Sonali Samarasinghe Confronts Sri Lanka’s President

by Sampsonia Way    /  April 3, 2013  / No comments

The journalist wrote the letter in 2009 after her husband was killed. The text is still valid now.

Lasantha Wickrematunge Memorial

Mourners light candles in front of a picture of Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge in Colombo. Photo: Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan journalist and lawyer Sonali Samarasinghe joined City of Asylum/Pittsburgh on March 6, 2013 for a reading that featured an excerpt from her upcoming book. Samarasinghe also read some paragraphs from two letters that she addressed to Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had threatened her husband several times.

Samarasinghe’s husband, Lasantha Wickrematunge, was head of the weekly Sri Lankan newspaper The Sunday Leader. Together, the couple pursued many investigative reports concerning the corrupt Sri Lankan government in the aftermath of the country’s civil war until Lasantha Wickrematunge was killed in an attack on January 8, 2009.

Today Sampsonia Way presents the first letter addressed to President Rajapaksa himself. Samarasinghe called for a full investigation into her husband’s murder, as she believed there was some level of government involvement. The full text was written on April 24, 2009, but due to the null results of the investigation and the continued persecution of journalists in Sri Lanka, the text is still valid and current.

Dear Mr. President,

As you are aware, on the morning of 8 January, 2009 my husband, Mr Lasantha Wickrematunge, one of Sri Lanka’s best-known journalists and Editor-in-Chief of The Sunday Leader newspaper, was brutally slain as he travelled to work.

It is no secret that Lasantha and I were the biggest irritants to your government. While you were still prime minister in 2005, I exposed the Helping Hambantota scandal, in which millions of rupees donated to the government for tsunami relief had mysteriously found their way into a private bank account controlled by you. Shortly after that exposé, on October 16, 2005 The Sunday Leader and Morning Leader presses were attacked and severely damaged. The perpetrators of this crime were never brought to book and there was never a serious police investigation.

In September 2005 we reported a suspected plot to attack our newspaper offices following an incident in which a group of thugs entered the premises of the press and recorded the license plate numbers of vehicles parked in it. Lasantha lodged a complaint with the Mt Lavinia police and also informed the Inspector General of Police of the incident. No action was taken.

On the morning of January 11, 2006 you were quoted publicly as having threatened Lasantha’s life. The words alleged to have been used by you in a telephone conversation recorded by him (in addition to statements that propriety prevents me from quoting here), included the following:

“I will show you what it is to be scared. I will rest only once I have destroyed you. You wait and see. You don’t know who Mahinda Rajapaksa is.”

“I will finish you!”

“I treated you well all this while. Now I will destroy you. You don’t know who Mahinda Rajapaksa is. You watch what I will do to you!”

Had these threats been made by an ordinary citizen, they would have been sufficiently serious as to warrant immediate police inquiry. When made by the President, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and Minister of Defence (and therefore the police), they attain an altogether more sinister significance. What is more, neither you nor your office has ever been able to deny having spoken these words or explain them in a different context to that which ordinary people are likely to infer: a threat against the life of a journalist who had been critical of you and your administration.

Despite your threats and the physical attacks on him and the newspapers we edited, we did not run scared. We continued to expose one scandal after another in your government, ranging from graft and corruption to wastage of public funds and gross excesses on the part of yourself and your brothers.

“I treated you well all this while. Now I will destroy you.” – President Rajapaksa to Wickrematunge.

No one can pretend that the Leader newspapers were singled out as a special case. Under your presidency, violence against journalists has become commonplace. Your government has been forced publicly to accept in parliament that nine journalists have been murdered in Sri Lanka during the past two years of your presidency. International agencies put this figure at 16. Dozens of others have disappeared, suffered physical assault, been arbitrarily detained without trial or been forced to flee overseas for fear of their lives. Numerous other media institutions have been violently attacked in commando-style raids and, in some cases, their employees slaughtered in cold blood.

