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Row over Lanka honorary consul

Joemon Joseph (extreme left) with Shashi Tharoor at the inauguration

Thiruvananthapuram, Feb. 26: The appointment of a businessman with questionable credentials as honorary consul of Sri Lanka in the Kerala capital has raised a storm, with chief minister Oommen Chandy and home minister Ramesh Chennithala staying away from the consulate’s inauguration here today.

Union minister of state for human resource development and local MP Shashi Tharoor was the only politician present.

Local MLA K. Muraleedhran of the Congress, CPI state secretary Pannyan Raveendran, BJP state president V. Muraleedharan and CPM district secretary Kadakampilli Surendran were invited but skipped the event hosted by the new consul Joemon Joseph, an Ernakulam-based businessman with business interests in China as well.

No official from the Sri Lankan high commission in New Delhi was present either.

Chandy and Chennithala had decided against attending the programme following adverse intelligence reports that Joseph was yet to be cleared in criminal cases, sources said.

Joseph, who has interests in the mining industry, has a case pending against him in Ernakulam for allegedly threatening a local resident who had objected to the operation of a quarry owned by him. The forest department too had booked him for allegedly building a road through a forest to his quarry.

“My name was proposed by the Sri Lankan government and it was approved by Indian government after verification by different agencies including IB and RAW. This controversy is unnecessary,” Joseph told the media today.

Denying that he had any criminal case pending, Joseph claimed the charges against him were fabricated. He said the Kerala High Court had granted a stay of the police case but when asked for the case number, he said he did not remember it.

Countries frequently appoint honorary consuls to regions where they want a nominal presence but cannot afford a full-fledged diplomatic mission. There are currently 76 honorary consuls in India.

Honorary consuls are not official representatives of the state that nominates them, and do not enjoy any diplomatic immunities or privileges. They are typically businessmen belonging to the host nation, with investment interests in the nations that nominate them as their honorary consuls.

Joseph avoided a direct reply when asked about his business interests in Lanka.

The absence of all other political invitees “jolted” Tharoor who then wound up his address in less than three minutes and left the venue immediately after lighting the inaugural lamp.

To a question whether he was aware of the cases against Joseph, Tharoor said that as far as he knew, the consul “has not been convicted in any case”. “The inauguration was fixed for today especially to accommodate the chief minister’s engagements,” Tharoor said, adding it was sad Chandy still could not make it.

However, sources said it is uncommon for a chief minister to attend the inauguration of an honorary consul.