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Sri Lankan police exhume body of prominent slain editor

September 27, 2016

Sri Lankan police on Tuesday exhumed the body of a prominent anti-establishment newspaper editor as part of an investigation into his murder, widely blamed on the regime of former strongman president Mahinda Rajapakse.

Lasantha Wickrematunga, a fierce critic of Rajapakse’s government, was killed by unidentified gunmen as he drove to work in Colombo seven years ago.

The new administration has reopened the investigation into his killing, which sparked an international outcry and shone a spotlight on allegations of deadly violence directed against the media.

Wickrematunga, chief editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper, wrote an article before his death in which he forecast that the Rajapakse government would murder him.

“When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me,” wrote Wickrematunga, who endured years of harassment and intimidation for his work, in the article published in the Guardian and the New Yorker.

On Tuesday police swarmed onto Wickrematunga’s grave site at Colombo’s main cemetery and erected two white tents after a magistrate ordered a fresh autopsy.

“The magistrate is present with a team of doctors,” said Athula S Ranagala, a lawyer for the Wickrematunga family, outside the cemetery where journalists were gathered.

“The family is happy with the progress of the case,” he added.

President Maithripala Sirisena last year slammed police for dragging their feet on investigations into the 52-year-old’s death and into other high-profile murders during Rajapakse’s rule.

Sirisena swept Rajapakse from office in a 2015 general election, pledging action against criminals and corrupt individuals during the former strongman’s decade in power.

The case was reopened last year after a former minister in Rajapakse’s government accused the deposed president’s brother, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, of running a death squad and ordering the hit against the editor.

Gotabhaya, then secretary to the defence ministry, has denied any involvement. But rights groups say there is strong evidence the military played a role.

An army intelligence officer was arrested in July in connection with the killing.

Wickrematunga and his newspaper had accused Gotabhaya of corruption over the purchase of second-hand aircraft and arms for the military.

Another autopsy was ordered this month after scrutiny of medical examinations showing different results, including one that suggested he was stabbed.

Journalists gathered outside the cemetery on Tuesday but were blocked by police from entering, while the gravesite was covered with black plastic and the magistrate involved spoke with cemetery workers.

Ranagala said doctors were expected to examine the body at the facilities of the island’s judicial medical officer in Colombo.

Wickrematunga started the Sunday Leader with his brother Lal Wickrematunga 22 years ago, building it into one of the most vocal anti-establishment newspapers in the country.

The newspaper was highly critical of rights abuses by troops against ethnic minority Tamils during the island’s long-running separatist conflict that ended in 2009.

Some 17 journalists and media employees were killed in Sri Lanka under Rajapakse’s regime.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.