Snail’s pace progress in Lasantha’s murder investigation

Friday, 8 January 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

65 srhgOne of the staunchest critics of the then Mahinda Rajapaksa Government, Lasantha Wickrematunge was killed while on his way to work, inside a High Security Zone in the Ratmalana area, a Colombo 

suburb, just minutes from his office



By Thilaka Sanjaya

It has been seven years since the Editor of The Sunday Leader Lasantha Wickrematunge was brutally assassinated on 8 January 2009. One of the staunchest critics of the then Mahinda Rajapaksa Government, he was killed while on his way to work, inside a High Security Zone in the Ratmalana area, a Colombo suburb, just minutes from his office.

But after six years of investigations, Police have been unable to locate any definite clues as to who was behind the heinous crime. Even the magisterial process at the local Mount Lavinia Courts is proceeding without any suspects.

However, rumours as to ‘who-done-it’ have been plenty.

Police Media Spokesperson Ruwan Gunasekera admitted that Police have been unable to arrest any suspects connected with the crime. But in the same breath he said that investigations would not be suspended and would proceed using available evidence.

What is clear, however, is that the investigation is virtually at a standstill right now. The murder that gained international notoriety for the then Mahinda Rajapaksa Government was for some time handled by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID).

There have been persistent rumours that a high-ranker within the military was responsible for the murder. However, investigators say that they are yet to uncover any evidence indicating such a link.  Soon after the new Maithripala Sirisena Government took office in January 2015, controversial ex-MP Mervyn Silva gave a statement in which he said that former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa was linked to the murder and many other such attacks. When contacted Silva this week however declined to comment any further on what he told the CID.

Following Silva’s statement, Wickrematunge’s brother Lal Wickrematunge also gave a statement to the CID soon afterwards.

“I expect that my statement will be compared to that given by ex-Minister Silva and investigations will proceed at a satisfactory level,” Lal Wickrematunge said in March 2015 soon after meeting the CID. 

Nine months later, that does not seem to have happened. “The former Government did not carry out any effective investigations into the attacks against media. A few weeks after the 8 January elections last year I met the President as a representative of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association, and I made the request to make these investigations much more efficient, that sadly has not happened,” said journalist and media activist Lasantha Ruhunege.

However, investigations initiated during the Rajapaksa administration seemed to have yielded the best clues. Police say that these investigations had gone as far as available evidence affords them to proceed. The investigations were at a standstill because there is no line of new evidence. 

The initial investigations by the CID began under the direct supervision of the then Inspector General of Police (IGP) and the focus had been on how the prominent journalist was killed. 

“Initial investigations had been how the murder was carried out. There were no spent shells or bullets found at the murder scene, nor in the victim’s body. The conclusion has been that he was killed by assaulting him with something like a bayonet,” an officer connected with the investigation said.

Then the attention shifted to mobile phone communications. Police searched for Lasantha’s phone but did not recover it from the victim’s possessions as it had been stolen. Police did recover the phone and a suspect was in remand prison for over a year for having the phone in his possession. But he was later released as it was clear that he had no connection to the murder. 

Then Police zoomed in on mobile communications along the route that Lasantha took. Here attention focused on five phones that seemed to be on persons who were following Lasantha from the time he left home. Investigators were able to access tracking data and found that the phones kept moving along the same route that the slain Editor took. 

All five SIMs had been bought under the name of one person, P. Jesudasan. He was a man who worked at a garage in Nuwara Eliya. His arrest thus far remains the main and only worthwhile breakthrough in the investigation. 

Jesudasan had revealed that military intelligence personnel frequented the garage he worked at. He also told that he lost his ID card while drinking with some acquaintances including some connected to the military. He also said that he had reported it lost to Police. 

But investigations hit a snag when the suspect died of a heart attack while in prison. Jesudasan was 40 years when he died on 13 October 2012, due to what was deemed as a blood clot in the brain according to medical reports. His family initially questioned the death but has not pursued any legal challenges. 

A military intelligence officer who was taken into custody based on Jesudasan’s evidence was also later released. 

Investigations were also stalled because whoever used the SIM cards had inserted them into brand new phones, and were active only for the duration of 8 January 2009 and were used only to communicate among the five other phones that were tracked along the route that the Editor took. There were no other calls originating from or to any other phones. 

As time went by, officers who were involved in the investigation were assigned other investigations or to other positions, further delaying progress.

When President Sirisena revitalised the investigations in 2015, the new case officers had to seek out those who had handled it in the past to gain information. Among those interviewed by the new case officers include former IGP Jayantha Wickremarathana. Officers have also been looking into how log books with the numbers of the vehicles that followed Lasantha had been lost.

Others who were interviewed included DIG Prasanna Nanayakkara, SSP Hemantha Adikari, and former OIC of Mount Lavinia Mahesh Perera.

Despite the lack of evidence Police say that the murder was well-directed and coordinated.

Cabinet Spokesperson Dr. Rajitha Senaratne said that investigations would not be halted under any circumstances. “The Media Ministry has requested the Police to continue the investigations. There is no need to stop the investigations into the attacks on media, but there is pressure to do that from extremist groups. But we will not do that.”

Despite the words of commitment by the Cabinet Spokesperson, scepticism remains high that the investigation is as good as stopped. Even those who supported Sirisena at the last election seem doubt that any further headway will be made.

“It is hard to believe that the investigations into the Lasantha murder would be carried out effectively. In countries like Sri Lanka, those in power are rarely prosecuted even after they leave office,” Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, the former Chairman of the Federation of University Teachers Associations, which was one of the leading civic groups that supported Sirisena’s candidacy, said.

Police Spokesperson Gunasekera however echoed Senaratne and said that investigations would continue. “I am not in a position to divulge how the CID will proceed, but there will be no slowdown.”

But journalist and media activist Ruhunege is not convinced. “Progress has been agonisingly slow; only dramatic change in that mode would make me change my mind.”

(The production of this article was supported by Rights Now for Democracy and Internews Network.)