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The Charade of Investigating Lasantha’s Murder

January 9, 2014
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.”
Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.