(VIENNA, Nov 21, 2013) Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of the Sri Lankan weekly The Sunday Leader, was shot near Colombo by unknown gunmen riding a motorcycle on the morning of Jan. 8, 2009 as he was driving his car to his office, according to news reports. He died of his wounds a few hours later.
Wickrematunge was one of the most persistent and authoritative critics of both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers (LTTE). In a Jan. 4 , 2009 Sunday Leader editorial criticising President Mahinda Rajapaksa for allegedly using the war against the LTTE as a tool for achieving electoral success, he boldly stated that “the Rajapakses, swollen as they are with the pride of bloodthirsty euphoria, are unable to think beyond the destruction of the LTTE and its leadership”.
An editorial published in The Sunday Leader three days after his murder, says: “In the wake of my death I know you [Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa] will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too.”
On Jan. 8, 2010, Lasantha’s brother and Chairman of Leader Publications Ltd. (which includes The Sunday Leader), Lal Wickrematunge, told IPI: “It is one year and no break-through has been made … The case in court has been called 24 times and postponed; and police have not made any headway into solving the crime.”
In a Q&A conducted by the International Press Institute (IPI) on the day his brother Lasantha was named IPI’s 53rd World Press Freedom Hero, Lal Wickrematunge said: “Lasantha knew he was in danger through past attacks on him. But he continued in his journey unbowed and unafraid. He felt total commitment to his work …”
Today, over four years after Lasantha’s murder, no one has yet been charged for this crime. IPI spoke to Sri Lankan journalist Uvindu Kurukulasuriya, who has been living in exile ever since Lasantha’s murder. Kurukulasuriya is the former convenor of the press freedom group Free Media Movement. After going into exile, he founded the online newspaper, The Colombo Telegraph, of which he is still the editor.
IPI: The 2009 murder of former Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge remains unsolved today. How far have investigations come? Has any suspect been identified by police and brought in front of a court?
UK: Two suspects were arrested two years ago. One of them was an army intelligence officer,Kandegedara Priyawansa. The other was a mechanic,Pitchai Jesudasan, from Nuwara Eliya. He was 38 years and died in Prison. The Police said in court that he died due to natural causes but the post-mortem report said “open verdict”. He died in prison and the intelligence was recently discharged. The killers were difficult to identify as they were riding motorbikes and wore black face [coverings] at the time of the murder.
One of the two arrested suspects, a former army intelligence officer, Kandegedara Priyawansa, told the Mount Lavinia Magistrate on May 12, 2011 that he was instructed by the Officer in Charge (OIC) of the Terrorist Investigations Department (TID) to claim that a “top army official” was involved in the killing of Lasantha. The intelligence officer who was arrested in connection with Lasantha’s murder told an open court that he had been instructed to say that the “army official,” whose name was not mentioned in court, was involved in the killing in return for a chance to go overseas and secure a house for himself in Sri Lanka.
While the former army intelligence officer was allegedly instructed to frame the “top army officer” for Lasantha’s death, he also claimed he was told to frame the same army officer for the assault of two other famous journalists.
It is pretty sure that the “top army officer” must be former Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka. Until he stood against the Rajapaksas in late 2009, he was a pet of this regime. Nobody was arrested right after Lasantha’s murder, apart from a village boy who had stolen Lasantha’s mobile phone. But, soon after Fonseka joined the opposition, people above were arrested.
Lasantha’s brother, Lal Wickrematunge, told me he is not happy with the police investigation.
IPI: Are the circumstances of Lasantha’s death clear?
UK: No bullets were found in the post-mortem [examination]. I would like to quote his wife. She wrote after his murder “When Lasantha was in the Emergency Unit of the Kalubowila Hospital with an injury to his head, right after the attack, we had already heard from eyewitness accounts that his car had been surrounded by assailants on four black motorbikes.
“We were told that the windows of both the driver’s and the passenger’s side had been smashed and that a witness had allegedly seen one of the assailants on the passenger side of the car pulling out a weapon of sorts – most likely a heavy metal pole wrapped in a newspaper – and smashing it into the head of Lasantha. Lasantha, according to police sources, may have fallen onto the passenger seat sideways when he was attacked from the drivers’ side of the car.
From the injury on the skull doctors say the pole may have had at its lethal end two sharp points driven into it. Lasantha also suffered a base of skull fracture due to pressure from within. Police sources said at the time that two noises were heard during the attack but they did not sound like gunshots.
IPI: Who is responsible so far for the failure to bring the perpetrators to justice: police or the courts?
UK: President Mahinda Rajapaksa told Lal Wickrematunge three times that his brother Lasantha was killed by Former Army Chief Sarath Fonseka. Lal asked me to deliver this message to UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay, which I did when she came to London. I delivered his letter to Navi Pillay.
If the former Army General was involved in Lasantha’s murder, one may wonder why he was not prosecuted?
That leads to the belief that President Rajapaksa knows who murdered Lasantha. That would also mean that Rajapaksa, in his function as Minister of Defence, knows who committed murder. If this is the case, why doesn’t he inform [the Criminal Investigation Department] and provide evidence?
IPI: Why, in your opinion, have the perpetrators not been brought to justice? Where has the justice system failed? Do you have reason to doubt the quality of police investigations into this murder? If yes, what are your concerns?
UK: In my opinion, even if the former Army general is responsible for the Lasantha killing, the real questions remain: which role did the other two government representatives above him play? The president himself is the minister of defence, his brother Gotabaya is the secretary to the Ministry of Defence, both positioned above Fonseka. Killing Lasantha cannot be only Fonseka’s own decision. He may have deployed the killers but killing such a high-profile journalist is clearly a political decision.
IPI: Have any other organisation – media outlets, journalists, NGOs – carried out investigations into Lasantha’s murder? If yes, what was the outcome and was it taken into consideration by the authorities?
UK: No one has done any investigation apart from the government. But some others publicly talk about this, for instance: the government MP Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, the leader of the Liberal Party and the adviser on reconciliation to the president told the BBC that the defence attaché of the British High Commission (BHC) in Colombo “gave a note” that accused the then-Gen. Fonseka of being responsible for that assassination. As the BBC reported, the British authorities have neither denied nor confirmed Prof. Wijesinha’s statement.
In January of this year, when I interviewed Ranil Wickremesinghe, the leader of the Opposition, he confirmed what he said at Lasantha’s funeral. He re-confirmed that the killers were four army persons.
IPI: Which structural or legal reforms of Sri Lanka’s judicial system would be necessary, in order to ensure an end to impunity?
UK: Today, the Sri Lankan justice system is in crisis. Sri Lanka’s chief justice was illegally removed. The Supreme Court said the impeachment was illegal. But the president appointed a former government spokesperson as the chief justice. Now the country has two chief justices: one is the legal chief justice and the other is the de facto chief justice.
The regime manipulates almost all politically sensitive cases. Reforms would require a holistic approach. It is not only the judiciary; there is also no independent public service commission. The present government abolished the Constitutional Council and now the president makes all the appointments. He manipulates everything. For instance, the president himself told me in front of ministers and media activists that he can fix cases and he can free people.