Murder most foul and a Govt. running scared

While the government attempted to drown out the cries of outrage and sounds of weeping over the brutal murder of The Sunday Leader Editor-in-Chief Lasantha Wickrematunge with the pounding of bombs in the north, its claims of victory on the military front may now not be enough to hold the regime together.

Hours after news of Lasantha’s murder rocked the entire country, government ministers and other SLFPers were already jittery, privately blaming the government for its failure to stop a dangerous trend within the country culminating with this brutal killing. Some UNP crossers over were visibly angry at the government’s failure to address the culture of impunity that had gripped the nation stating they had not crossed over to nurture this kind of break down of rule of law.

Body language

As the shocking news of Lasantha’s murder reached parliament last Thursday morning ( 8 ) the corridors were filled with those decrying the deed as a foul and despicable act.

Yet quickly the exigencies of political survival would kick in. Lasantha was a journalist who had a wide range of contacts from across the political divide. Albeit this wide circle of friends and acquaintances dotted in their hundreds in the national and international political milieu the body language of the ruling regime following his murder was uncomfortable and distant at best.

Hardly any government minister save for a smattering of those UNP crossers over, felt it politically expedient to pay their last respects to a man who had stood up for the rights of all during his rich life.

Frightening

But for the tremendous crowds that did come, the realisation was clear. That at no time before had they lived through more frightening times. From the spontaneity with which passers joined the massive protest procession it was evident that at least in that moment of emotion, these massive crowds had joined for one shining moment the journey traversed by one man. A colossus in his time. A man who had no fear.

Certainly if there was ever a time for the establishment to get rid of the nuisance that is Lasantha Wickrematunge, then this time was that time. The government was pushing forward on the military front capturing large swathes of territory while the LTTE retreated to the jungles of Mullaitivu. Drunk with power and buoyed up by a wave of optimism over the war, Lasantha’s murderers – whoever they maybe – could take false comfort in the knowledge that the current military successes could be effectively used to soften the impact of such an outrageous and high profile assassination.

Yes. Lasantha’s funeral was not attended by the entire government despite many of its members including President Rajapakse admittedly being closely associated with him.

And one could hardly expect a peep about the assassination from Lasantha’s friend President Rajapakse even today as he delivers a political speech at the UPFA’s first propaganda rally of the upcoming Provincial Council election in Matale.

It would be the first public rally to be addressed by the President after the recent military successes in the north and the government will continue to sell the war and ride on this wave of euphoria that is being fueled by government propaganda machines as it drowns out the voices of dissent and the sounds of justice.

Claims of friendship

Immediately after Lasantha’s death, Rajapakse went on every possible television channel to demonstrate his close proximity to the Editor – President Mahinda Rajapakse said he had been invited to Lasantha’s wedding on December 27, 2008 and had even invited the newly weds to Temple Trees for a meal. An invitation he claimed they had allegedly accepted.

Just last Wednesday (14) President Mahinda Rajapakse at a media heads and publishers meeting especially convened for the purpose was to even accuse The Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge of being an informant.

According to the President, Lasantha had told him Karu Jayasuriya was quitting the government and joining the UNP. However sources close to Lasantha said Jayasuriya’s crossing over was no secret at the time it was revealed and that Lasantha had mentioned it in passing during an informal chat with Rajapakse in the presence of Dr. Eliyantha White and another businessman.

Useless informant

While President Rajapakse – a man who has been called a cabinet reporter himself by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga finds solace in such innocuous banter, and attempts to tarnish the character of the slain editor in a desperate attempt to demonstrate Lasantha’s value as a friend and informant he had yet failed to provide any evidence of a recording or CD to substantiate his claims.

Neither is Lasantha alive to prove or disprove these statements but in his finest work which would alas be his last he predicted his own death. His final editorial titled ‘And Then They Came For Me.’ in the space of 10 days came to be known as the ‘Letter from the Grave’ – it has become one of the most viewed and most emailed articles in the world.

In it Lasantha says, “It is well known that I was on two occasions brutally assaulted, while on another my house was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Despite the government’s sanctimonious assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry into the perpetrators of these attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended. In all these cases, I have reason to believe the attacks were inspired by the government. When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.”

Under your watch

Lasantha continues addressing President Rajapakse, “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.”

