Sunday, January 08, 2012

Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions have metastasized into something dangerous

By Sonali Samarasinghe Wickrematunge

Statement by Sonali Samarasinghe, Journalist in Exile and widow of Sri Lankan editor Lasantha Wickrematunge on his third death anniversary.

Today (January 8) marks the third death anniversary of Lasantha Wickrematunge a human rights journalist from Sri Lanka who fought fearlessly for the freedom of the press and relentlessly pursued what he believed was right. On January 8, 2009 he was brutally murdered by the Sri Lankan authorities for his journalism.

Three years after Lasantha’s brutal murder despite the vapid assurances of the Rajapakse regime to the international community, Sri Lanka has turned into a lawless state of abductions, rape and murder with at least two of these incidents taking place in the New Year.

Concentration of power and finances

Even as there is an overwhelming concentration of power and finances in the ruling family, every one of Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions has metastasized into something dangerous and poisonous.

Christmas day was marred by the brutal murder in the South of Sri Lanka, of a British tourist Kuram Shaikah Zaman – a prosthetics expert who had worked for the ICRC in the Gaza strip. His friend a 23-year-old Russian woman was raped with one witness telling the local media that four men “stripped and raped her mercilessly although she was bleeding from her head.” The main suspect in the case is ruling party politician and well-known thug Sampath Vidanapathirana a close friend of the Rajapakse family.

Refuge for criminals and rapscallions

Clearly the ruling regime has become a refuge for criminals and rapscallions as the Sri Lankan government fails to maintain law and order and encourages lawlessness and criminal behaviour instead.

Local media has also reported that the suspect Vidanapathirana had earlier been arrested for the murder of an elderly woman in the run-up to the 2010 Presidential elections but had been released on the basis of a mental disability report filed by the police on his behalf. Despite this he continues in active politics under the protection of the Rajapakse family.

Though the police are conducting preliminary investigations into these gruesome crimes, hopes of justice remain slim as with every other bogus murder investigation commenced for public and international consumption under the watch of the Rajapakse regime.

The name of the game

Inexplicably the police did not even arrest Vidanapathirana and waited insteads for him to surrender a few days later. Here’s what the Asian Human Rights Commission – a staunch human rights defender based in Hong Kong, said regarding the surrender. "Due to the publicity this incident has attracted Chairman Vidanapathirana surrendered to the police. On assurance of anonymity, a policeman explained that such surrenders are nothing but a game. All the conditions of how to deal with the situation and the manner in which the surrendering suspects are to be released are all prearranged, he said. The whole process of criminal investigations is so manipulated by the government politicians that in many similar incidents the suspects have escaped any criminal punishment."

Yet tourism authorities and hoteliers in the country have preferred to call this a random act and have advised the media to sweep the incident under the carpet for fear it would hurt the expected tourist boom.

Surely material surplus and economic progress cannot make up for the erosion of our society and the destruction of our moral compass.


If this were not enough, a 25 year old man Dinesh Buddhika Charitanda was abducted on January 3 this year and his body bearing head injuries was found near the Keleni river close to Grand Pass in Colombo. A week earlier, the body of a fish vender who had been abducted by an unknown group was found dead in the same manner at Mutuwal, Colombo.

On 2nd January a man named Mohammad Nistar, was abducted by a group in a white van as he was traveling in a three-wheeler. Sometime later his body was found with bullet wounds to the head. The Asian Human Rights Commission says Mr. Nistar was engaged in the rehabilitation of drug addicts. No one has been arrested for his abduction and murder.

Abduction after abduction

In early December of last year two young men, Lalith Kumar Weeraju and Kugan Murugan, were abducted and have since disappeared. According to human rights groups these two young men were activists campaigning for the International Day for Human Rights on December 10.

On October 27, 2011 a well-known astrologer Mohamed Sali Mohamed Niyas was abducted by a group of armed men and several days later his body was found on the shores of Akkaraipattu in the East of Sri Lanka.