Just two days before Lasantha’s murder, MTV, arguably Sri Lanka’s only independent television station, was attacked by a squad of some 20 militia armed with assault weapons and explosives. A week later, Mr Chevaan Daniel, the News Director of MTV television station, of which your brother, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rakapaksa has been viciously critical, was publicly branded on national television as a “terrorist” by your brother, who also announced his imminent arrest. Mr Daniel’s “crime” in your brother’s eyes had been to provide a description of the commando attack to a CNN interviewer. Never in the history of Sri Lanka has a government so ruthlessly suppressed media freedom and political dissent.

It is a tragic irony that Colombo, where most crimes against the media have taken place, is under the strictest security and surveillance, unparalleled in the history of our country. Police checkpoints are everywhere, and it is impossible for an ordinary citizen to travel more than a few hundred metres without having to stop, identify himself and be searched. Yet, bands of heavily armed militia are able to roam the streets with impunity, killing journalists and dissidents, and attacking media institutions.

Mr President, it does not need me to remind you that not in a single one of the attacks on the media catalogued above has there been a serious investigation. Neither have charges been framed against anyone. Yet, in the aftermath of most of them, you have unctuously promised thorough, impartial inquiries. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that your words amount to little more than sanctimonious humbug.

Indeed, it is no secret that your administration is prosecuting an undeclared war of terror on the independent media, and in the eyes of many, you and your brothers have blood on their hands.

With a cynicism that has become your hallmark, you have gone on television to claim that Lasantha was murdered by persons unknown in an international conspiracy to distract attention from the military victories of your government. Possibly there are those gullible enough to believe you; but be assured that the vast majority of free-thinking Sri Lankans reject such puerile claims with the contempt they deserve.

Unless you ensure there is a thorough and impartial investigation, it will be difficult to avoid the public perception that you and members of your family may be complicit in this crime. You will agree that the president, as the First Citizen of our country, should be above reproach and attract the unqualified respect and affection of all citizens. Such ideals have, however, in the Sri Lanka over which you preside, become a joke.

It is more than passing strange that the evening news broadcast of the government-owned ITN television channel on the day of Lasantha’s murder made no mention of the assassination despite it having been by any yardstick the top story of the day, as indeed it was on most international news services. Indeed, national and international interest in and outrage at this crime is evidenced if by nothing else, by the fact that Lasantha’s name now scores more than five times as many hits on Google as does that of the prime minister of Sri Lanka. Even the news editors of ITN, therefore, appear to have concluded that the government was responsible and sought to hush the matter up.

“Bands of heavily armed militia are able to roam the streets with impunity, killing journalists…”

The other state media were little different: they relegated the story to a footnote at best. Lasantha’s funeral too, was boycotted by the entire government, despite many of its members, including yourself, being known to have been closely associated with him. Clearly, even your ministers had arrived at their own conclusions on the matter. Finally, the Dean of the diplomatic corps in Colombo, German Ambassador Jürgen Weerth, a personal friend of Lasantha’s, had been censured by the Foreign Ministry for making a completely appropriate and uncontroversial oration at the funeral. All these serve to send a clear message to the police that the government has a vested interest in seeing the inquiry fail.

The most obvious steps that should be taken in such an inquiry have not been taken. For example, although the type of motorcycles the assailants used has been identified, no public appeal has been made to establish their whereabouts on the morning of the assassination. Further, despite the nature of the murder weapon being known, to everyone it seems, but the police, no description or illustration of it has been published via the print or electronic media, calling for information from the public, who may know who possessed or manufactured such a weapon. There are ample grounds to suspect therefore, that the government has embarked on a cover up.

So terrified are the independent media of the violence your government is capable of unleashing against them that they dare not call you to account even in cases where media workers have been the victims. As much as you and your brothers talk of a “war on terror”, Mr President, it is against free expression and dissent that your regime has unleashed a war of terror of the most hideously ruthless proportions.

