By Dharisha Bastians and Chamodi Gunewardane
The body of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the slain editor of The Sunday Leader newspaper, will be exhumed at the Borella Cemetery today for a fresh autopsy to determine the exact cause of his death in 2009.
The exhumation request was put forward to the Mount Lavinia Magistrate’s Court by the CID earlier this month, after CID sleuths told court that their latest investigations had led to suspicions that Wickrematunge had not died from gunshot wounds as reported in 2011.
Two post-mortems conducted into the senior journalist’s death were contradictory, with one claiming the editor had died of gunshot wounds while the other found no evidence of a shooting on Wickrematunge’s person, the CID told court.
On 8 September, the Magistrate ordered the exhumation to take place before a judge on 27 September. Since the exhumation order was issued, Wickrematunge’s gravesite in the Borella cemetery has been under police protection to ensure the remains are undisturbed.
Colombo Additional Magistrate Mohamed Mihal will inspect the exhumation proceedings at the gravesite today.
Wickrematunge was reportedly ‘shot dead’ in broad daylight by a group on motorcycles in Attidiya on his way to work on 8 January 2009.
This is the second high-profile murder case which occurred during the tenure of the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration to result in an exhumation of remains for further autopsy after previous Judicial Medical Officer (JMO) reports were found lacking credibility. In August 2015, a magistrate ordered the exhumation of the body of rugby player Wasim Thajudeen, who died under mysterious circumstances that were chalked up to a road accident. Two senior police officials under the Rajapaksa administration are currently in police custody on suspicion of a cover-up in the Thajudeen case. Both the Thajudeen and Wickrematunge cases are under fresh investigation since the fall of the Rajapaksa administration in January 2015.
Wickrematunge was the most senior journalist to be murdered in Sri Lanka, and a vociferous critic of the Government at the time of his death. The newspaper he founded in 1994 - The Sunday Leader - was renowned for its strident anti-establishment positions and scathing criticism of the country’s rulers. Wickrematunge’s newspaper also stood out as a strong critic of the Rajapaksa administration’s war against the LTTE, consistently raising concerns about human rights violations and the brutal tactics being employed in the embattled regions during the Government’s push against the Tigers. In the months preceding his death, Wickrematunge published a series of exposes on an allegedly corrupt deal to purchase MiG 29 aircraft for the Sri Lankan military which earned the wrath of the defence establishment at the time.
Wickrematunge’s murder sparked an outcry by journalists, civil society and opposition members but investigations into his death had stalled until the defeat of the Rajapaksa regime. His death struck a heavy blow to press freedom in the country, with journalists and media organisations adopting self-censorship to prevent reprisals from the ruling regime.