Saturday, January 09, 2010

SRI LANKA VIDEO: UN CONSIDERS VIOLATIONS


Click here to read Technical Note prepared by the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions
Click here to read the Appendix to the Technical Note

Sri Lanka still insists the footage, released by Journalists For Democracy and obtained by Channel 4 News in August 2009, is a fake, and it categorically denies any atrocities against the Tamil minority.

But there are other disturbing videos, some of which are shown in the accompanying report by Channel 4 News foreign affairs correspondent Jonathan Miller.

Alex Thomson spoke to the Sri Lankan ambassador to the UN, Dr Palitha Kohona. Dr Kohona said there was nothing to indicate that those who appeared in the video were Sri Lankan soldiers or that the alleged victims were Tamils - or that the video was shot in Sri Lanka itself.

And he said there could be no direct answer when questioned about Sri Lanka's readiness to cooperate with any UN investigation.

He went on: "You know very well there are allegations about various countries around the world at this very moment - countries which have intervened in distant places. But are there inquiries into that sort of allegations? No, because this is not the way the world operates.

"You do not appoint commissions of inquiry simply because there are allegations or there are suggestions or innuendos."

Alex Thomson then asked Dr Kohona: "We've seen other video which we have in our possession which certainly shows men in Sri Lankan army uniforms, kicking the head in one case of a dead Tamil Tiger soldier. And in this position at the same time, all the Tamil, the female Tamil Tiger fighters, are all stripped naked. Can you explain what that could all be about?"

Dr Kohona replied: "I have no idea what you are talking of because I have not seen such a video - nor has anybody else. The video that you're talking about, which was aired on Channel 4, had no women in it."

Alex Thomson explained that this was a new video. "Well, I haven't seen that," said Sri Lanka's UN ambassador.

The background
When the images were first broadcast the High Commission of Sri Lanka immediately and categorically denied troops had taken part in atrocities against the Tamil community.

Officials from the country's government continued to maintain the soldiers had only been involved in fighting Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels.

They said the video has been "doctored" to "defame the Sri Lankan government".

In September 2009, Sri Lankan officials said they had commissioned four separate investigations, and that they had "scientifically established beyond any doubt that this video is a fake".

This claim has now been refuted several times; by an independent video analysis expert, a forensic pathologist, and a firearms expert all cited by Special Rapporteur Philip Alston in his report commissioned by the UN.

He said: "Together, the reports by these experts strongly suggest that the video is authentic."

Mr Alston added that he hopes the UN Security Council and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon take the assessment of the video footage seriously.

A spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said a "full and impartial investigation is critical" but that an investigation into war crimes allegations should be handled by the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva.

Martin Nesirky says Mr Ban is considering setting up an expert panel that would advise him on the matter and "assist the (Sri Lankan) government in taking measures to address possible violations."

The Sri Lankan government has accused Mr Alston of "breaching diplomatic procedures".

Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama has released a new statement. He said: "My Ministry has communicated in this regard both to the special rapporteur as well as to the UN secretariat in New York that the public statement is a violation of all the accepted procedures of the United Nations and the norms of justice and fair play."

He accuses Channel 4 News and the wider media of "a deliberate and sinister attempt to cause embarrassment and bring disrepute to the Government of Sri Lanka".

The row over the video's authenticity has been widely reported around the world. The Sri Lankan press is focusing on the latest rebuttal by the country's authorities. The headline in the Lanka times reads: Lanka slams Alston over remarks.

Human rights organisations have insisted an international inquiry is needed.

© Channel 4

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Saturday, January 09, 2010

War crimes turned to war games in the Sri Lankan election campaign


Photo Courtesy of http://indi.ca/

Sri Lanka has once again come under international pressure to submit to a war crimes investigation in the wake of United Nations authenticating the video showing the brutal murder of prisoners by the Sri Lankan troops last year. Earlier, mid – December, the British daily The Times too confirmed the video authentic, after an analysis by Grant Fredericks, an independent forensic video specialist who is also an instructor at the FBI National Academy. The issue is now a hot topic’ within Sri Lanka, with the opposition common candidate, General (Retd) Sarath Fonseka charging the government openly of ordering the killing of surrendering top LTTE leaders. The pressure on the Sri Lankan government is on two fronts – international and national.

