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The Charade of Investigating Lasantha’s Murder

Lasantha Wickrematunge’s Fifth Death Anniversary (Pic. Daily Mirror)

Renowned Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge was killed exactly five years ago. Both co-founder and editor-in-chief of ‘The Sunday Leader,’ he was murdered by government thugs in broad daylight at a busy intersection in suburban Colombo on his way to work. Yet his killers roam free. The Government of Sri Lanka has refused to investigate his murder seriously. On the contrary, it has flouted the law by random arrests, forced confessions and possibly murdering a suspect in police custody. 

Wickrematunge was killed in January 2009. That was while the Sri Lanka military was fighting the secessionist rebel group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The man at the forefront of the campaign was then army commander Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka. Although hailed a hero till the war ended (human rights violations and civilian deaths in his watch were ignored), Fonseka was in trouble soon after with Sri Lanka’s political elite – President Mahinda Rajapakse and his brothers, especially Gotabhaya Rajapakse, secretary, Ministry of Defence.
The rift was to have enormous consequences on the Wickrematunge murder investigation. Rebuffed by the Rajapakses – either because they did not want to share military glory with him or because they feared too much power in the hands of a military officer was prescription for a coup – Fonseka was sidelined. He avenged himself by contesting the presidency in 2010 and performing creditably. The election that Mahinda Rajapakse went on to win was tainted by fraud.
But soon it was payback time. Fonseka was arrested and placed in custody. Following this, another senior military officer – Brigadier Duminda Keppetivalana – was taken into custody. He was arrested in connection with Wickrematunge’s killing. The logic goes something like this: with mounting accusations against the Rajapakses for a hand in the Wickrematunge’s killing, they had to blame someone and it was easiest if that someone was associated with their archrival Fonseka. And pointing fingers at Fonseka was not too difficult either due to accusation that he had been none too gentle in dealing with other journalists.
Fonseka charged that Keppetivalana had been arrested because of him. “‘That is what his wife told me. When they arrested him at home, they had told the family that they were taking him in for the suspected killing of Lasantha. After taking him in they are forcing him to say that he got involved in the assassination following my orders. He is currently being forced to confess to the murder,’ Fonseka claimed,” reported The Sunday Leader.
The government claimed Keppetivalana was in charge of an intelligence unit in which Kandegedara Piyawansa, an army intelligence officer, served. In the initial round-up the police arrested 17 persons. Of them 10 were released soon including Keppetivalana. Piyawansa however was not he was retained for further questioning. It was the start of the plot getting murkier.
Piyawansa was arrested because of a connection to five cellphone SIM cards the police claimed had been used by Wickrematunge’s killers. This was after the police investigation revealed the five SIM cards were purchased using the identity papers of another man – Pitchai Jesudasan, a poor motorcar repair shop worker. (The Sri Lanka government brought in regulations that due to the use of cellphones in rebel attacks, SIM cards could only be purchased after the buyer established identity through valid identity papers). However, under interrogation Jesudasan confessed he had not purchased the SIM cards himself but had lost his identity card while with Piyawansa.
This tale of using flimsy evidence to implicate, arrest and detain people does not end here. Piyawansa was kept in solitary confinement by the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) of the police that took over the investigation. He was finally released on bail when he made a statement to a magistrate alleging that the TID had asked him to make a statement implicating General Fonseka in Wickrematnge’s murder.      
“Former Army intelligence unit member Kandegedara Priyawansa making an statement in open court during a previous hearing of the case on May 12, had said that one OIC Prasanna Alwis of the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) had tried to influence him into making a statement implicating a senior military officer in Wickrematunge’s assassination,” said The Sunday Leader.
Following this sensational revelation Piyawansa was released on bail in 2011, although the police objected to bail being served. On September 7, 2013 he was, rather unexpectedly, released after acquittal by a magistrate due to a lack of evidence, reported Sri Lanka’s Daily FT.
Things went very differently for Jesudasan. A minority Tamil and poor to boot, he remained in police custody until his untimely death.
“On 13 October (2011), he was to be brought from Magazin Prison to Mount Lavinia Magistrate Court… He was found that day in prison lying on the ground having discharged a large amount of sputum (a mixture of mucus and saliva) from his mouth and nose. Prison officials admitted him to ward 44 of the National Hospital in Colombo for treatment. Two days after he was admitted, he was pronounced dead. Jesudasan was a healthy adult who sustained a livelihood as a mechanic before the arrest. He had no previously reported illnesses. The police stated that Jesudasan died of a heart attack,” said the Asian Human Rights Commission.
The Judicial Medical Officer investigating the death returned an open verdict.
Said the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists on January 8 last year, “On this anniversary of Wickrematunga’s murder, the IFJ joins the FMM and other partners in appealing that due priority be given to abolishing the culture of impunity and restoring freedom of expression in Sri Lanka.”

