By Lal Wickrematunge –
The Sunday Leader, last week apologised to Gotabaya Rajapaksa for a series of articles written in the newspapers in 2006 on the purchase of MIG 27 aircraft for the Sri Lankan Air Force. The unqualified apology was carried in the Leader newspaper of 8.3.2015. At the outset Romesh de Silva PC with GG Arulpragasam appeared for the newspaper and Lasantha. Initially Gotabaya informed court that he would give evidence via video link from the Defence Ministry which was objected to by the respondents. The plaintiffs request was granted and on appeal it was turned down and reverted back to the original court. Both Romesh de Silva PC and Attorney at Law GG Arulpragasam appeared for the newspaper and Lasantha pro deo.
The case dragged on and in January 2009 Lasantha was brutally murdered. I would at this stage remind readers of the interview Gotabaya gave the BBC. When Bruce Morris of the BBC asked about the killing of Lasantha the then Defence Secretary went berserk. “ Who is Lasantha? He is just a tabloid journalist who criticised every leader”, he ranted. When Stephen Sakur of Hard Talk – BBC interviewed Gotabaya he went further.When asked why he demanded a colossal amount knowing that no one can pay that much by way of damages and if his intention was to shut down the newspaper, “ so be it” said Gotabaya.
At this stage both Romesh de Silva PC and Attorney GG Arulpragasam opted out of the case as they did not practise in the Mount Lavinia courts. A fresh set of lawyers were retained. On the first date of hearing Gotabaya came to Mt Lavinia court accompanied by the Tri Forces Commanders and the then IGP in addition to several government big wigs. I represented the newspaper by myself. The streets leading to the court house, roof tops and the court premises were swarming with armed personnel. No lawyer practsing in Mt Lavinia Court was allowed to bring their vehicles into the premises as was the practice. Security personnel dressed in suits carrying firearms sat around me. My lawyers withdrew from representing us whilst on their feet. Either they were intimidated or did not want to go against Gotabaya who by this time was riding a wave of popularity having won the war. I requested time to find lawyers. Efforts were made to approach Gotabaya to settle the case since Lasantha was killed but these were rebuffed.
I was fortunate to obtain the services of M A Sumanthiran with Viran Corea to represent us. On the first day they appeared we mustered another twenty plus lawyers to come to court which included the likes of Upul Jayasuriya, Srinath Perera and Ronald Perera. The appearence by these lawyers must have annoyed Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He reacted by carrying the pictures of the lawyers as the lead story in the official defence Ministry web site stating that traitors in black coats were appearing for the Sunday Leader. The local as well as the international Bar Associations objected strongly.
Eventually Gotabaya gave evidence before Judge Gunawardene. At one point in his evidence the Judge made an observation. He wished to visit the airport to have a look at the MIG aircraft. The next court date came by and we were surprised to find the case was now transferred to another court. Attorney Sumanthiran objected to this only to be informed that it was a routine transfer. His objection was recorded but over ruled.We lost the resultant appeal and Gotabaya concluded his evidence in chief. Attorney Sumanthiran began his cross examination meticulously. A great deal of back ground information was collected and was in the offing for future cross examination.
The next Presidential election came by and Mahinda won a second term retaining his brother as Secretary Defence. Further cross examination was not possible as the case kept getting postponed. Attorney M A Sumanthiran was nominated to parliament by this time by the TNA and he asked me if I wished to continue with him as our lawyer to which I replied in the affirmative.
Eventually I was forced to sell out majority shares of the newspaper which in itself is another story. Asanga Seneviratne who bought major shares was confident of settling the cases and went through with the purchase after conducting a due diligence.
What took place thereafter was another fiasco which is best taken up later. The case was heard a few times and postponements took place. At one point Gotabaya had agreed to settle the case with an unqualified apology provided Asanga paid him Rs 25 million which was to go to some Army facility. Seneviratne had not taken up the suggestion and subsequently the figure had been reduced to Rs 10 million. This too was turned down on the basis that he did not have that kind of money to pay on behalf of the Leader.
Somewhere down the line Asanga Seneviratne had discontinued the services of Attorney M A Sumanthiran by not continuing to give instructions. He changed the lawyers for reasons best known to him. Mahinda lost the ensuing Presidential elections to Maithripala Sirisena and with that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was no longer the all powerful Defence Secretary. With hundreds of complaints of bribery and other misdemeaners against politicians and officials of the previous government being filed I felt that Gotabaya Rajapaksa would be reticent to pursue with the case.
I was the most surprised when I heard through journalistic colleagues that the case in question had been settled in court by Gotabaya Rajapaksa with the record being signed by a Director appointed by Asanga Seneviratne on the basis of an unqualified apology. Did I read somewhere that someone had filed a complaint recently against the purchase of MIGs?