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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 Lanka’s President Calls Playwright To Commiserate After Banning Play

Glorious Honourable Excellency Chaminda Pusswedilla (Pic Colombo Gazette)

Sri Lankathat stands 163rd of 179 states in the Reporters without Borders (RSF) Press Freedom Index took a new step in suppressing freedom of expression when it banned an English-Sinhala play satirising the country’s president and government. But taking matters to farcical proportions was President Mahinda Rajapakse calling on playwright Feroze Kamardeen to commiserate with him and distance himself from the censorship.

“During a genial, 15-minute conversation, Mr Rajapaksa said he was piqued with the government’s Public Performances Board (PPB) for blocking the political play. He made all the appropriate noises and promised to sort it out. ‘Next time, you call me direct,’ he told Feroze Kamardeen, before hanging up,” reported The Economist.
However the Colombo Gazette said the Rajapakse had cleared the play for performance. “According to Kamardeen, the President had expressed regret over the decision taken by the censor board and insisted that he had no objections to the stage comedy. President Rajapaksa had later assured that he would intervene in the matter as he himself had enjoyed the character of Pusswedilla,” Colombo Gazette reported.
The play is part of a series of satirical plays Glorious Honourable Excellency Chaminda Pusswedilla Puss in short. “The plays take on corruption and inefficiency in government. They follow real and sensitive political events closely. They are also scathing when it comes to the opposition,” The Economist said.
Sri Lankahas banned films and public performances before on the pretext they damage national security. It has also refused to screen foreign films for the same reason. This blog featured the controversy raised by banning of a Sinhala-language film Flying Fish at a film festival at the French Embassy in Colombo in July. Please click herefor details.
The film was later banned from public screening. Associated Press (AP) reported on Monday, July 15, that “Lakshman Hulugalla, the director general of the government’s Media Centre for National Security, (said) the film Flying Fish was banned in Sri Lanka because the film’s creators used images of the Sri Lankan military uniform without permission from the Ministry of Defense.” AP reported Hulugalle saying that legal action would be taken against “those involved in the making of the film.” 
According to The Economist, Kamardeen had sent the script of The Common Wellthings Summit for approval to the PPB for in November. It was to be a 30-minute private performance in high school theatre on November 30 satirising the Commonwealth Summit held in Sri Lanka in November that was a political and diplomatic disaster for Rajapakse. The PPB refused permission two days before the performance.
According to the Colombo Gazette, although the play was banned the cast had turned up at the theatre and sat silently in protest.  
“Pusswedilla will be back. We will not back down. In keeping with the finest traditions of democracy we will continue to make fun of our political masters on both sides of the political divide. We will continue to exercise our freedoms of speech and expression that is guaranteed to us in our constitution,” Colombo Gazette quoted Kamardeen saying.
“In a dismaying reflection on the state of the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka, people regularly ask Mr Kamardeen how he has gotten away with the Puss plays for so long. He isn’t robbing a bank, he replies. He is only writing a play. He is supposed to get away with it,” said The Economist.

BBC Crew Forcibly Prevented From Speaking To Sri Lanka President

BBC’s James Robbins prevented from speaking to Rajapakse (Pic.BBC)

Freedom of the foreign media to cover events in Sri Lanka reached a new low on Wednesday. A BBC camera crew was physically restrainedby security personnel to prevent them getting close to the country’s president, Mahinda Rajapakse, to ask him questions. The incident occurred at an event associated with the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) which Sri Lanka is hosting between November 15 and 17. 

Heightened security appears to follow an incidenton Tuesday, when a journalist of UK’s Channel Four television asked Rajapakse a question as the latter was getting into his car after opening the Commonwealth Business Forum. Media culture in Sri Lanka discourages reporters questioning officials and politicians except at press conferences or with an appointment.
The occurrence reflects the growing culture of intolerance of criticism and impunity in Sri Lanka. The country is ranked 163rd among 179 countries in the Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index with journalists killed, made to disappear, imprisoned and forced to flee overseas.
“Critical or opposition journalists continue to face intense intimidation in Sri Lanka. Our research shows that at least 26 journalists have gone into exilein the past five years, which is one of the highest rates in the world. And while work-related murders have declined since 2009, the slayings of nine journalists have gone unpunished over the past decade, which is one of the worst records of impunity in the world,” wrote Joel Simon, executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) urging Commonwealth leaders to press Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapakse, to unshackle the media.
Meanwhile, on November 13, Channel Four journalists who were on their way to northern Sri Lanka where much of the fighting took place in 30-year civil war that ended in May 2009 were not allowed to enter the area to film. The train in which they were travelling was blocked by pro-government protestors.
“Hundreds surrounded the train and some boarded it, a witness said, adding that police made no attempt to clear the crowd. The Channel 4 television news team, which has previously reported on alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka, had to return to the capital Colombo…,” said Reutersquoting Channel Four and the local police.
Channel Four is particularly shunned by the Sri Lanka government for three documentaries it made on the final months of Sri Lanka’s civil war known as ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ that show civilians caught up in savage combat between government troops and rebel LTTE fighters. Political and military leaders of the Sri Lanka government and the LTTE hierarchy are accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The spotlight on Sri Lanka from CHOGM has also shone on Sri Lanka’s long history of suppressing media freedom. Among the victims is Prageeth Ekneligoda, a columnist and cartoonist who disappeared on the eve of the presidential election on January 26, 2010.
Prageeth’s wife Sandaya in a piece to The Independent UK wrote, “In Sri Lanka there is almost no independent media. What are journalists there allowed to write about? Peaceful elections, new initiatives to keep the streets clean, how well the government is doing and CHOGM.  When CHOGM comes to Sri Lanka there will only be positive stories for the visitors to read. Positive stories, smiling billboards and hidden secrets.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he will raise human rights and media freedomissues with host Rajapakse. However Sri Lanka’s Media and Information Minister Kehiliya Rambukwella angrily dismissed the suggestion.
“The invitation to Prime Minister David Cameron was not based on that (raising human rights concerns).We are a sovereign nation. You think someone can just make a demand from Sri Lanka? We are not a colony. We are an independent state,” Rambukwella told the BBC.
However Cameron has said he would insist on taking up the issues with Rajapakse.
CHOGM that Colombo hoped would help its leaders consolidate their badly-eroding legitimacy at home has turned out to be PR nightmare both within Sri Lanka and overseas.

