- Lasantha’s Killers Still Walk Free
By Frederica Jansz
A year ago, a high profile investigation into the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge and the attacks on Editors Upali Tennekoon, Keith Noyahr and Namal Perera got underway as senior sleuths attached to the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) and the Terrorist Investigations Department (TID) sifted through a smattering of leads which may, they said, eventually pinpoint who were responsible for these attacks on journalists at the height of the war against the LTTE.
Seventeen army soldiers attached to the Army Military Intelligence Unit but also identified as having worked ‘closely’ with former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka were remanded and held by the TID/CID.
When I met with detectives, they said they were attempting to identify those who followed The Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge on Thursday, January 8, 2009 as he drove from his home in Nugegoda to Battaramulla and then onto to Attidiya where he was killed.
A serious investigation into the attacks on journalists began only after General Fonseka contested the presidential elections 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 last January, 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 officials conducting the investigation.
Investigators meanwhile succeeded in taking into custody five mobile telephones which on the day Lasantha was killed moved in the same pattern as Wickrematunge’s phone, following his path from his home at Kandewatte Terrace – Nugegoda – to Robert Gunewardena Mawatha – Battaramulla – and then onto Attidiya.
A chart on the opposite page shows the movement of these five mobiles including that of Wickrematunge’s (indicated in black). The phones passed through 11 cellular phone towers starting from Balapokuna Road – Nugegoda and ending at Attidiya.
Police sleuths say that the five numbers have not been used before or since the day of the killing. However they have not been disconnected either.
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 mobile phone used by a person in Nugegoda.
Police believe only two motorbikes were used despite some eyewitness accounts describing four bikes at the scene of the crime.
One of the five phone numbers indicated on the mobile path shows a call having been made at Bakery Junction – Attidiya – at the exact spot Lasantha was attacked. Sleuths believe this phone was carried by the killer – the man who actually carried out the attack.
No weapon has been traced as yet. Sleuths remain undecided as to whether Wickrematunge was shot dead at point blank range, killed using a ‘Stun Gun’ or fatally wounded by a long nail attached to the end of a pole.
Doctors who attended on Wickrematunge at the Kalubowila Hospital in an initial report said that Wickrematunge had been killed as a result of “firing.” However, later the post mortem report said “There is an entry wound – no exit wound. Nor a spent bullet inside.”
This led to speculation first published in The Sunday Leader that Wickrematunge had been killed by the use of a ‘Stun Gun’; a weapon that is used for culling cattle or sheep which has a retracting pointed steel rod in its barrel.
With no real clues having emerged as yet, there being no spent bullet casing or cartridge found, police appear to be running with this theory based entirely on the speculative report carried in this newspaper.
Of the 17 soldiers who were held in this regard, detectives narrowed the field down to six prime suspects. Six army men who on the day Wickrematunge was killed and on the day Upali Tennakoon, the then editor of the Sinhala Sunday newspaper Rivira was assaulted were out on ‘surveillance.’
There however have been no evidence whatsoever that these six men were indeed involved in the two attacks. No witnesses have come forward to identify the attackers in either case. And according to detectives they could not connect the five telephones used on the day of the murder to any of these six men. All 17 army men were subsequently released.
Police meanwhile arrested and remanded one Jesudason from Nuwara Eliya who we were told owns a garage.
All of the five telephones used in the attack were registered in the name of Jesudason. When quizzed by detectives, Jesudason claimed he had 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 did however confess 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, was among the six detained by the CID/TID. At the time of the arrest of this soldier he was a member of the army’s Military Intelligence Directorate headed at the time by Major General Amal Karunasekera.
At the time Sarath Fonseka was appointed Chief of Defence Staff, Brigadier Amal Karunasekera was tipped to be among a number of senior officers from the army to be appointed to top posts in the CDS office.
He was however subsequently chosen to join Sri Lanka’s diplomatic service and was expected to be posted as the Charge d’Affaires in the new Sri Lanka Mission in Eritrea. Maj. Gen. Karunasekera, played a key role in the military campaign against Tiger guerrillas and is identified as being a close confidant of Sarath Fonseka.
