Questions remain over Sri Lanka editor’s death despite new arrests

Five intelligence officers have been detained in connection to the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, representing the most significant breakthrough in the case - but the question remains: did one of the Rajapakse brothers order the assassination?

Sri Lankan journalists and well wishers light candles in front of the grave of slain editor Lasantha Wickrematunge in the capital Colombo on January 8, 2016, on the seventh anniversary of his death. Five intelligence officers were detained in February 2017 in connection with his death. Ishara S Kodikara / AFP Photo
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Five officers in Sri Lanka’s military intelligence apparatus have been arrested on suspicion of assassinating a newspaper editor eight years ago — in a murder with a dramatic aftermath, and one that became an example of the previous government’s attacks on dissidents.

Lasantha Wickrematunge, the editor of the Sunday Leader, was killed in 2009 while on his way to work one January morning. Four men on motorcycles pulled up next to his car, smashed his window, and shot him.

Wickrematunge had been fiercely critical of then-president Mahinda Rajapakse and his brother Gotabhaya, the country’s defence secretary. But despite the international outcry, the probe into his murder languished for the remainder of Mr Rajapakse’s presidency.

It was only after Mr Rajapakse was replaced in January 2015 by Maithripala Sirisena, that the investigation began again. Last July, a sergeant major in military intelligence was the first to be arrested in connection to the crime.

Last weekend, five intelligence officers were detained, representing the most significant breakthrough in the case. But the question remains: did one of the Rajapakse brothers order the assassination?

Wickrematunge certainly seemed to think so. In a posthumous editorial — to be published in the event of his murder — he accused the then-president of being “drunk with power”.

“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,” he wrote, addressing Mr Rajapakse. “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.”

Wickrematunge was killed just days before he was scheduled to testify before a judge about Gotabhaya’s alleged corruption. In the months following the assassination, Sri Lanka won its civil war in brutal fashion, killing — according to figures from the United Nations — at least 40,000 civilians in the quest to exterminate the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a militant secessionist group.

Other journalists who criticised the government found themselves under attack as well. A cartoonist and political analyst named Prageeth Eknaligoda was allegedly abducted in January 2010; his body was never found.

Poddala Jayantha, another journalist, recalled anonymous threats and warnings, including a phone message that said: “If you go on doing what you’re doing, we’ll have to light candles for your funeral as well.”

In June 2009, Jayantha was snatched off the road into a white van and severely beaten by six men. He was warned that if he continued to be critical of Mr Rajapakse’s government, he would be shot. Mindful of his family’s welfare, Jayantha fled to the US.

The defeat of Mr Rajapakse in the 2015 elections brought fresh hope that such crimes — as well as war crimes that the former president and his brother have been accused of —would finally be prosecuted.

But the lethargy of the investigations has dampened spirits.

“It is getting to the point when we are wondering whether Sirisena will ever really go after the biggest fish in these crimes, as he promised he would when he ran for president,” said a Colombo-based human rights activist who asked not to be named, fearing retribution.

On Sunday, detectives told a magistrate that the five arrested suspects had run a “death squad” on the instructions of an unnamed senior defence official. The implication of more officials in the military establishment has raised fears that the investigation will falter.

“The process of delivering the justice for the killed, disappeared, assaulted journalists and destroyed media institutions in the recent history should be expedited,” the Free Media Movement, an independent media watchdog in Sri Lanka, said on Monday. “[We] demand the government … complete the investigation and punish the perpetrators without undue influence.”