The response of the ruling regime in Sri Lanka on both fronts is unabashedly confrontational denying out-and-out that no such crimes were committed. More to it, the Sri Lankan government seems to be successful to a considerable extent in turning the table in the home front charging the former general as a traitor. To phrase it differently, the ruling party is on the offensive by setting the terms of debate – who won the war, the President or the General – claiming openly that it was the President.

On the international front too, the Sri Lankan government has made clear to the UN and the powers pushing it, that it has no intention of submitting itself for any kind of intervention. And here again, the response of the Sri Lankan government has been one of outright belligerence and arrogance. The Sri Lankan human rights minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, in response to the UN human rights envoy Philip Altson, who confirmed the authenticity of the video footage on Thursday, has charged back stating that, “Philip Atson is on a crusade of his own to force an international (war crimes) inquiry against Sri Lanka.”

The same belligerent response came from Sri Lanka’s foreign minister Rohitha Bogollagama, three weeks back, when Mr. Altson raised the issue of war crime investigations. The minister charged the UN official of meddling with the internal affairs of the country, pointing out to the “deliberate timing to coincide with the current sensitive phase of national elections”.

The sad thing about these whole series of charges and counter charges on both fronts is that all the parties involved have pushed issue of the rehabilitation of the languishing Tamils who are still herded in despicable conditions within the inhuman internment camps in the North. The whole issue is in oblivion. The UN and most of the ‘international actors’ it seems, are in tacit agreement with the Sri Lankan government that it is a ’settled’ issue. All parties have taken for granted that the inhuman treatment and torture of those in internment camps are a fact of life and the sufferers have to endure if they have to survive as bare humans.

It is in such circumstances that initiatives by independent groups out of the pale of the mainstream assume significance for their un-daunting efforts to bring the culprits of crime to justice. The recent announcement of the “Irish Forum for Peace” on Sri Lanka to hold a People’s Tribunal on the war in Sri Lanka in Dublin in January 2010, to investigate the war crimes of the Sri Lankan government during the final phase of the war, assumes extreme significance in the background of the failure of the tainted angels of peace.

It is worth mentioning here that the “Permanent People’s Tribunal” that is to conduct the investigations on Sri Lanka, has been involved in examining the cases of Tibet, Western Sahara, Argentina, Eritrea, the Philippines, El Salvador, Afghanistan, East Timor, Zaire, Guatemala, the Armenian Genocide, the intervention of the United States in Nicaragua, the Brazilian Amazon, and many other countries.

© Truthdrive.com

Related Links:
President to appear before war crimes tribunal to score points - Lanka News Web

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Saturday, January 09, 2010

Will Sri Lanka cooperate with the UN’s experts?




Jonathan Miller - Sri Lanka’s foreign minister is beginning to sound like a stuck record. Rohitha Bogollam continues to insist – as his government has done for four months – that the exection video is fake. The story, he still maintains, is “concocted”, the source “unreliable”, the footage “doctored” and the whole thing part of a “sinister” plot to besmirch Sri Lanka’s reputation.

The trouble is, his “unequivocal rejection” of the video’s authenticity now flies in the face of a growing body of independent expert opinion. The latest technical analyses, part of a UN inquiry, comprises reports from a forensic video analyst, a forensic pathologist and a firearms and ballistics expert.

In stark contrast to the findings of Sri Lankan experts, who in September claimed to have “scientifically established beyond doubt that this video is fake”, the experts commssioned by Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur, believe the footage to be genuine.

Sri Lanka appears to be ignoring the growing international clamour for an impartial investigation into this and other alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity before and after the defeat of the Tamil Tigers last May.

Now the UN Secretary General, apparently prompted by Philip Alston’s findings, has resurrected the possibility of appointing a Commission of Experts to advise him on alleged violations of human rights and humanitarian law in Sri Lanka.

And the international legal experts I have spoken to suggest Sri Lanka would be well advised to cooperate with any proposed UN Commission if the government is to have any credibility – something which is wearing pretty thin.