Even the worst scoundrel is entitled to due process of the law and labels in the media of alleged drug dealing as in the case of young Dinesh Buddhika does not absolve the government from its responsibility to uphold the rule of law.

With a total lack of accountability for the war, a disappointing LLRC report that failed to recognize the importance of accountability and justice, and the failure to properly investigate the murders of journalists like Lasantha Wickrematunge, little wonder the commonly held belief that these continued abductions and murders are taking place with the direct or indirect knowledge of the police and with the tacit approval of ruling party politicians.

Powerful friends

Another example is that of Duminda Silva, a Member of Parliament and a close confidant of Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse. Mr. Silva allegedly a drug dealer was responsible for the attack that led to Baratha Lakshman Premachandra and several others being killed. Yet Duminda Silva remains under the careful protective wing of his powerful friend.

These countless murders, abductions and assaults are not random acts or accidental killings. These are acts of violence that have become emblematic of the current leadership, the erosion of society and the impunity with which the regime now operates.

Any kind of political dissent has been crushed as was demonstrated recently when opposition parliamentarians were assaulted inside parliament itself. Despite death threats and other forms of intimidation of the media no serious investigations into these complaints are ever conducted.

Demonic repetition

When my husband was brutally murdered in 2009, when journalist Prageeth Ekneliyagoda was disappeared in 2010, civil society, the media and human rights organizations said enough was enough. But we have seen that these acts of violence still continue to take place with demonic repetition.

Despite overwhelming evidence, still no investigation

In the 36 months that have elapsed since Lasantha’s murder, there has been virtually no investigation into this crime.

Police had earlier succeeded in taking into custody five mobile phones, which on the day Lasantha was killed, moved in the same pattern as his phone. Police say the phones that passed through 11 cellular phone towers that day have not been used before or since the day of the killing. However, they have not been disconnected either. According to police, one of the five phones appears to have been used to monitor and control the entire operation. A track path of the calls made between the five telephones indicates that they communicated regularly with each other, constantly calling one particular mobile.

One of the five phone numbers indicated on the mobile path shows a call having been made from the spot Lasantha was attacked. According to witnesses, the assassins all rode a uniform make and type of motorcycle. A motorcycle allegedly used in the attack had been recovered the government claimed.

Soldiers arrested and released

During the course of 2010 seven soldiers belonging to the Sri Lankan army's Military Intelligence Directorate--a unit headed by a close confidant of former Army Commander General Fonseka--were detained for questioning by the Terrorist Investigations Department (TID) and the Criminal Investigations Department (CID). The seven soldiers were separated from an original 17 who were taken into police custody. All 17 have since been released.

Suspect mysteriously dies

In October 2011 the only suspect remaining in custody Pitchai Jesudasan mysteriously died. According to the B Report submitted by the Terrorist Investigations Department dated March 30, 2010, Pitchai Jesudasan was arrested for the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge and attempted murder of the then Editor of the Rivira newspaper Upali Tennakoon and previous attack on Deputy Editor for the Nation newspaper Keith Noyahr.
With relation to the murder of Wickrematunge police charged that Jesudasan’s national ID had been used to obtain the five SIM cards which were later believed to have been used by the five man hit squad who trailed and murdered my husband on January 8, 2009.

Should be investigated

Jesudasan may have died of natural causes but the circumstances of his death in custody give rise to questions and therefore must be independently investigated.

Moreover, despite the existence of numerous witnesses, no accurate description of the attack on my husband was ever made public by the police. Had there been even the slightest political will to solve this murder the apprehension of his murderers would have been child's play.

Certainly taken together, all this can leave little doubt in a rational mind that Lasantha’s murder has been the focus of an extensive—if clumsy—cover up.

