Gurugram: On Friday, the Centre for Justice and Accountability, a non-profit organisation based in San Francisco, California, the US, filed a complaint with the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee on behalf of Ahimsa Wickrematunge, daughter of slain Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, who was murdered on January 8, 2009, the international news agency Associated Press reported.
The committee is a body of experts established by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which 172 countries are parties and is distinct from the more high-profile UN Human Rights Council comprising government nominees.
The complaint by Ahimsa, filed on the 12th death anniversary of the editor, alleges that her father’s killers were linked with important functionaries of the Sri Lankan government that was then headed by president Mahinda Rajapaksa – who is currently the island-country’s prime minister and minister of finance.
Lasantha Wickrematunge was murdered by two unidentified gunmen in Colombo while he was on his way to work. He was editor of the now-defunct weekly Sunday Leader, which suspended its operations in October 2018. The publication was stridently critical of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the powerful defence secretary in the government headed by his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa. Gotabaya is the current president of Sri Lanka.
The UNHRC has been urged by the complainant to ensure that the Sri Lankan government conducts a free and fair investigation into Lasantha’s murder, prosecutes those responsible, apologises and gives adequate compensation to the Wickrematunge family.
In the complaint, it is stated that Lasantha’s assassination took place a few days before he was scheduled to testify in a defamation case filed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who had sued the Sunday Leader newspaper for exposing alleged kickbacks in the purchase of MiG-27 fighter planes by Sri Lanka’s air force from Ukraine. The complainant further alleges that law-enforcing agencies interfered in attempts to conduct a free and fair investigation.
This is not the first time Lasantha’s daughter Ahimsa has approached international institutions to seek justice. In 2019, when Gotabaya was a dual citizen of both Sri Lanka and the US, she had approached a Los Angeles (LA) court to seek damages for his alleged involvement in her father’s killing. However, the suit was dismissed on the ground that the LA court lacked jurisdiction as Gotabaya was entitled to immunity from legal proceedings as a foreign government official.
The writer of this article had visited Colombo for a conference in early-2009 and had written on Lasanha’s killing in particular and media freedom in general in Sri Lanka that had been published by Inter Press Service, a global agency headquartered in Rome.
In an amazingly prescient obituary published posthumously in the Sunday Leader, the weekly Lasantha Wickrematunge had edited for 15 years, it appeared as if he had anticipated his murder. He wrote: “No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism.”
As in life, in death too, he was categorical: “It is well known that I was on two occasions brutally assaulted, while on another my house was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Despite the government’s sanctimonious assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry into the perpetrators of these attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended. In all these cases, I have reason to believe the attacks were inspired by the government. When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.”
Addressing the then president by his first name, Lasantha added that it was ironical that “Mahinda and I have been friends for more than a quarter century” and went on to state: “In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual… 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. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. Not just my life, but yours too, depends on it.”
Lasantha Wickrematunge’s death aroused the conscience of the media the world over. At his funeral, more than 4,000 people turned up. However, his killers are yet to be apprehended.
His murder took place at a time when the Sri Lankan government had stepped up its military offensive against separatist Tamil militants in the northern parts of the country. While the government in Colombo used to be in the news for censoring journalists who it felt were sympathetic to the militants, according to a businessman who spoke on condition of anonymity to me at that time, Lasantha was targeted because he exposed high-level political corruption.
He said that he “was less of a critic of the government’s military operations in the north and certainly not a sympathiser of the outlawed LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam)… he was targeted because he was exposing the corruption of ministers and bureaucrats.”
ATTACKS ON INDEPENDENT JOURNALISTS IN SRI LANKA
On January 9, 2009, the Sinhala radio service of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was censored for airing the views of opposition leaders and others critical of the government’s inability to prevent attacks on journalists. That day, a website www.lankadissent.com “voluntarily” shut down.
In the days that followed, government spokespersons continued their attacks on “irresponsible” journalists who were allegedly sympathetic to the LTTE. A senior journalist Upali Tennakoon was assaulted on January 22 the same year, again by unknown people on motorcycles. The same day, a freelance Tamil journalist Prakash Shakthi Velupillai was arrested at Colombo airport and described as a “prominent LTTE supporter.”
Other journalists were summoned by government officials and accused of not following media guidelines while reporting the Sri Lankan army’s operations. More than 65,000 people are estimated to have died in the civil war in the country that went on for two and a half decades.