On 28 January, 2009, your cabinet’s Defence Spokesperson the Hon. Keheliya Rambukwella, stated at a media briefing that the government was aware of the identity of Lasantha’s murderers, and that you intended to personally expose “some very important details” on 15 February, 2009. On 15 March, I wrote to your Inspector General of Police, Mr. Jayantha Wickremaratna, asking that he record a statement from Mr. Rambukwella on his knowledge of the perpetrators of Lasantha’s killing.

Your Police Spokesperson, Senior Superintendant Ranjith Gunasekera who claimed that “there is no necessity” to retrieve evidence that a cabinet minister has relating to the identity of murderers, going as far as to say that it is “not the duty of the police to do so.” This statement has not been contradicted by this Senior Superintendent of your Police force or anyone else in the month since it was published in The Sunday Leader.

Mister President, I find this statement by the police astonishing. As a lawyer yourself, you should know that not only is it the right of the police to question a minister on a public statement that may lead to the apprehension of a criminal, but it is the duty of the police under the law of the land to pursue every avenue and question all those who may have, are perceived to have and claim publicly to have, knowledge pertaining to a murder investigation. That, at any rate, used to be the case prior to your becoming president.

In an interview with the BBC’s Chris Morris your brother, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse, giggled hysterically when asked about my husband’s murder, and made very clear that he was “not concerned” by the killing. Your brother also famously asked “who is Lasantha?” Why is he so important in contrast to those killed by the LTTE? “He was just someone writing to a tabloid.” These are words uttered, Mr. President by the man under whose purview your entire police operates.

Mr. Gotabaya Rajapakse dismissed Lasantha’s killing stating that anyone could have killed him given that he picked up a number of enemies in the course of his career as a journalist. What is implied by this oft repeated statement of your brother is that journalists who criticize abuse of power by the state should accept their fate without protest.

It may be reasonably deduced from your brother’s public pronouncements that he demonstrates a singular disregard for even the most basic principles of democracy and the rule of law. Despite the high office to which you have elevated him, he apparently does not feel it is either his responsibility or his duty to curb or remonstrate those who act against the media with criminal impunity.

Indeed, your brother has made it a habit publicly to brand as “tiger terrorists” or “traitors” journalists whom he perceives as critical of your administration. In that infamous BBC interview with Chris Morris after Lasantha’s murder, he confirmed the free media’s worst fears by admitting that the Defence Ministry considered dissent during war time was tantamount to treason, and thereby presumably punishable with death. What is the message this widely publicized statement sends to the officers of the four police teams you claim to have appointed to probe my husband’s murder?

Lasantha made no secret of the fact that his life would be taken. He wrote and spoke about it widely. He also predicted that your government would never bring his murderers to book. After all, he knew that your government has never prosecuted anyone for the murders, attempted murders and assaults on dissident journalists. After all, he knew as well as you who is behind these crimes. Yet you, as Minister of Defence, remain responsible for the police and therefore the successful investigation of these cases.

As late in the day as it is, given that it is clear that the police inquiry into this crime has now been effectively derailed, I call upon you to invite an international inquiry with a view to identifying and bringing those responsible to justice. I have no doubt that should you agree, the governments of the world’s leading democracies, including those of the EU, USA and India, will readily agree to second the relevant experts and detectives and ensure that the assailants are brought to book.

In the alternative, and especially because none of the many other attacks on the media during your presidency have benefited from a successful criminal inquiry, it will be difficult in the extreme to dispel the nagging doubt that many people seem to entertain that the trail of culpability for these crimes leads to the very highest echelons of your government.

I look forward to your swift and positive action in this regard.

With kind regards,

Yours sincerely,

Sonali Samarasinghe Wickrematunge

Read an interview with Sonali Samarasinghe

About the Author

Sampsonia Way is an online magazine sponsored by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh that seeks to protect and advocate for writers who may be endangered, to educate the public about threats to writers and literary expression, and to create a community in which endangered writers thrive and literary culture is a valued part of life.

View all articles by Sampsonia Way

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