. Government. In this instance, Mr. Namal Rajapaksa, 31, did not have a valid visa to travel to the U.S. and without valid travel documents, airline carriers do not normally allow international passengers to board flights destined to the U.S.”
Based on this statement and the details of his pending criminal case at home, the explanation for Rajapaksa’s ban is not based on Russian-U.S. politics.