It is true that Lasantha and Mahinda Rajapakse had been friends for over 20 years. But it was only recently that the two had begun meeting again – and that too at the insistence of Rajapakse.

Lasantha never went for the monthly editors meetings convened by the President’s Office but for the last couple of months before his death he had visited the President’s House for dinner – in the presence of two friends. Lasantha was at first apprehensive about this Presidential call to a rapprochement but later relented.

Oluwatada wedune?

Be that as it may, on the morning of Thursday, January 8, President Rajapakse was busy with meetings at Temple Trees. At a meeting of four associations related to the coconut industry the President had been talking with key industrialists about the problems facing them in the present economic scenario.

The meeting was attended by the Coconut Product Exporters Association, the Coir Products Association, the Horticultural Exporters’ Association and the Poultry Association where representatives of these bodies were making presentations setting out the current problems facing exporters.

While the Coconut Product Association presentation was being made by its representatives Rajapakse was to get a phone call. He would listen attentively interjecting only once to say ‘oluwatada wedune’ before terminating the call.

Immediately assuming the matter related to the military drive in the north and wondering if the President would be in a mood to continue with a coconut exporters’ presentation the representative asked ‘Can I continue Sir?’ at which time Rajapakse told him to please continue his presentation.

In fact when a representative from the Poultry Association observed during the meeting that due to certain constraints they were better off doing business in Singapore, Rajapakse was to say jokingly ‘then we should send you to Singapore.’

However when it was time to ask questions President Rajapakse had told those present, ‘I’m hungry, aren’t you’ll hungry let’s go out and eat.’

Those at the meeting and President Rajapakse then went out of the meeting room to the Temple Trees dining room to partake of presidential victuals. Having escorted the attendees outside, Rajapakse was to go into his office and they were informed the meeting was over.

It was only when the representatives of the Coconut Exporters Associations had come out of Temple Trees and collected their confiscated mobile phones that they realised Lasantha Wickrematunge had been fatally attacked.

That was not the only meeting President Rajapakse would attend that morning. He was also scheduled to meet with bankers and representatives of small and medium industries which he would do. Again Rajapakse was seen to receive two calls which he answered and then continued with the meeting at hand.

Eliyantha White

Be that as it well may, medical sources at Kalubowila reveal that at the time Lasantha was brought into the OPD that Thursday morning his pulse was a low 43, he had dilated pupils and his right ear was oozing blood.

It was some time after crack medical teams had started to work on Lasantha that Dr. Eliyantha White had walked in to the hospital. He had informed a close family member that Lasantha had in fact called him that morning on his way to office to tell him that he was being followed and to convey this message to President Rajapakse.

White was supposedly a herbal medicine man somewhat well regarded among certain politicians and also President Rajapakse.

White had informed this family member that he had immediately called the President but the President had been otherwise occupied in the Budu Ge (Shrine Room) for about 45 minutes. When the President returned his call, Eliyantha had told this family member, ‘The deed had already been done.’

Injury

Meanwhile Lasantha was in the Emergency Unit of the Kalubowila Hospital with an injury to his head. We already know from eyewitness accounts that his car was surrounded by assailants on four dark hued motorbikes.

We know that the windows of both the drivers’ side and the passenger side had been smashed. We know that a witness had allegedly seen one of the assailants on the passenger side of the car pulling out a weapon of sorts – likely a heavy metal pole wrapped in a newspaper and smashing it into the head of Lasantha.

Lasantha according to police sources may have fallen onto the passenger seat sideways when he was attacked from the drivers’ side of the car.

Base of skull fracture

From the injury on the skull medical sources who do not wish to be named say the metal pole may have had at its lethal end two sharp points driven into it. Lasantha also suffered a base of skull fracture due to pressure from within.

Police sources say that two noises were heard during the attack but they did not sound like gunshots. Police sources so far allegedly claim that spent cartridges have not been found.

The government has rejected calls to bring in a team of international experts to investigate the killing of Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, saying the Sri Lanka Police were capable of conducting the investigation themselves.

Conspiracy theories

This is even as elements in the government like the JHU put forward absurd claims of CIA conspiracies relating to the murder.

Meanwhile, the police are said to be conducting a separate investigation to ascertain whether there is a link between the recent attack on the MTV/MBC studio in Pannipitiya and the assassination of Lasantha.