Sri Lankan Editor Held at Knifepoint as Gang Searches Documents

Rifled belongings in the home of journalist (Pic. courtesy Sri Lanka Mirror)

A senior journalist was held at knifepoint in her home on Saturday by a gang of five, at least one of whom is a serving soldier in Sri Lanka’s Army, allegedly searching for documents and files. The incident happened a day before the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights arrived in the country on a week-long fact-finding mission.
Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema, an award-winning journalist and associate editor of the weekly The Sunday Leader, was held at knifepoint in the early hours of Saturday morning, with her 10-year-old daughter and aged parents. The gang spent over two hours rifling through her belongings including documents and files. Meanwhile, her husband Romesh Abeywickrema, who is the business editor in the same newspaper returning home and seeing suspicious movements in the house, alerted the police. In the ensuing confrontation one intruder was shot dead and two injured as the gang tried to fight its way out. Three policemen too were injured, one critically.
What has followed are sharply differing interpretations from skimpy facts of the intrusion that have come out. While the police and the government-controlled media maintain the incident was a heist that went bust, media watchdogs and the statement of Abeywickrema point to something more insidious – an attempt to either silence her or seize documents in her possession.
Speaking to the privately-owned television station MTV, Abeywickrema said the gang had told her that they had been contracted by someone who was her enemy. “The incident raises serious suspicion as the attackers had spent several hours going through various documents and files after cutting off the phone lines” Free Media Movement’s convenor Sunil Jayasekara said in a statement. The Free Media Movement is respected media watchdog in the country.
Abeywickrema was also at the forefront of the formation a new trade union for journalists. Priyantha Karunaratne, general secretary of the Sri Lanka Journalists Trade Union (SLJTU) said that the “sordid and organized act had been carried out by those who detest and are alarmed at the practice of the SLJTU and journalism of Ms. Mandana Abeywickrema.”

Mandana IsmailAbeywickrema  (Pic

The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) condemning the incident urged the police to act: “[w]e call on the police to determine the genuine motives behind the attack and prosecute those responsible.”
The police however was insistent that the incident was nothing more than attempted burglary. This line of analysis was also enthusiastically taken up by the military. 
“Some statements/reports have even attempted to portray this as an attack on the media. This is far from the truth and we refute all such allegations. The Sri Lanka Army does not approve of any crime and particularly we regret this incident in which a senior journalist has suffered at the hands of a gang of thieves,” Army Spokesman Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya said in a statement.
The incident came a day before UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay arrived in the country on a six-day visit. Her visit is primarily because of a resolution adopted n the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) in March this year empowering her to report to it on the human rights situation in the country following the end of the civil war in May 2009. Issuing a statement to coincide with Pillay’s visit, media watchdogs pointed to the Abeywickrema incident as an example of the threat to the media freedom in the country and urged the High Commissioner to address the issue.
“Reporters without Borders [RSF] and Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka expect the High Commissioner to be firm in securing a transparent commitment from the Sri Lankan government to bring justice to those who have been victims of grave crimes against media freedom. ‘As long as crimes against the media and its workforce go unpunished, while perpetrators feel safe with the implicit assurance of impunity, media freedom in Sri Lanka is facing a grave threat. We urge Navi Pillay to remind Sri Lanka’s leaders of their accountability in delivering justice,’ said the two organisations,” reads an RSF statement posted on its website. Journalists for Democracy (JDS) is a highly respected group of exiled Sri Lankan journalists living in Europe.
Sri Lankais placed 162nd of 179 countries on RSF’s Press Freedom Index in 2013.
The Sunday Leader has incurred the wrath of the government several times. Its founder editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge, was murdered in January 2009 allegedly by government operatives close to the country’s president, Mahinda Rajapakse. His killers have not been brought to justice. Frederica Jansz who succeeded Wickrematunge and carried articles critical of the president’s brother, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse, was verbally abused and threatenedby him. (RSF has designated Gotabaya Rajapakse as a predator of the media). Last year Jansz resigned alleging her editorial freedom was compromised, after majority shares of the newspaper were bought by a businessman with strong government sympathies. She has since fled the country.