International Community must act

As we remember Lasantha and his work and other journalists and activists around the world who have paid the supreme price in the line of duty, I call upon the international community to urge Sri Lanka’s government to hold a proper independent investigation into Lasantha’s murder, to bring back the rule of law rather than the rule of one family, to delink the police from the defence establishment, to properly disengage the army from civil administration, to restore the Seventeenth Amendment in order to ensure independent commissions for the Police, Judiciary, Bribery, Finance, Elections and Human Rights Commissions and to sincerely effectively and meaningfully deal with issues of accountability that now plague our nation.

Sonali Samarasinghe Wickrematunge
Nieman Fellow, Harvard University, MA
Journalist in Residence, City University, New York
Editor-in-Chief -

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Sunday, January 08, 2012

Remembering Lasantha

The Sunday Leader

It is three years to the date when Lasantha Wickrematunge (5 April 1958 – 8 January 2009) was murdered on his way to office along Attidiya Road, Ratmalana. It is three long years since Avinash, Ahimsa and Aadesh lost a father. They grieve for him. The country grieves for the apathy shown by the law enforcement authorities in bringing the perpetrators to book. It is evident to all and sundry why the investigation is at a stand still. They whisper but dare not speak out loud.

Lasantha cut his teeth in journalism at the now defunct Sun newspaper in the early seventies and moved to Upali Newspapers where he made his mark as a journalist covering politics. His writing style and probing pen caught the appreciative attention of opposition politicians and the ire of those in government. He moved to the Times Group to write the political column and in 1994 started The Sunday Leader and was it’s Editor- in-Chief till he was murdered. Lasantha, a lawyer by profession was practising in the chambers of President’s Counsel Ranjith Abeysuriya when he decided to take a break from Law to practice another art which was his first love, journalism. He set a trend in investigative journalism which became the benchmark for other journalists in the country. His Good Morning Show with MTV was very popular and he enjoyed doing that programme immensely. Lasantha was physically assaulted, shot at, the printing presses burnt down twice, and the newspaper shut down under the draconian Emergency Laws prior to being murdered in January, 2009. Not a single of these crimes have been solved.

The public view of Lasantha the journalist differed from the very private man. He was fun to be around with and was constantly making people laugh. Never one to pull rank in office, Lasantha would often whistle out of pitch to make his colleagues giggle. Though a teetotaller himself, he would offer his friends and colleagues a tipple from his vastly untouched but well stocked bar at home. He would give his last penny to people in financial distress nary a thought.

Given an opportunity to settle down in Australia, which many would have grabbed eagerly, he barely kept his qualification alive by visiting when necessary and darting back to be at his desk at the Leader. Being the youngest in the family Lasantha was dealt with leniently by his father who was a stern disciplinarian and like his journalism he used to fly close to the wind playing truant. But with pen in hand Lasantha the journalist was a different man. He favoured none nor feared any. Even relatives were fair game when it came to playing a straight bat. Many a time his father would speak to him to play down an article he was working on without success. Those holding high office became friends when they relinquished their positions. Many raised an eye brow when Lasantha was seen in the company of former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge after she finished her second term. Lasantha was her most harsh critic when she held office but was able to separate the official CBK from the private citizen she became after she relinquished office.

Simple acts such as these demonstrated Lasantha’s personality, but many were the doubting Thomas’, even amongst the industry, who fuelled hate campaigns against him. Lasantha was known beyond the shores for his courage even before his demise. He was awarded the very first Integrity Award by Transparency International in the year 2000 for his fearless pursuit of the truth and in exposing corruption, through his writings.

He was awarded the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Award in 2009 .
The Director General stated, “In awarding the 2009 World Press Freedom Prize to a committed journalist who opposed war, UNESCO, along with media professionals from all over the world, recognizes the important role that freedom of expression can play in fostering mutual understanding and reconciliation, the theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day celebration.”

On November 17, 2009 Lasantha was posthumously awarded the Louis M. Lyons Award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.

Lasantha and David S. Rohde were awarded with the 2009 John Aubuchon Press Freedom Awards at the National Press Club (USA). The awards were bestowed on one international journalist and one American journalist who embodied the principles of a free press.