Sleuths last year were also investigating why and how Karunasekera transferred a significant sum of monies to the army’s Head Quarters Battalion Account during or roundabout the period when Wickrematunge was assassinated. The dispensing of monies from this account is entirely the prerogative of the serving army commander.
Previously, Keith Noyahr, Associate Editor and Defence Correspondent of The Nation weekly newspaper was abducted from outside his home and brutally tortured on May 23, 2008.
The assailants in that attack were also believed according to the rumour mill to have been acting on the orders of General Fonseka who was Army Commander at the time. Noyahr subsequently left the country together with his young family vowing never to return. He also remained tight-lipped refusing to identify or indicate who his attackers were insisting that he had been warned of dire reprisals if he did so.
A month later Namal Perera, a journalist with the Sri Lanka Press Institute, was ruthlessly attacked on a busy highway at Kirulapone at 5.30 p.m. as he was being driven home by a close friend – Mahendra Ratnaweera. Both Perera and Ratnaweera suffered knife wounds but the assailants failed in their attempt to abduct him. Perera too was perceived to have fallen foul of Fonseka.
Sonali Writes To The President…
Lasantha Wickrematunge’s widow, Sonali Samarasinghe Wickrematunge, on April 24, 2009 publicly released a letter that she had addressed to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, expressing her dismay at the government’s attempts to cover up the assassination of her husband, and systematically dismantling the official line that Wickrematunge was killed by ‘forces attempting to discredit the government.’
Mrs. Wickrematunge pointed out several coincidences that jointly point to a government cover up of the assassination, including the fact that the state-run ITN television network did not mention Lasantha’s murder in its January 8 news bulletins. “Even the news editors of ITN, therefore, appear to have concluded that the government was responsible and sought to hush the matter up,” she wrote.
Highlighting the threats made on Lasantha’s life by President Rajapaksa himself in a telephone conversation, Mrs. Wickrematunge not only implied that President Rajapaksa knew full well who was behind Lasantha’s assassination, but went as far as to say “everyone except the police seem to know” who killed the outspoken editor.
“I Know Who Killed Lasantha” — Red Herring?
The Man Who Walked In…
It was mid February 2009 and barely over a month since Lasantha was killed. A small-made, dishevelled man turns up in office and says he wishes to speak with me. He went on to relate an amazing story explaining how Lasantha was killed and who was behind it.
I listened patiently and took down notes of what he said. These notes were retained by me till Friday, March 5, 2010. With news reports in many newspapers and the electronic media that inquiries into the murder of Lasantha were making headway I decided to make a statement on what I was told by this visitor to one arm investigating this case.
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 once when he had a problem with higher authorities at the Buddha Sasana Ministry when he gave an interview to The Leader.
He said, “A politician had given the contract to kill Lasantha to Kalu Thushara. Kalu Thushara uses Lakshman Kumara to carry out such contract work even though Lakshman Kumara was in jail. Lakshman Kumara is incarcerated for seven murders and also the HSBC heist. He is in B3 Ward cell 75. Others in this cell were Shantha from Galle and Kamal. Lakshman Kumara used members of his gang to carry out the murder.”
He said, the weapon used to kill Lasantha was sourced from Vavuniya and those who transported the weapon stayed with a ruling party provincial councillor at Anuradhapura. A three wheeler was used to transport the weapon concealed in a cavity made for transportation of drugs. The three wheel vehicle belonged to an employee at the Transport Board in Ambalantota. The motorcycles used for this operation was sourced by one Indika from Piliyandala. One such bike was later driven by another and was produced at the Piliyandala Police by SI Ousmand.