Ban Ki-Moon has been personally let down by Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse who promised him last May that there would be credible national investigations into persistent allegations of serious human rights abuse.

Past commissions of inquiry have proved “make-believe”, according to this Amnesty International report. Such commissions are not independent as the Attorney General controls the process and witness protection is inadequate..

Now the Secretary General appears to recognise that such national inquiries are not the starting point.

Jim Ross, legal director of Human Rights Watch applauds the suggestion but says Ban Ki-Moon “should be calling for a full international investigation”. As yet the scope and mandate of any such Commission of Experts hasn’t been mentioned. “It wouldn’t necessarily entail their even going to the country and investigating on the ground,” says Ross, “and that’s what’s needed.”

Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director, Sam Zarifi, agrees that “there’s a danger it could be toothless – and I’m not holding my breath,” he says. “But what’s heartening is that it shows the issue has not gone away – which is obviously what the Sri Lankan government wanted to happen. And believed would happen.”

The setting-up of a UN Commission could yet be the first step on the road to an impartial resolution. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Sri Lankan government, which since 2006 has refused to let Professor Philip Alston into the country, will cooperate with a Commission of Experts.

Today, 8 January, is the first anniverary of the assassination of Lasantha Wikrematunge, the newspaper editor who famously foretold his own death: “When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me,” he wrote. The Sri Lankan government has failed to find his killers.

A year has also passed since the killings we have shown in that muddy field, and in the face of continued government obstruction, the wheels of justice have moved at glacial pace. But, as one of the legal experts reminded me today, there is no statue of limitations when it comes to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

© Channel 4 / World News Blog

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Saturday, January 09, 2010

Sri Lanka faces new pressure over war crimes

video
Video courtesy of CNN

AFP - Sri Lanka was under new pressure Friday to submit to a war crimes investigation after the United Nations authenticated a video allegedly showing prisoners being executed by troops last year.

The government in Colombo has faced repeated calls for a probe from Western countries and rights groups ever since it launched a final offensive to crush Tamil Tiger separatist rebels in the country's northeast in early 2009.

The assault brought an end to a 37-year-old ethnic conflict that had claimed 100,000 lives since 1972, but hurt the reputation of the country abroad amid criticism of the conduct and tactics of government forces.

The UN estimates that 7,000 civilians perished during the first four months of last year, though this figure is disputed by the government.

On Thursday, UN human rights envoy Philip Alston concluded that video footage said to be of Sri Lankan troops executing unarmed Tamil Tiger rebels last year was authentic and urged Colombo to accept a war crimes probe.

Reacting on Friday, Sri Lankan Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe again dismissed the video as a fraud and accused Alston of leading a personal crusade against the country.

"Philip Alston is on a crusade of his own to force an international (war crimes) inquiry against Sri Lanka," Samarasinghe told AFP. "We object to the procedure he followed. He should have shared his information with us first."

He added: "As far as we are concerned, the video is not genuine and it has been doctored."

Sri Lanka has always resisted calls to probe its rights record, arguing that there are no grounds for an investigation given that there were no civilian casualties or extrajudicial killings.

In May last year, Colombo managed to stave off a resolution condemning it at the UN Human Rights Council thanks to the backing of China.

But new charges emerged last month when the former army chief, Sarath Fonseka, alleged that troops had been ordered by a top defence official to execute surrendering rebels, a charge the government vehemently denies.

The government accused Fonseka, who is challenging President Mahinda Rajapakse in the January 26 national election, of "betraying" the country and making the statement for political gain.

Three Tiger political wing leaders who were arranging their surrender with UN assistance were shot dead on May 17, according to official reports. The government maintained that they were killed by the guerrillas themselves.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, through his spokesman Martin Nesirky in New York, that "a full and impartial investigation into allegations of human rights is critical if we are to confront impunity" and bring justice.

Nesirky said Ban informed Colombo that he was considering appointing a commission of experts "to advise him further and to assist the government in taking measures to address possible violations of human rights and international humanitarian law."

