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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.”

Malaysia Censoring ‘No Fire Zone,’ An Attack On Art – Index On Censorship

Index on Censorship (IoC) has highlighted five cases of artistes attacked in 2013 for their performances as an infringement on their freedom of expression. However, while four of the five cases are of intolerant governments and militants groups trying to silence critical voices of performers in their own countries, one instance is different.
Lena Hendry is a programme officer for the non-profit KOMAS in Kuala Lampur Malaysia, but could be imprisoned and fined if found guilty by the Malaysian courts for the private screening of No Fire Zone, a documentary on the massacre of Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka during the final few months of the civil war ending in May 2009.

The other four cases highlighted by IoC are: Weld El 15 (aka Yaacoub) the Tunisian rapper arrested and sentenced for two years for posting an online song ‘Police are Dogs’ and later released on a six-month suspended sentence;  Kazakh poet Aaron Atabek sentenced to 18 years in prison for protesting the demolition of a shanty town and later put in solitary confinement for smuggling out poetry of protest while in detention; death threats by Islamic militants on 12,000 singers and musicians in Mali that has put them out of work, closed theatres and forced some to flee overseas; 19 actors in the city of El Kef in Tunisia assaulted by Salafi militants and later arrested by the police on charges of indecency that carries a sentence of six months incarceration.
This blog featured in previous posts the cases of Lena Hendry and Weld El 15.
However, the Weld El 15 case posted was not on his arrest for his online song ‘Police are Dogs’ but for another conviction in September for a concert performance in Hammemet with fellow-rapper Klay BBJ (aka Ahamed Ben Ahamed).
Lena Hendry was arrested by Malaysian police. On July 3, a private screening before an invited audience of No Fire Zone was co-organised by Pusat KOMAS, the Malaysian human rights NGO and KL & Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall Civil Right Committee. Before the event the organisers received a fax from the Sri Lankan High Commission in Kuala Lampur asking it not be screened and accusing the organisers of supporting terrorism, said a Malaysian news website FMT.
The screening was disrupted midway by Malaysian officials of the home ministry and the police. Although they were persuaded to let the film continue, all members of the audience leaving the hall had their identity papers scrutinised. KOMAS, says in a press release, “This is a clear abuse of power as it was not necessary for them to harass the audience who had just come to watch the movie.”
Although Hendry was told to appear in court on August 6, the hearing was postponed to September 19.  On the 19th Hendry was charged under Film Censorship Act but it unclear whether others were too.  “[to] ridiculously proceed with this travesty of justice by the charging of Lena Hendry is evident of the KDN and the AG Chambers’ bully tactics and total disregard of universal human rights principles and worse of all, the Malaysian Constitution,” reported MSN.
Meanwhile in the Tunisian case, Weld El 15 was in hiding and did not appear in court in September when his fellow-performer Klay BBJ, first sentenced for 21 months in jail was given a reduced six-month sentence on appeal. The sentence was not overturned in appeal.
Following the sentence, BBC quoting AFP said that Klay told court, “‘[o]ur songs criticise the current situation in Tunisia and the government, no more and no less. I am among the rappers most critical of the government and that is why [the authorities] are after me.'”
IoC drawing attention to these five cases said, “Art is one of the most prominent forms of freedom of expression, allowing people to express their thoughts through song, dance, prose and theatre. It is not uncommon across the world for performers to be attacked as a form of censorship, ultimately silencing what they are trying to say.”

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.

Press Freedom Prize to Uzbek Journalist Bekjanov, Tamil Newspaper ‘Uthayan’


PM David Cameron with Uthayan’s publisher (L) and Editor (Pic.Daily Mirror)

The Press Freedom Prize awarded by Reporters without Borders (RSF), Le Monde and TV5Monde, went to a journalist and a newspaper whose sacrifice for the freedom of information in the face gargantuan challenges can only be described in superlatives. The honour presented in two categories – individual journalist and newspaper – went to Uzbek journalist Muhammad Bekjanov and the Sri Lankan Tamil-language daily ‘Uthayan.’ 


The awards, given at the Strasbourg city hall were received by Uzbek human rights defender Nadejda Atayeva on behalf of Bekjanov who has been in prison for the past 14 years, and by Vallipuram Kanamayilnathan and Eswarapatham Saravanapavan, editor and publisher of the ‘Uthayan.’
“This year we again salute the exemplary courage of men and women for whom reporting the news is a daily battle,” RSF’sPresident Alain Le Gouguec said. “Their activities embody the universal value of media freedom in a real and concrete way. Thanks to them, information becomes a force capable of enlightening, mobilising and advancing the cause of freedom.”
This blog will write in more detail on Muhammad Bekjanov tomorrow.
The ‘Uthayan’ is a regional Tamil-language newspaper published in Jaffna, in a majority Tamil-speaking region of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, which was a war zone for most of the 30-year civil war that ended in May 2009. Founded in 1985, the ‘Uthayan’ was repeatedly targeted by Sri Lanka government, a paramilitary group that loyally served the government’s bidding – the Eelam Peoples’ Democratic Party (EPDP), the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) that was sent by India to guarantee the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord of 1987, a multiplicity Tamil rebel groups before 1987 and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels after that.    
While all the above are to be blamed for attacks on the ‘Uthayan’ and on media freedom in general in northern Sri Lanka, it can said unequivocally that the most sustained and deadly assaults came from the government military and the paramilitary group EPDP. What is also important is that these attacks cover the period from its founding in 1985 to April this year, which demonstrate that the intimidation has continued much after military combat came to an end in 2009.
Issuing an open joint letter to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillai while she was visiting Sri Lanka in August, RSF and Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS) said, “Jaffna based ‘Uthayan‘ alone, has come under brutal attacks over 37 times and at least five of its journalists have been killed since 2002. While all these crimes were committed in an extremely militarised area, no one so far has been brought to book.”
As pointed out by RSF-JDS, the repeated attacks on ‘Uthayan’ is a clear indicator of impunity enjoyed by the Sri Lanka military and the EPDP. Journalists and newspaper distributors were abducted and murdered, the newspaper offices were attacked on many occasions resulting in the death of employees, the press was burnt and in a particularly brutal incident in 2011, news editor Gnanasundaram Kuhanathan was beaten up and left for dead. Threat to the life of Kuhanathan was so great that he not only worked but lived on the newspaper’s premises for many years.
Writing following the April incident in the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) blog, its Asia Program coordinator Bob Dietz said “These attacks on the offices of ‘Uthayan‘ have been going on for years and typify the threats faced by the Tamil press in Sri Lanka. They also highlight the abysmal record of impunity that attackers enjoy in Sri Lanka. Under the ruling Rajapaksa regime, the record of abuse aimed at Sri Lanka’s media is unmatched in the country’s history.”
‘Uthayan’ publisher Saravanapavan, who is a member of parliament from the opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA), is also the proprietor of the ‘Sudar Oli’ published in the country’s capital, Colombo. The ‘Sudar Oli’ too has come under threat; in 2009 its editor N. Vidiyatharan was abducted and held in detention for four months by the Sri Lanka police.
The ‘Uthayan’s contribution to media freedom was acknowledged earlier this month when Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron visited the newspaper in Jaffna, while in Sri Lanka for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). Speaking after touring the newspaper’s offices Cameron said, “Thank you for being so brave.”  He said he would convey the concerns and fears of ‘Uthayan’ journalists to the government.  

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.