Monday, May 16, 2011

Lasantha, the President and Sarath Fonseka

By Frederica Jansz | The Sunday Leader

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has on numerous occasions with editors at closed door meetings said, “Everybody knows who killed Lasantha – yet, those very people who suffered as a result of his (Fonseka’s actions) later went and backed him.”

He added for good measure, “the two at the Nation and Lal.”

Referring to the incident in which The Nation’s defence correspondent Keith Noyahr was abducted and brutally attacked, Rajapaksa’s comments referred to former CEO of The Nation newspaper Krishantha Prasad Cooray and its former Editor-in-Chief Lalith Alahakoon.

Cooray, despite having publicly accused Sarath Fonseka of ordering the assault on Keith Noyahr nevertheless at the last presidential election was an active member of Fonseka’s media contingent. The President’s reference also included Chairman of this newspaper Lal Wickrematunge and the latter’s decision to also support Sarath Fonseka at the last presidential election. This despite the fact, according to the President, that it was Sarath Fonseka who murdered Wickrematunge’s brother and Founder Editor of this newspaper, Lasantha Wickrematunge.
A serious investigation into the attacks on journalists began only after General Fonseka contested the presidential election as the common opposition candidate. In the immediate aftermath of Wickrematunge’s murder, opposition leaders accused General Fonseka of responsibility. The government initially simply stymied any investigation into the killing while the police remained impotent.

Following the presidential election in January 2010, I was told that investigators were inquiring into the possible involvement of General Fonseka into the murder of Lasantha after a very senior official at the Defence Ministry revealed that the former Army Commander told him, “I did not intend to kill Lasantha – I only wanted him hurt – but they killed him”. This is according to senior police officers conducting the investigation.

If the government is convinced that it was Sarath Fonseka who was behind the murder of Lasantha, why is it that he has not been charged with murder? Why has the government waited for so long to name him? It is also reported that the President had said that Sarath Fonseka was behind Lasantha’s killing to a senior editor of a Sinhala weekly, over a year ago. He had said that he was the army commander who was prosecuting the war and so nothing could be done. This places the government in a pretty tight corner.

Is justice based on time or circumstances depending on who sits favourably with the powers? Do the investigating arms of the nation respond positively only when the politician gives the nod as and when it is politically opportune? Lasantha was murdered on January 8, 2009. Sarath Fonseka was taken into custody on February 8, last year on a vague charge of planning a military coup and later tried before a military court marshal for indulging in politics whilst being in the army and sentenced. The cries for the release of Sarath Fonseka being a political prisoner would not have been even a whimper, if he was charged with the more serious offences of the murder of Lasantha, and assaults on senior journalists.

This then is the question President Mahinda Rajapaksa must grapple with and answer before he pontificates and accuses his former army chief of carrying out a murder most foul.

On Thursday last week, May 12, a former army intelligence officer told the Mount Lavinia Magistrate Court that he was told by the Officer in Charge (OIC) of the Terrorist Investigations Department (TID) to claim that a top army official was involved in the killing of former Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge.

The intelligence officer, Kandegedera Priyawansa, who is now in remand told open court that he was told to say that a top army official, whose name he did not mention in court, was involved in the killing of Wickrematunge, as well as in the assault of two senior journalists, in return for a chance to go overseas and security for his house in Sri Lanka. Why Priyawansa chose not take the offer is not clear since he was not asked the question before being hurriedly led away. Will this revelation be investigated thoroughly or not, would be watched carefully.

Police have also arrested and remanded one Jesudason from Nuwara Eliya who apparently owns a garage.

All of the five telephones which according to sleuths were used in the attack on Lasantha were registered in the name of Jesudason. When quizzed by detectives Jesudason claimed he lost his Identity Card – which would have been required to purchase the SIM cards for the five mobile phones. Jesudason however never made a formal complaint to the police regarding the loss of his ID. He has however confessed to sharing a drink now and then with a soldier who he says identified himself as being a member of the Sinha Regiment of the Army. This soldier, Kandegedera Priyawansa at the time of his arrest was a member of the army’s Military Intelligence Directorate headed at the time by Major General Amal Karunasekera.