The execution footage that has sparked the latest war of words between Colombo and the UN was shot during the final stages of the army's battle against the Tigers, according to the group that distributed it.

It shows a man dressed in army uniform shooting a naked, bound and blindfolded man in the back of the head, while the bodies of eight others can be seen nearby in a muddy field.

It was not clear if the dead were Tiger rebels or civilians. A 10th man was also shot in the same way towards the end of the video while men in the background gloat over the killings.

Alston said the authenticity of the video was established by three US-based independent, qualified experts he had commissioned to conduct an impartial evaluation after four Sri Lankan specialists concluded it was a fake.

"I call for an independent inquiry to be established to carry out an impartial investigation into war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian and human rights law allegedly committed in Sri Lanka," Alston said.

© Arab Times

Related Links:
The battle for evidence of ‘war without witnesses’ - The Times
On SL, Last Act of UN's Ban Was Three Months Ago - Inner City Press

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Saturday, January 09, 2010

UN demands Sri Lanka execution probe




Listen to the ABC interview with Forensic Video Investigator Jeff Spivak

By Michael Vincent - The United Nations has called for an inquiry into atrocities in Sri Lanka after experts authenticated video footage of government soldiers killing unarmed Tamil rebels.

The Sri Lankan government insists the footage is fake and has repeatedly denied its forces are guilty of human rights abuses. The video, released by Journalists For Democracy and first aired on Britain's Channel 4 last year, shows the execution of several naked men who are blindfolded and sitting on the ground.

A man in uniform holding an automatic rifle takes a step towards the men and kills them each with a single shot.

UN special rapporteur Philip Alston has called upon the Sri Lankan government to respond to the allegations.

"In light of the persistent flow of other allegations of extra judicial executions committed by both sides during the closing phases of the war against the [Tamil Tigers], I call for an independent inquiry to carry out an impartial investigation into war crimes and other grave violations of human rights law allegedly committed in Sri Lanka," he said.

Sri Lankan officials have now announced what they described as an independent inquiry into allegations of war crimes raised by both the US State Department and the UN.

Mr Alston, however, has challenged the government to let independent investigators visit the country.

"If [the government] claims that nothing untoward took place are accurate, then it will be the beneficiary. It will be vindicated," he said.

US forensic video specialist Jeff Spivak, along with a forensic pathologist and a firearms expert, was asked by the UN to determine the authenticity of the footage.

"The spectrographic analysis of the two different gunshots were slightly different," he said.

"If someone were adding sound effects and post production, a lot of times they're going to use a stock sound effect and so they would appear to be identical.

"In this case, it appears that didn't happen.

"The other thing that was persuasive to me was the fact that the portion of the video that's available, there are no breaks in continuity."

© ABC News

Related Links:
UN commission to probe Sri Lanka - Daily Mirror
UN may help Sri Lanka address allegations of human rights abuse - Xinhua

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Saturday, January 09, 2010

UN demands independent inquiry into attrocities in Sri Lanka



Listen to the RNW interview with UNHCR representative in Geneva, Rupert Colville

Military and government officials in Sri Lanka could face human rights charges after a video showing Tamil Tiger rebels being summarily executed was authenticated.

UN special rapporteur for Sri Lanka, Philip Alston commissioned three independent forensic video and firearms experts to assess whether the video was real. The video released last year by Journalists for Democracy shows the execution of several naked and blindfolded men. A uniformed man with an automatic rifle shot the men at close range.

Shot at close range

Sri Lanka’s government claimed that the video footage was fake. But it refused to let independent investigators visit the country to assess allegations of human rights abuses by the military against Tamils. The ethnic group from the north of Sri Lanka were defeated last year after a long running war for independence.

Genuine

The forensic experts looked for anomalies such as added sound effects and post production but concluded that the video is genuine. UNHCR representative in Geneva, Rupert Colville said:

“We have repeatedly called for a full, broad and impartial investigation into allegations of very serious violations of human rights, possibly including war crimes on both sides during the war…There are still many large question marks over the conduct of the war in Sri Lanka.”

War crimes

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon announced that he is considering whether to appoint a commission of experts to determine whether war crimes and human rights abuses were committed. This could lead to an international tribunal.