In 2009 he was also awarded the Sepala Gunasena Award for Defending Press Freedom in Sri Lanka.

Lasantha was awarded the special James Cameron Award in 2009 and in the same year he was also awarded the Guardian Journalism Award Wickrematunge was also awarded the 1st Asia Media Award for Press Freedom.

In 2010 Wickrematunge was posthumously declared an IPI World Press Freedom Hero.

The investigation into his death is floundering. Kandegedara Piyawansa a soldier with the Sri Lanka Army Intelligence Unit taken into custody together with Pitchai Jesudasan was released on bail after he accused senior officers in open court. A statement he made in chambers to the magistrate prior to being granted bail by a higher court was forwarded to the Inspector General of Police for a report which is yet to be filed. Pitchai Jesudasan died in remand custody and the JMO has returned an open verdict. Fifteen army intelligence officers held previously by the TID handling the investigation were released when an adviser to the government informed high officials that the soldiers would “sing” about other operations by the Army.

Ministers have given dates starting from March 2009 when the perpetrators would be brought to book. Three years later and with over sixty dates in court, the Police have still not made any headway with the investigation.

The governments of the day ignored one exposé after another which Lasantha published over the years. The Sri Lankan public does not hold a government or a Minister to account over newspaper reports unlike their counterparts in the developed world. The international recognition he received posthumously reflects the unparalleled impact Lasantha had in defending the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka.

“ We would trade all of this for our father’s life,” words expressed by Ahimsa, Lasantha’s daughter, says it all.

© The Sunday Leader

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Sunday, January 08, 2012

Sri Lanka: Students go over the top over statue

By Ranga Jayasuriya | Lakbima News

If there is a thing called the principle of proportionality — it appears to be missing on the part of both the government and the student activists. After an explosion damaged a statue built to commemorate the fallen student activists in the past, thousands of students of Sri Jayewardenepura University swarmed the streets and created hours of vehicular traffic blockages on Colombo streets on Thursday (December 5).

Students marched from the university to Temple Trees — and were stopped at Kollupitiya before they could reached their final destination. Thousands of working hours were lost in traffic jams and angry passengers, stuck on the road were heard swearing at the students.

Later that night, soldiers surrounded the university and armoured personnel carriers rolled on the streets around the University of Sri Jayewardenepura.

On Friday, soldiers allegedly assaulted student activists who protested against their presence wounding three students. An injured student, Saranga Dissanayake was rushed to the hospital, and is being treated at the Sri Jayewardenepura hospital.

A climate of fear

Military presence around the university is intimidating to say the least.

Worse still, student activists allege that the army is engaged in systematic assaults on identified student activists.

“There is a climate of fear in the university,” says the convener of the Inter University Student Federation, Sanjeewa Bandara.

He says the military has been deployed to terrorize students into submission.
There are armoured cars and over 200 soldiers wielding guns. Students are scared to venture out, he complained.

He said the students had launched a satyagraha (a peaceful protest) against military deployment around the university.

He alleged that the purported bomb attack that damaged the ‘Viri Sisu Smarakaya’ in the wee hours of Thursday was an inside job (of the university administration).

“The Vice Chancellor earlier threatened to demolish the statue and we protested,” he said.

He questioned as to how a bomb attack is launched at the statue when hundreds of security guards hired from the Ratna Lanka Security Service, a commercial venture linked to the Defence Ministry, he alleges, are detailed in every nook and corner of the university.

‘Reign of terror’

He vowed that the students would continue with their agitation until the vice chancellor of the university whom they accuse of presiding over a ‘reign of terror’ is removed and the military is also removed from the surroundings of the university, and the services of the Ratna Lanka Security Service are discontinued.

The vice chancellor of the University, N.L.A. Karunaratne was not available for comment. However, in an opinion column published in a Sinhala newspaper, the vice hancellor alleged that student activists were agents of foreign conspirators who aim to ‘sabotage country’s development.’

© Lakbima News

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