Sri Lanka marks decade since journalist assassination amid justice calls

Lasantha Wickrematunge was killed just days before he was due to give evidence against the Rajapaksa family

Sri Lankan mourners gather at the grave of editor Lasantha Wickrematunge on the 10th anniversary of his death in Colombo on January 8, 2019. Ten years after top newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge was killed by a suspected government death squad the failure to secure a prosecution has come to highlight Sri Lanka's struggle with a dark past. / AFP / ISHARA S. KODIKARA
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Sri Lankan journalists on Tuesday paid tribute to editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, 10 years after his murder by a suspected government death squad that came to symbolise a decade-long crackdown on the country's media.

Just days before he was due to give evidence against the brother of the country's then strongman leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, two assailants on motorcycles blocked the car of the 50-year-old editor of The Sunday Leader newspaper, before smashing the windows and stabbing him in the head.

The assassination is one of many unresolved killings of journalists during Mr Rajapaksa's decade in power, during which the 37-year conflict with Tamil separatists was brought to a brutal conclusion.

Friends, family and colleagues of Wickrematunge placed flowers and candles on his grave at the Colombo General Cemetery.

White cards with Wickrematunge's name and those of 18 other journalists were also put among the golden trumpet flowers and white frangipani blooms.

A message from Lal Wickrematunge – the dead journalist's brother who lives in Australia – was read out, saying the family was also grieving for other journalists killed by unidentified assassins.


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It said many journalists from the minority Tamil community were killed "during the darkest period in our nation's history" – the four-decade civil war, ended by government forces when they crushed the rebel Tamil Tigers in 2009.

The murdered Wickrematunge was a critic of that military campaign, which allegedly resulted in the massacre of 40,000 ethnic Tamils.

"Reconciliation and closure will not be possible without prosecution," his brother said.

Before his death Wickrematunge had revealed corruption in a multimillion dollar purchase of second-hand MiG planes from Ukraine implicating then defence secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa – the brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was president at the time.

The editor was killed days before he was due to give evidence.

After Mr Rajapaksa lost a 2015 election, a breakthrough in the Wickrematunge case was made when investigators told a Sri Lankan court that army spies were responsible for his killing.

A former army commander accused Gotabhaya of running a secret unit used to target journalists and dissidents during his brother's presidency, during which rights activists say dozens of media workers were killed.

Gotabhaya has denied any link to the killings. He remains under investigation for corruption related to the MiG deal.