© Radio Netherlands Worldwide

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Saturday, January 09, 2010

"Experts strongly suggest that the video is authentic" - UN Special Rapporteur




Click here to read Technical Note prepared by the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions
Click here to read the Appendix to the Technical Note


By Robert Mackey - On Thursday, Philip Alston, a human rights lawyer who is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said that reports by three experts he had retained to examine video that appears to show the execution of prisoners in Sri Lanka “strongly suggest that the video is authentic.”

Mr. Alston explained that he had commissioned reports from the experts — in forensic pathology, forensic video analysis and firearm evidence — after the government of Sri Lanka responded to his request for “an independent investigation” by claiming that the video was fake based on reports produced by four investigators, two of whom worked for the Sri Lankan military, that were, Mr. Alston said, “more impressionistic than scientific.”

After making the results of the scientific analysis of the video public in New York, Mr. Alston called for an inquiry into the executions it appears to document, which a group of exiled Sri Lankan journalists say was a war crime recorded on a soldier’s cellphone in January 2009, near the end of the government’s war with Tamil separatists.

As The Lede reported in August, the video was first broadcast by Channel 4 News in Britain, which had obtained the video from the group Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka. On Thursday night, Channel 4 News broadcast a video report on Mr. Alston’s findings, which includes scenes from the graphic, disturbing video.

Mr. Alston made the full text of the experts’ technical analysis available for download on a United Nations Web site. In his introduction to that technical analysis — also available for download — Mr. Alston wrote that the experts had “systematically rebutted most of the arguments relied upon by Sri Lanka’s experts in support of their contention that the video was faked.”

A partial transcript of Mr. Alston’s remarks was published on Channel 4’s Web site. His call for “the establishment of an independent inquiry to carry out an impartial investigation into war crimes” which may have been committed in Sri Lanka was included in a news release from his office.

On Friday, Sri Lanka’s foreign minister, Rohitha Bogollagama, responded to the findings of Mr. Alston’s experts by saying, “We reject these allegations,” Reuters reported. Mr. Bogollagama ignored the conclusions and pointed only to some of the details the experts said they were unable to explain, saying, “In light of those continued contradictory findings, we can’t accept it.”

As Jonathan Miller noted in a blog post on the Channel 4 News Web site, “the U.N. Secretary General, apparently prompted by Philip Alston’s findings, has resurrected the possibility of appointing a Commission of Experts to advise him on alleged violations of human rights and humanitarian law in Sri Lanka.”

In December another report by a forensic video specialist commissioned by The Times of London to examine the video concluded, “This is clearly an original recording.”

On Thursday, the Wikipedia entry on Mr. Alston was edited so that it temporarily read, “Philip G. Alston is a prominent international racist law scholar and human rights practitioner/ tool of western oppression of developing countries.”

© The Lede (The New York Times News Blog)

Related Links:
Execution video authentic - The Straits Times
U.N. investigator says video of executions appears to be authentic - CNN
Lanka execution video authentic, says UN - Times Of India
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Sri Lankan execution video 'authentic' - World News Australia
'Shocking footage is genuine'says UN - Daily Mail

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Saturday, January 09, 2010

Sri Lanka Rejects U.N. Execution Video Report




Reuters - Sri Lanka on Friday rejected the findings of a trio of United Nations-appointed investigators who said they doubted a video showing apparent executions by Sri Lankan soldiers was fake.

The reaction came after Philip Alston, U.N. special reporter on extrajudicial executions, on Thursday urged an independent inquiry after a forensic pathologist, a forensic video analyst and a firearms expert concluded the video was likely real.

Britain's Channel 4 television aired a video last year that it said shows government troops killing unarmed, naked, bound and blindfolded men during the army's final assault to smash the Tamil Tiger rebels.

The government immediately rejected it as a fraud perpetrated by Tamil Tiger supporters angry the separatist group had been defeated, and said its own investigation, using Sri Lankan civilian and military experts, had found it was doctored.

"We reject these allegations," Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama said. "In light of those continued contradictory findings, we can't accept it."