It was Thusitha, an ex army person, Mr.“X” said who rode one bike to commit this murder. Chatura of Kottawa, Ashan from Kaluaggala and Saman also rode bikes, while Bernard of Pannipitiya drove the three wheeler. Kalu Thushara was remanded for possession of one kilo of heroin. He was charged in the Awissawella High Court. He had falsified the bail documents and was released from Kuruwita prison when he was produced at Welikada for another offence where he was granted bail, on the condition that the Awissawella Courts had given him bail.
Therefore he went free and went by boat to India to link up with Thel Bala to thereafter cross over to Italy. Kalu Thushara was arrested by the Immigration authorities in India and held in a camp.
The ‘hit’ was monitored by Lakshman Kumara from within the prison by using cellular no 07163…which was later confiscated by Jailor Silva on a search conducted within the prison. He also used cellular no 0715727814 and his brother Chaminda used cellular no 0725672771.
Mr. “X” also stated that the “Minister who master-minded the operation had visited Lakshman Kumara in prison that night in a special room and gave him biriyani and Rs. 1.8 million for a job well done.”
Mr. “X” was requested to meet a Police Inspector who was conducting the investigations and also given a card phone to be in touch. On visiting the police station and talking to the Inspector concerned, Mr “X” having developed cold feet vanished and was never heard of till he sent me a registered letter explaining his fear of being identified by the perpetrators.
It was only on receiving the letter that I knew his name. If that is true or not, the investigating authorities are sure to find out. Similarly the truth or falsity of the narrative.
To get to the truth of Lasantha’s killing all possible leads need to be investigated. This story is being published now, since the CID/TID are finally carrying out a serious investigation into the death and can investigate all possible angles.
The question is who sent this man and why?
When We Questioned Sarath Fonseka…
When the presidential election campaign of General Fonseka commenced at a public forum organised by Lakshman Watawala where Fonseka was the guest speaker, a question was posed to him by The Sunday Leader whether he killed Lasantha. He did not respond maintaining that it was not the proper forum.
On a second occasion when General Fonseka was the Chief Guest at the AGM of the Colombo Lawyers’ For Democracy held at the Galadari Hotel, a written question was sent up to him asking the same question. He replied, “kudu-karayas masquerading as politicians would have done it.”
The third occasion was when The Sunday Leader asked him the same question at an interview held in his political office on December 8, 2009 when he side-tracked the question, mumbling vaguely, alleging kudu-karayas protected by politicians were responsible.
A Year Ago Lasantha’s Widow Sonali Penned A Second Appeal To
President Mahinda Rajapaksa
January 4, 2010
President Mahinda Rajapaksa
Inquiry into the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge
On 8 January 2010, it will be one year since my husband and your ‘friend’, Lasantha Wickrematunge, was assassinated in broad daylight while driving to work. He was one of 14 dissident journalists to have been murdered in Sri Lanka after you became President in 2005. In not a single of these cases have the murderers been brought to book. Indeed, it was not for nothing that Lasantha himself observed that “murder has become the primary tool whereby the state seeks to control the organs of liberty…. When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.” Not only was Lasantha’s murder not investigated, neither were any of the several preceding commando-style attacks on him, his home and The Sunday Leader’s press.
It is no secret that several other journalists have been attacked or otherwise threatened, resulting in their being forced to flee Sri Lanka. Yet others have been coerced into submission. At no time in the history of our country has the freedom of expression been so brutally repressed as it is now. Such media as do operate in the country have been transformed into propaganda mouthpieces for you and your brothers, or into flaccid shells of their former integrity, bullied into submission through the draconian ‘emergency regulations’ you have arbitrarily promulgated – superseding and, in effect, laying waste to the Constitution that has formed the bedrock of our Nation for the past thirty-two years. These regulations that you have so readily enacted have already resulted in one journalist being imprisoned for a term of 20 years.
In the 12 months that have elapsed since Lasantha’s murder, there has been virtually no investigation into this crime. Had there been even the slightest interest in initiating such an inquiry, the apprehension of his murderers would have been child’s play. According to witnesses the assassins all rode a uniform make and type of motorcycle, yet there was no call for information from the public in this regard. After all, two or more men riding a similar make of motorcycle would not likely escape the attention of the neighbours.