Last year, both Lal Wickrematunge and I met with SSP Chandra Wakishta, Director of the TID, when 17 army officers had been taken in and remanded for the killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge. Seventeen army soldiers attached to the Army Military Intelligence Unit and also identified as having worked ‘closely’ with former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka were remanded and held by the TID/CID.

At this meeting Wakishta was confident they had narrowed the suspects down to six soldiers who he told us had carried out the chilling murder on Wickrematunge.

Showing us pictures of the 17 army men, he asked us if we could identify any. He did this on the hunch that one or more of the killers may have been present at a candle lit ceremony held at Lasantha’s graveside one month after the killing on February 8, 2009. But none of the 17 images were even vaguely familiar to either Lal or me. They have all since been released.

At this discussion, Lal told Wakishta of a strange meeting that took place in his office at Ratmalana. “It was mid February 2009 and barely over a month since Lasantha was killed, a small-made, dishevelled man turned up in office and said he wished to speak with me. He went on to relate an amazing story explaining how Lasantha was killed and who was behind it.”

“Mr. X as I would call him had been released from Welikada Prison on an amnesty granted to prisoners on Independence Day in 2009. He was sentenced for embezzlement of state funds. Whilst in prison he was sharing a cell with a few others. Amongst those incarcerated with him were convicted murderers. He heard an inmate convicted for murder talking to another about a contract undertaken by him to kill someone and that the job was done on that day and had bragged as to how the operation was conducted. He said that this murderer had organised a ‘hit’ on someone called Lasantha and a sharp instrument was used to carry out the task. At that point he did not know who this ‘Lasantha’ was, but learnt later when he was watching Sirasa news on TV that night. He said that he had met Lasantha together with Frederica once when he had a problem with higher authorities at the Buddha Sasana Ministry when he gave an interview to The Leader.”

Lal went on to recount that this man had said a politician had given the contract to underworld figures in the prison to carry out the murder of Lasantha.

A similar sentiment echoed by Sarath Fonseka when in an initial telephone interview I asked him who had killed Lasantha he replied, “kudu karayas working for a politician cum drug lord.” Pressed to identify the politician he said it was a politician from Kelaniya.

He once more articulated similar words when Lal and I met with Fonseka at his former Reid Avenue office on December 8, 2009, and Lal asked him the same question.
Lal brought Mr. ‘X’ to my office too since he had said he had met me together with Lasantha but I could not recall such a meeting nor having ever seen the man before.

I cautioned Lal against having any further dialogue or contact with the man, advising him to hand the man over to police officers investigating Lasantha’s murder. Which Lal did do, informing a police officer handling the murder investigation, but the man disappeared as a result.

Even as Wickrematunge related this story to Wakishta, the top cop was dismissive, displaying no enthusiasm to consider that this could be another possible lead, instead indicating that this was merely a red herring. Wickrematunge even handed over to Wakishta a letter written by this man to him together with a stamped envelope and gave him a mobile telephone number from which the man had subsequently made more than one telephone call to Lal.

Wakishta went through the motions and a statement was duly recorded from Lal. And there the matter ended. He now no longer takes our calls.

At The Sunday Leader, both myself and other senior staff including Lasantha’s wife and co-editor at the newspaper Sonali Samarasinghe were more than convinced that similarly as in the case of Keith Noyahr of The Nation newspaper, Namal Perera from the Sri Lanka Press Institute and Upali Tennakoon, former Editor of the Rivira Newspaper (all three senior journalists were attacked by goons believed to be soldiers working closely with Sarath Fonseka) Lasantha too, had been murdered by this same hit squad. Which is why when asked by the management to lend editorial support to Sarath Fonseka and his political campaign senior staff and editors loudly and vehemently protested finally falling in line only because we were compelled to accept that the government too had pushed us against the wall by bringing one debilitating court case after another in an attempt to cripple the The Sunday Leader, despite the newspaper having paid the ultimate price of Lasantha’s murder.

The issue is this — if President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself is so certain that it was indeed Sarath Fonseka that murdered Lasantha Wickrematunge as well as ordered the attacks on journalists Keith Noyahr, Upali Tennakoon and Namal Perera, why does he then not use his executive powers and literally kick butt to ensure investigators do their job. Over to you Mr. President.

© The Sunday Leader

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