He was referring to some details Alston said the experts were unable to explain, like the movement of certain victims, 17 frames at the end of the video and the fact that the date encoded in the video -- July 17, 2009 -- is a month after war ended.

Nonetheless, all three concluded the footage was probably genuine, Alston said.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called on Sri Lanka on Friday to allow an independent investigation into the allegations that executions had taken place.

"Obviously if the Sri Lankan armed forces and Sri Lankan government have done nothing wrong, it will have nothing to fear from an international investigation," her spokesman Rupert Colville told a news briefing in Geneva.

"We believe a full and impartial investigation is critical if we're going to confront all the very big question marks that hang over this war," he said.

IN COUNTRY'S "BEST INTERESTS"

A credible independent inquiry would be in the "best interests" of Sri Lanka, Colville said.

Pillay, a former U.N. war crimes judge, called last May for an international investigation to assess whether Sri Lankan government forces and Tamil rebels committed war crimes in the last burst of their conflict.

Bogollagama said that the government was still probing the video and other allegations of war crimes through a presidential panel of Sri Lankan experts. Alston has voiced doubts that a Sri Lankan probe will be impartial.

"We are not instantly dismissing anything. That cannot be done by a government," Bogollagama said. "The government is examining their allegations."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's spokesman Martin Nesirky said on Thursday that an investigation should be done but would best be handled by Pillay's office. However, he added that Ban was considering appointing his own expert panel to advise him and assist the Sri Lankan government in following up on any war crimes that may have been committed.

Colville told Reuters: "We would help in any way we could or were asked to do."

In the past year, Pillay's office has played a role in major investigations into alleged war crimes by Israeli forces in Gaza and into a massacre in the West African nation Guinea.

Sri Lanka's government has repeatedly denied that its forces were guilty of war crimes or human rights breaches in the last months of its 25-year war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The government declared total victory in May.

© The New York Times

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War crimes video fake: Sri Lanka - MSN News
Sri Lanka rejects UN's conclusions on video - Canadian Press

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Saturday, January 09, 2010

Lasantha's anniversary highlights state complicity



Human rights groups accuse the Sri Lankan government of maintaining
patronage and protection to those responsible for the assassination of political opponents.

Issuing statements to mark the first anniversary of the assassination of journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, human rights groups and media watchdogs say that the culture of impunity is threatening the lives of many people.

Reporters without Boarders (RSF), Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka(JDS) and Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) have once again expressed their concerns about security and protection of journalists.

Shed light on murder

Reporters without Boarders (RSF) urge presidential candidates to "pledge to shed light on this murder and on serious other press freedom violations that took place in recent years".

"Even if these criminals continue to feel sufficiently protected that they can threaten the Sunday Leader's new editor in messages written in the same red ink, we are confident that one day they will be punished," RSF said.

Journalists for Democracy (JDS) say that Defence Secretary and the former army chief have claimed that they are both aware of the perpetrators in the killings in addition to those who committed atrocities against journalists.

"Therefore, both the army commander and Defence Secretry should be held responsible for their statements and must be forced to divulge information", JDS said.


No credibility

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) point out that the government has refused to inquire into the murder in any credible manner.

“That the killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge was a direct result of a political conspiracy involving the highest personalities of the government has been a constant and loud allegation,” AHRC said.

The murdered journalist's relatives and friends will meet at his grave in Colombo on Friday and participate in series of activities in his memory. A commemorative meeting will also be held in London on Friday.

Lasantha was attacked by gunmen as he was driving to work on 8 January 2009. He was taken unconscious to a hospital where he died.

© BBC Sinhala

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Shock and anger continue one year after Lasantha’s unpunished murder - RSF
Wickramatunge Killers Remain Unpunished In Sri Lanka - IFJ
One year later in Sri Lanka, little has changed - CPJ

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Saturday, January 09, 2010

Sri Lanka Journalists Still on Edge After Editor's Death



By Amantha Perera - A year after the murder of the prominent Sri Lankan editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, the island's independent media is still under siege. An investigation into Wickrematunge's death has gone nowhere, and at least half a dozen other journalists, including his widow, have left the country in fear since his death.