It was estimated that at least 30 journalists died under unusual circumstances in Sri Lanka in the fifteen years preceding 2009. A BBC correspondent Chris Morris left the country soon after he was named by Gotabaya as a supporter of the LTTE.
On that visit to Colombo, I found ordinary citizens reluctant to talk about the government’s inaction while journalists were being attacked. As for journalists themselves, many were worried about the repercussions that could follow an on-the-record conversation with a visiting foreign journalist. “We are worried about our families and not just ourselves,” said a senior journalist.
Within a month of Lasantha’s murder, more than a dozen independent journalists had left Sri Lanka. Groups of journalists received financial support from international non-government organisations to help them leave the country and also provide funds for their families.
The businessman quoted earlier told me: “In the name of conducting a war against the LTTE, the government has cracked down on any and every form of dissent. Past governments too had displayed their intolerance but never as brazenly as this one.”
Despite the atmosphere of fear prevailing, a few journalists did speak to me. “Media freedom has been under serious threat in Sri Lanka for the last 20 years under successive regimes,” said Lakshman F B Gunasekara, founder president of the Sri Lanka chapter of the South Asia Free Media Association and former editor of the Sunday Observer weekly.
“While journalists who have been attacked or killed are presumed to be victims of anti-government or non-government armed groups, in the case of most of the assassinations, the finger of suspicion points towards groups linked with, or supportive of, the government or the political party in power,” he added.
Gunasekara said that “attacks on the media seem to be a malaise of Sri Lankan political society as a whole and reflects the gradual collapse of civilian, institutional political practices that are, in turn, reflective of a generic weakness of post-colonial democracy in the country.” Lasantha’s killing, he added, was a manifestation of the “depths and extremities of this malaise”.
“Officially, there is no censorship. But the repeated attacks on journalists, including the killing of some, have created a sense of panic and fear among independent-minded journalists who want to expose corruption and abuse of power in the public interest,” a leading Sri Lankan journalist told me off-the-record adding that the “end result is that the people’s right to information has been drastically curtailed.”
He added that until a senior journalist working for the English language newspaper The Nation, Keith Noyahr, was abducted and tortured, even the mainstream media in Colombo had not taken notice of Tamil journalists who had been bumped off in Jaffna and other places in north Sri Lanka. Noyahr left his country and reportedly refused to make a statement to the police for fears of reprisal against his family members.
On March 30, 2017, it was reported that a van suspected to have been used in the abduction of Noyahr was recovered by the police from a house belonging to a woman who had been a friend of an army major who was among the suspects remanded in connection with the crime. The same van was supposedly used for several crimes in the past including the murder of Lasantha.
The Rajapaksas are said to be the most powerful family in the country. Mahinda and Gotabaya’s father was a cabinet minister and a member of Parliament and two other brothers have held high-ranking administrative positions.
A year after the murder of Lasantha, presidential elections were held on January 26, 2010, which were won by the United People’s Freedom Alliance led by Mahinda Rajapaksa. He lost power five years later in the 2015 elections after which Maithripala Sirisena of the New Democratic Front became Sri Lanka’s president. Then, in November 2019, Gotabaya became president after the Sri Lanka People’s Freedom Alliance won the eighth presidential elections held in the country.
In an emailed comment to NewsClick, senior journalist Aunohita Mojumdar, who has worked in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan and India, said: “There have been multiple attempts by family members of Lasantha Wickrematunge to get justice for his assassination. These brave attempts have kept the issue alive in public memory but led to little progress in terms of prosecution. Many had hoped that the tenure of the government headed by Ranil Wickremesinghe would result in some progress not just on this, but also other cases of war crimes, egregious violence and murders committed at the behest of powerful political figures. However, that did not happen, whether by design or default.”
She added: “The Rajapaksa-led governments, both the current one and the earlier one, have shown scant regard for the UN-led processes for accountability for war crimes and this government, voted into power with a two-thirds majority, has majoritarian opinion on its side. In February 2020, the Sri Lankan government said it would no longer cooperate with the UN Human Rights Council’s Resolution 30/1 that aimed to promote reconciliation, accountability and human rights in the country. The UN will need to show imagination if it is to find a way to address these issues beyond the political obstruction of the Sri Lankan government, whose cooperation the UN requires in order to remain within the country and implement its broader mandate on human development and sustainable development goals (SDGs).”
Writing and research assistance: Sourodipto Sanyal The writer is an independent journalist.