Media Watchdogs Urge CHOGM Leaders To Get Tough With Sri Lanka

Sandaya, wife disappeared journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda at protest

As Sri Lanka (ranked 162nd of 179 countries in the Reporters without Borders’ Media Freedom Index) prepares to hold the biennial Commonwealth Summit in capital Colombo, media freedom watchdogs are asking attending leaders to press the host government for answers for the country’s abysmal standards of media freedom including the murder and disappearance of journalists.

In a letter addressed to leaders of the Commonwealth, which is the 54-member group of Britain’s former colonies, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said, “We ask that in formal and private meetings with (Sri Lanka’s) President Rajapaksa, you urge him to ensure a credible, independent investigation into the cases of disappeared and murdered journalists, make the findings public, and efficiently prosecute the perpetrators in an effort to help reverse the pattern of impunity.”

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) will be held from November 15 to 17. Human rights violations have a long history in Sri Lanka. However they reached unprecedented heights in the final six months of a civil war fought between successive governments dominated by ethnic Sinhalese and Tamil rebels, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The six-month period that ended in May 2009 with the military defeat of the LTTE saw between 40,000 and 70,000 (some figures put it as high as 146,000) people killed. Responsibility for those deaths lie with government troops and the LTTE, both accused of perpetrating war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The government of President Mahinda Rajapakse has not only refused to hold an independent investigation into the alleged war crimes, but is accused of continuing rights violations, including media freedom. This has led to strong protests being voiced against holding CHOGM in Colombo for basically three reasons: 1) it would be legitimising a leadership accused of war crimes; 2) it would be a grave violation of the Commonwealth principles; 3) Sri Lanka could use its position as the Chair of the Commonwealth in the next two years, to fend off an international investigation into war crimes. 
“Critical or opposition journalists continue to face intense intimidation in Sri Lanka. Our research shows that at least 26 journalists have gone into exilein the past five years, which is one of the highest rates in the world. And while work-related murders have declined since 2009, the slayings of nine journalists have gone unpunished over the past decade, which is one of the worst records of impunity in the world. […] At least one journalist has simply disappeared,” says CPJ.
Meanwhile in Britain, the controversy over the Royal Charter that would give Parliament some regulatory control over the media took a new turn in late October. The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) wrote to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth asking her not to sign the Royal Charter because it would affect Britain’s standing in the world as a liberal democracy and in the Commonwealth.
“If the UK moves to control the press through the force of law then it will have a terrifying knock-on effect throughout the Commonwealth and much of the developing world where Britain has a key leadership role.
“At the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting next month in Sri Lanka, the British Government – with The Prince of Wales as your representative – should be campaigning for the protection and expansion of free expression throughout the Commonwealth, not least in countries like Rwanda, Singapore and Sri Lanka itself, which persistently lag at the bottom of world press freedom indices alongside Syria and North Korea. Further, the British Government, which decriminalised defamation in 2009, should also take strong steps encouraging Commonwealth countries to repeal criminal defamation laws. But Britain will be in no position to do that if you have signed a Royal Charter which will be seized on by enemies of free speech everywhere eager to impose similar controls,” the letter said.
Despite uproar on media repression, Sri Lanka seemed in no mood to let up on controlling the media’s access to information during CHOGM. Although it demurring earlier, Sri Lankan authorities agreed to grant press accreditation to visiting journalists covering CHOGM, while reserving the right to deny visas. But while they agreed to allow journalists from Britain’s Channel Four, that produced three documentaries on war crimes in Sri Lanka known as ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields,’ the government has denied visas to the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI). IBAHRI has jointly organised a meeting with Sri Lanka’s Bar Association on November 13 on the Commonwealth and the independence of the legal profession.
“By denying entry to the IBAHRI delegation the Government of Sri Lanka is demonstrating to the world its determination to block freedom of speech and independent discussion in the country, leaving the Commonwealth Heads cocooned and isolated. If the Commonwealth is to have any relevance in today’s world, it must act swiftly and decisively to ensure that Sri Lanka engages meaningfully with human rights,” said IBAHRI’sco-chair, Sternford Moyo.
In August this year UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillai visited Sri Lanka. Coinciding with her visit, RSF and Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS), a group of exiled Sri Lankan journalists, wrote an open letter to the High Commissioner highlighting deteriorating media freedom conditions in the country.
“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 RSF-JDSletter.