Wickrematunge, who was also a freelance reporter for TIME, was shot on Jan. 8, 2009, while driving to work. His car was followed by two motorcycles, which blocked his path as the gunmen shot him through the driver-side window, when he was just five minutes away from his office. He was rushed to the hospital but died after surgery. Wickrematunge was a staunch critic of the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, and his murder came in the middle of the government's final offensive to crush the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The government did not brook any criticism of its conduct of the war, but even since declaring victory last May things are little improved for journalists.

The exodus of journalists and media activists from Sri Lanka has been partly due to the failure of the murder investigation to make any progress. Soon after the shooting, police recovered the mobile phone used by Wickrematunge that had gone missing after he was taken to the hospital. Since then there has been no real breakthrough, though the investigation has been taken over by the Criminal Investigation Department. There have been no arrests so far, nor are there any suspects. Journalists from Sri Lanka's minority Tamil ethnic community have long felt under threat, but Wickrematunge's death sent a clear signal that even journalists from the majority Sinhala community, like Wickrematunge, were not safe.

In August 2009, eight months after Wickrematunge's murder, Tamil journalist Jayaprakash Tissainayagam was sentenced to 20 years in prison when he was found guilty of aiding terrorism. Later that year, Poddala Jayantha, a prominent media-rights activist, left the country due to ongoing threats. "It is not only where the Lasantha Wickrematunge investigation has progressed, but also where all the investigation into the assassinations, assaults and intimidation of journalists have progressed," says Lakshman Gunasekera, president of the national chapter of the media-rights group South Asia Free Media Association (SAFMA). "The manner the investigation has moved does not give any reason to feel safe. Things have improved, but most certainly I would not advise those in exile to return just yet."

Wickrematunge was one of the loudest and most persistent critics of the administration of Rajapaksa. Although he considered Rajapaksa an old friend, he criticized him over the conduct of the war and lack of safety for the civilians trapped by the fighting. A posthumous editorial that appeared in the Sunday Leader, the paper that Wickrematunge founded, immediately after his murder addressed Rajapaksa directly: "In the wake of my death, I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too." The widely circulated piece sent shockwaves beyond Sri Lanka. "You will never be allowed to forget that my death took place under your watch," it read.

The widespread condemnation of Wickrematunge's murder did little to change the restrictions on the media. For months after the civil war was declared over, journalists were not permitted to travel to or report in the former conflict zone in the island's north, and they still need permission to visit camps where those displaced by the war remain, or to speak with those who have returned to their former villages. Similar authorization is required to visit and write on the accelerated development and resettlement process now under way in the Vanni, the former conflict zone in northern Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka will hold its first postconflict presidential election on Jan. 26, in which Rajapaksa faces a stiff challenge from his former army commander, Sarath Fonseka. There has been some spirited journalism published during the campaign. On Dec. 13, the Sunday Leader carried an explosive interview with Fonseka in which he alleged that Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka's Defense Secretary, had ordered the shooting of surrendering LTTE members. Rajapaksa has denied the allegation, and Fonseka has since backpedaled on the allegation. Several news organizations have also reported on the burgeoning black market for rations distributed in displaced-persons camps. But with a few exceptions, the coverage of the elections has been limited to the shifting alliances of players in the major parties. Only a handful of stories have seen print about the resettlement of people displaced in the war, the provisions to ensure free and fair voting in areas once controlled by the LTTE, or the country's serious economic challenges, all of which are major issues for voters.

If he had lived to see the end of the war, Wickrematunge surely would have been disappointed. I began my career as a writer at the Leader, and the seasoned editor's passion was infectious. His writing style and exposés were not for the faint-hearted. There were many fans and an equal number of critics who felt that the Leader's brand of journalism was salacious. But all agreed that he had brought something totally new to Sri Lankan media. He was threatened, sued and beaten up, and his house was fired at with automatic weapons. Still, he kept going. "I credit him for creating the space for those less courageous than him to work," says Marwaan Macan-Markar, another of Wickrematunge's young hires who now works as Asia correspondent for Inter Press Service. "His regular exposés defined the parameters of free expression in an environment hostile to the media. His murder has seen that space shrink."