Dead end

However these crack local police teams so far have said they have no leads in either investigation, but were analysing fingerprints found at the two scenes. DIG Prasanna Nanayakkara is in charge of two teams the government says is working on the case.

And even as the government is on the one hand publicising the war and trumpeting its victories to drown out the cries for justice over Lasantha on the other hand it is quickly building up bogus conspiracy theories to point fingers elsewhere not only over Lasantha’s assassination but also on the attack on MTV/MBC two days before Lasantha was killed.

Politicising investigations

IGP Jayantha Wickremaratne sources say have had several conferences with investigation teams on the subject while reliable sources said the authorities had also called for the files of Richard de Zoysa and other journalists killed during the UNP era to use in a political debate over the killing of Lasantha rather than focus on bringing the culprits to book.

The government has also gone into panic mode for the same reason. The Dean of the Diplomatic Corps in Colombo German Ambassador Juergen Weerth was sharply criticised and summoned Tuesday (12) by Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona for delivering a funeral oration at Lasantha’s funeral on Monday. It did not matter that the contents of his short speech were uncontroversial and indeed appropriate.

Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona expressed the government’s displeasure in private but the Ministry leaked the news to the media right away Foreign Ministry sources said.

Diplomat reprimanded

Weerth in his oration said inter alia, “It is a day where words do not count anymore. It is a day where one remains speechless and one has to say something. Maybe we should have raised our voice before.

“Today it is too late. It is a day when humanity has lost a major voice of truth…But what remains is his legacy and what he meant to each of us.

Let us honour his work, his courage and his example. As Dean of the Diplomatic Corps may I extend our deepest condolences to the family, the staff of The Sunday Leader and all here who have had the privilege to call Lasantha a friend as have I.”

Given the outpouring of public support for Lasantha’s cause it was also a day the government was to feel at its lowest and at its most vulnerable.

Public concern

And it is this response by the government that gives rise to public concern regarding the objectivity of the government when conducting investigations into Lasantha’s death.

Many steps that even to a layman should perhaps have been taken seem to have not. Although the types of motorcycles the assassins used have been identified by witnesses no public appeal has been made to establish their whereabouts. Though there is reason to believe that the nature of the murder weapon is known no description of it has yet been published calling for information from the public who may know who possessed or manufactured such a weapon.

These are matters that need to be clarified even as it is important to see that the investigation into Lasantha’s murder does not in any way follow in the path of the investigation into the murder on New Guinean Rugby Player Joel Pera.

It is vital that the government for its own survival  – whether it is a fair perception or otherwise – is not seen to be embarking on both a cover up and a campaign to confuse the evidence so as to secure an acquittal even if the murderers are eventually apprehended.

And if Lasantha lay bleeding on a hospital table January 8 morning the government was busy trying to hush it up. Minister Dulles Alahapperuma was to call up some media houses and advise them to lie low on the issue. That evening on the Rathu Ira programme UNP MP Jayalath Jayawardena, a guest on the show was asked by one of the producers to not touch on the slaying of Lasantha Wickrematunge but to stick to the agreed subject of provincial council elections.

The main evening news bulletin of the government owned Independent Television Network made no mention of the killing of Lasantha on Thursday night even though it was obviously the top story of the day. The other state media barely made mention of it merely using it as a filler at best.

With national and international support pouring in for the Editor the government now resorted to desperate damage control. President Rajapakse on hearing the Editors were planning to carry a common lead story on the assassination was to even call the Sunday Times Chairman Ranjith Wijewardena on the matter to have it stopped.

Alliances in a common cause

Meanwhile the broad opposition front, civil society and women’s organisations were never more bonded to one common cause than after Lasantha’s brutal assassination.

UNP’s Jayalath Jayawardena had already taken steps to write to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the International Press Union to muster support for a more concerted campaign against the culture of impunity cultivated by the Rajapakse government.

NGOs, civil society, professionals and businessmen will next Tuesday (20) meet to set up a broad front for the Right to Live and The Freedom of Expression.

Last Wednesday (14) a group of about 35 people met at Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Cambridge Terrace office to prepare a framework for future action.

Wickremesinghe had come out all guns firing slamming the government for the attacks on the MTV/MBC Station and the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge, alleging an elite killer squad within the security establishment was behind the attacks.

Given the outrage generated across the island over the brutal events of last week it would seem that the government though winning on the military front may not be doing so on all other fronts.

Source : The Sunday Leader.

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