“As a result of my investigations into the Lasantha Wickrematunge’s murder case, I believe the MiG deal revelations in The Sunday Leader formed the main motive for his murder,” former Inspector of Police and lead investigator into Wickrematunge’s murder told the People’s Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists at the Hague, Netherlands on May 12.
IP Nishantha Silva detailed among other things how cell phones used by the murderers were identified by combing through cell tower records and that after journalist Keith Noyahr was abducted on May 22, 2007 and subsequently released, the chain of telephone calls that led to the release began with businessman Krishantha Cooray and editor Lalith Allahakoon and ended with then Secretary to the Ministry of Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Army Intelligence Officer Major Prabath Bulathwatte.
On, May 12, the People’s Tribunal in The Hague began hearings into the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge, based on an indictment presented by a coalition of international press freedom organisations. A Safer World For The Truth is a collaborative project between three leading press freedom rights groups , Free Press Unlimited, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), to pursue justice for murdered journalists.
The hearing featured testimonies from journalists and witnesses who worked with Wickrematunge who spoke at length about the many obstacles faced by journalists in Sri Lanka in the pursuit of their craft.
The case also heard evidence and testimony on the murder itself and attacks on other journalists from key witnesses Sandhya Ekneligoda, Bashana Abeywardena, Dilrukshi Handunnetti and former CID inspector Nishantha Silva. The proceedings began with an overview of the media climate in Sri Lanka by Executive Director, Centre For Policy Alternatives Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu.
Sandya Ekneligoda, wife of cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda who disappeared in January 2010, provided context to the repressive and hostile conditions under which journalists operated at the time and explained in detail the events that led to his disappearance. Referring to her closely shaved head and black attire, the mother of two boys explained she had made a decision to not grow her hair again or wear anything but black until the case of her husband was solved.
Prabashana Abeywardena, a journalist who fled the country in 2006 and lives in exile after he was targeted for his writings especially on the war effort, gave an exhaustive and detailed account of what journalists in Sri Lanka, especially Tamil journalists, suffered during the brutal 2005-2015 period.
Journalist Dilrukshi Handunnetti who worked with Wickrematunge up until his assassination, explained her role in the first article in the series of exposes on the MIG deal and her memories of working with an editor who created space in the newsroom for divergent viewpoints.
The People’s Tribunal does not have the official judicial authority to hold perpetrators of these crimes legally responsible. However, its hearings and decisions may provide some solace to victims and victim families who have been denied justice in their own countries. It may also serve as political pressure for more formal judicial processes and offer support to the journalistic community.
Human Rights Attorney Nushin Sarkarati who testified at the hearings and represents Ahimsa Wickrematunge opened the hearing with a statement that was read on behalf of Lasantha’s daughter.
Excerpts of the statement:
“As I speak to you today, remarkable and truly historic events are taking place in Sri Lanka. After years of suffering under the tyranny of Rajapaksa misrule and despotism, the people have risen in one strident voice and are demanding that these abusive leaders exit from government.
It was under the Presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa that my father Lasantha Wickrematunge was assassinated in cold blood on the streets of Colombo on the 8th of January 2009. At the time, the current President Gotabaya Rajapaksa served as the Defence Secretary in his brother Mahinda’s government. It was a dark and repressive era in the history of Sri Lanka, and the rulers assumed that the murder of this trail-blazing journalist would be but a small distraction in the jubilant celebrations of a war victory. They could not have been more wrong. My father’s assassination caused outrage, not only in Sri Lanka but across the world….
Even though a murder investigation was initiated in Sri Lanka soon after his assassination, nothing came of it. When the government changed in 2015, both Sri Lanka and our family finally hoped that justice would finally be done and that Lasantha Wickrematunge’s killers would finally be held to account. But it was not to be. Members of the new government were more interested in covering for the killers than seeking to punish the perpetrators of this crime.
For so many years, courts and governments have slammed the door on families of murdered journalists who seek nothing more than to bring those who killed their loved ones to justice. Now, the People’s Tribunal on Murdered Journalists in the Hague have taken up the case of my father, together with two other slain journalists from Syria and Mexico, Nabil Shabarji and Miguel Angel Lopez Velasco. It is heartening that 13 long years after my father’s assassination, the People’s Tribunal is providing families like mine something resembling a day in court. My thoughts and prayers are with the families of murdered Sri Lankan journalists Prageeth Ekneligoda, Dharmeratnam Sivaram, Mylvaganam Nimalarajan as well as with journalist Keith Noyahr who was subject to brutal torture and many others who paid a high price for speaking truth to power. Perhaps when the tribunal lays out the full brutality of these murders, the bell will finally toll for those who killed journalists like my father – those who might have imagined they would never face the consequences of their barbarity.
My father’s assassination, just like the killings of all other journalists, was not only a heinous crime that denied his family of a wonderful father, but also robbed the people of Sri Lanka their right to the truth. In that last editorial he wrote, “I hope my assassination will not be seen as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration for those who survive….I hope it will galvanise forces that will usher in a new era of human liberty in our beloved motherland.’ Those words are indeed coming true before our eyes today as the people of Sri Lanka rise in unity against years of corruption, misrule, state sanctioned murder and impunity. We can dare hope that my father’s vision of transparency, impartiality, tolerance and liberty is within reach.“
The verdict on the trial is set to be delivered sometime in June.