The usual hustle and bustle of the Sunday Leader newsroom will be broken on Jan. 8 when colleagues, friends and family gather at the office for a memorial service. Wickrematunge's family is no longer in Sri Lanka, and some of the writers who worked closely with the late editor have also left the newspaper. As the anniversary of his murder approached, I found myself thinking of the hours I spent almost alone in the newspaper's offices on the day of his death. Though several of his colleagues went to the morgue, I did not want see him lying lifeless on a trolley, so I walked around aimlessly. Sometimes I still hope to hear that booming voice call out, "Ah bugger, there you are. So what have you got for me?" The sad truth is, not much.

© The Time

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Saturday, January 09, 2010

What chance of a change for Sri Lanka?



Natalie Samarasinghe - One year ago today, my uncle Lasantha Wickrematunge – one of Sri Lanka's best-known journalists – was assassinated. For 15 years his paper, the Sunday Leader, was the strongest liberal democratic voice in the country. Despite frequent attacks on its staff and offices, it produced impartial reporting on the brutal civil war and high-level corruption, and thwarted censorship to expose human rights violations.

Grimly aware of the danger he faced, Lasantha anticipated his murder in an editorial penned days before his death: a searing indictment of government tyranny and an eloquent defence of free speech. His killing marked a turning point in awareness, both internally and externally, of just how far rights had been eroded in Sri Lanka.

Much has happened since his death, most importantly the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009. The end of the conflict saw callous contempt for the hundreds of thousands of civilians – predominantly Tamil – trapped by fighting. The government shelled "no-fire zones" and barred access to aid and media agencies. The LTTE ruthlessly used civilians as bargaining chips and human shields. The UN has accused both sides of war crimes.

The military victory prompted scenes of jubilation, and proclamations that Sri Lanka held the key to defeating terrorism. Many believed that now the war was over, Tamil grievances would be addressed, a political system acceptable to all installed, and freedoms – necessarily curtailed in the interests of security – restored. I'm sure I'm not the only one who missed Lasantha's incisive commentary and dry wit during this time.

But in many ways, not much has changed. Those civilians who survived entrapment on the battleground continued to be trapped in camps with health and sanitation facilities described as "woeful". Though more than 150,000 have now been released, the UN Refugee Agency estimates that over 100,000 remain, and organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have voiced concerns over the manner of returns.

And it's business as usual in other areas too. There has been no real inquiry into Lasantha's death, which remains unresolved. Who perpetrated the deed and who ordered it done? The court of public opinion may have passed its sentence but justice has not been served. There is still a media ban in the north of the country and journalists continue to face harsh treatment. In September, JS Tissainayagam was sentenced to 20 years under Sri Lanka's prevention of terrorism act for writing two articles in 2006. President Obama has called Tissainayagam an "emblematic example" of an unjustly persecuted reporter.

So what are the chances of change? The new year brings a presidential election on 26 January. Many are placing their hopes on President Rajapakse's main challenger, former army chief Sarath Fonseka, who is backed by an alliance of opposition parties – including the Tamil National Alliance. He has wooed supporters by promising sweeping reforms, including amnesty for the 10,000 detainees being held without charge on suspicion of LTTE involvement, and an end to the "state of emergency". Just two days ago, the Sri Lankan parliament voted to extend these draconian laws, which have been in place almost continuously since 1983, the official outbreak of hostilities with the LTTE.

But just how much difference can there be between the president and one of the chief architects of his war? In the run-up to the election, both face questions in relation to the alleged shooting of surrendering LTTE rebels, unarmed and bearing flags. At this important juncture, the Sri Lankan electorate would do well to revisit Lasantha's writings.

© Guardian

Related Links:
Lasantha assassination: Doubts over cause of death - Daily Mirror
One year later: A murder unresolved, a government unashamed - Ground Views
The Courageous Editor who Fearlessly spoke Truth to Power - Tamil Week
The President is answerable for Lasantha’s murder - Sri Lanka Guardian

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