What is more, based on witness accounts, Lasantha’s assailants appear to have communicated between themselves using cellular telephones over a period of several hours and across a number of contiguous cells. Although this makes it quite easy to track their movements, and ascertain their identity, the police have made no visible attempt to do so. Laughably, the official inquiry seems to have centred almost entirely around Lasantha’s own telephone, evidently in an endeavour to identify his sources rather than his executioners.
Finally, despite the existence of numerous witnesses, no accurate description of the attack was ever made public by the police. Mysteriously, though the cause of death was recorded as “due to gunshot injuries”, neither were spent cartridges found at the scene; nor a single bullet recovered from Lasantha’s body or shown on an x-ray. Taken together, all this can leave little doubt in a rational mind that the murder has been the focus of an extensive — if clumsy — cover up.
In the wake of Lasantha’s assassination you not only publicly proclaimed that he was your friend and that you met with him frequently, but you also promised a swift and thorough inquiry. That was indeed generous of you, especially in view of the fact that Lasantha was unarguably among the biggest thorns in your side, right from the time he exposed the ‘Helping Hambantota’ scandal, in which money donated to the people of Sri Lanka for tsunami relief mysteriously found its way into a private bank account controlled by you. But that, involving as it did, a mere few hundred thousand dollars, has in these past four years of your presidency paled into insignificance. Despite your sanctimonious promise; now, 12 months after Lasantha’s murder, we all know that no inquiry ever materialised.
It is perhaps most indicative of your government’s attitude towards such matters that when your brother Gotabaya, who oversees the police, was asked about the inquiry by a foreign journalist, he giggled like a petulant child with a secret, asking (on camera, and for the record of posterity), “Who is Lasantha?” Lasantha himself knew full well that he would be murdered, and who his murderer would be. He was not afraid of death. He needed no escorts, bullet proof vests or armoured cars to ply his trade.
He lived by his publicly stated motto: unbowed and unafraid. Indeed, with remarkable prescience, he addressed personally to you an obiter dictum:
“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. 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… You will never be allowed to forget that my death took place under your watch. As anguished as I know you will be, I also know that you will have no choice but to protect my killers: you will see to it that the guilty one is never convicted. You have no choice. I feel sorry for you, and Shiranthi will have a long time to spend on her knees when next she goes for Confession for it is not just her owns sins which she must confess, but those of her extended family that keeps you in office.”
Lasantha’s life has been celebrated widely throughout the world. He has posthumously been awarded numerous honours, including UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Prize and five other major international awards. His work has inspired the world. Even today, a large artistic monument to Lasantha titled Unbowed And Unafraid by Austrian architect and sculptor Peter Sandbichler, stands prominently outside Vienna’s renowned Museum of Modern Art.
While these are unique and prestigious honours that would distinguish any person, let alone a mere journalist from so small a country as ours, the Sri Lankan state media, now absolutely controlled by you, have failed to even mention them. It seems they have drawn their own conclusions as to who it was that slew Lasantha.
Even as the so-called investigation fell apart, I wrote you a letter on April 24, 2009 calling for an independent international inquiry into my husband’s death. I also wrote to then-Inspector General of Police Jayantha Wickremaratne requesting his cooperation. Nearly one year later no progress has been made. Now with the upcoming presidential election at stake, predictably, Lasantha’s murder has been made a speaking point of every election campaign. Do not reduce the investigation of my husband’s murder into a political circus, Mr. President.
I want you to know that even at this very late stage I would welcome an impartial, transparent and professional inquiry that will identify Lasantha’s murderers and bring them to justice. In the absence of a proper investigation to-date, and given 12 months of stonewalling by your government, both the Sri Lankan public and the world would have arrived at their own conclusions as to who it was that killed Lasantha. All you can do now is prove them wrong. And this I challenge you to do, Mr. President: Prove them wrong.
With Best wishes for the New Year,
Sonali Samarasinghe Wickrematunge