Sri Lanka court begins probing Rajapakse-era graft

Sri Lanka's ex-president Mahinda Rajapakse, who was questioned by police last week, denies any wrongdoing

Former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapakse's chief of staff was indicted Friday for embezzling millions of dollars from a state insurance firm.

A new court set up to investigate major corruption began its work by hearing the case against Rajapakse's top aide Gamini Senarath and three others accused of siphoning off 500 million rupees ($3 million).

The four took the money during the construction of a hotel in the capital Colombo that was meant to be managed by the Hyatt group, prosecutors said.

Sri Lanka's government announced in May the creation of a special court to accelerate high-profile cases, following criticism of the slow pace of justice since President Maithripala Sirisena came to power in 2015.

He had pledged to punish members of the former administration accused of stealing vast sums during Rajapakse's decade-long rule.

Stringent security was in force on Friday at the court, which released all four men on bail of 1.1 million rupees each.

The judges also allowed a defence plea for more time to study the indictments and fixed the next hearing for September 19.

Rajapakse's top civil servant, Lalith Weeratunga, has already been convicted of misappropriating $4 million and sentenced to three years in prison.

Two of the former president's three sons have also been charged with money-laundering and other relatives face corruption allegations.

Rajapakse was questioned by police last week in connection with the abduction and torture of a journalist in 2008.

The ex-president denies any wrongdoing and has accused the new government of a witch-hunt.