- Lasantha called Power to account
- While the order is ostensibly from the IGP, he has made no secret of the fact that he issued this order hesitantly
- Genuinely objective journalism not only gets the facts right it gets the meaning of events right.
When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie - Russian poet and dissident Yevgeni Yevtushenko
The right of dissent, or the right to be wrong or the right to be different or in sum total unity in diversity are the bedrocks of a democratic society.
On January 8 ten years ago Lasantha Wickramatunga, the founder editor of the Sunday Leader, was bludgeoned to death in broad daylight in the vicinity of a high-security zone in Ratmalana. His killers have still not been identified and neither have the law and order agencies identified the person or persons who wanted him murdered in such a brutal manner.
“Genuinely objective journalism not only gets the facts right but also gets the meaning of events right. It is compelling not only today but stands the test of time,” this quote by American journalist T.D. Allman encapsulates and epitomises Lasantha’s journalism, which called power to account. His well-documented and painstakingly investigated exposésand refusal to bow down or be cowed down by the dictates of the then powers-that-be was to them a constant irritant and a thorn in the side.
He spoke up for all those who valued human rights including the freedom of expression and the freedom to dissent at a time when they were at a premium. His investigative journalism pulled aside the curtains at the citadels of power so that the people of this country could see the goings on behind the scenes and read between the lines of government communiqués.
Ironically, it is this same Chief of Defence Staff, a suspect wanted for arrest by Inspector Silva, who seems to have provided you with unfounded and uncorroborated “intelligence” that Nishantha Silva was an “LTTE mole” – intelligence that you forced down the throat of your IGP to try and tarnish the name of one of the bravest, most dedicated and accomplished detectives in the Sri Lanka Police.
Lasantha was a beacon of light shining bright in metaphoric darkness calling power to account and providing us with a vocabulary to fight injustice.
These are excerpts from an article written by him in an apparent premonition of his death. The article was published a week after he was brutally done to death by four well-armed assassins in a shrewdly-planned operation.
“No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and in Sri Lanka, journalism. In the course of the past few years, the independent media have increasingly come under attack, Electronic and print media institutions have been burned, bomb sealed and coerced. A countless number of journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all these categories and now especially the last.”
“But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is a call of conscience. People often ask me why I take such risks and tell me it is a matter of time before I am bumped off. Of course, I know that; it is inevitable. But if I do not speak out now, there will be no one left to speak out for those who cannot, whether they are the minorities, the disadvantaged or the persecuted.”
After dilly-dallying for nearly six years under the Mahinda Rajapaksa Regime, the investigations into Lasantha’s murder were begun in earnest after the ‘Yahapalanaya’ Government took office in 2015. The investigations are continuing though not at a pace many seekers of justice or human rights activists would appreciate.
They were almost stalled again after the October 26 conspiracy when President Maithripala Sirisena sacked his own government and replaced it with a Mahinda Rajapaksa-led government, which had earlier wielded power from 2005 to 2014.
Days after the now infamous conspiracy, President Sirisena took over the Ministry of Law and Order and in one of his first acts is reported to have directed the Police Chief to transfer the CID’s Organised Crimes Investigation Unit OIC Inspector Nishantha Silva to an obscure police station in Negombo on service requirements.
At the time of his sudden and unexpected transfer, IP Silva was in charge of investigations into several high-profile crimes committed during the Rajapaksa regime. Thankfully though the mounting pressure from various quarters forced the authorities to rescind the transfer order and restore the status quo.
The following paragraphs are extracted from a letter written to President Sirisena by Lasantha Wickrematunga’s daughter Ahimsa:
“Sunday, November 18, 2018, was the 73rd birthday of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. To mark this occasion, Mr Rajapaksa participated in a ‘Pinkama’ at a temple near his official residence, attended by your Inspector General of Police Pujith Jayasundara. After celebrating the former President’s birthday in the company of former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Mr Jayasundera proceeded to Police Headquarters, where he signed transfer order D/HRM/ADM/1869/2018 dated November 18, 2018.
“As you are fully aware, this was an order to remove Police Inspector Adrian Nishantha Silva, Officer-in-Charge of the Gang Robbery Branch (GRB) of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) due to unspecified “Service Requirements”.
While the order was ostensibly from the IGP, he has made no secret of the fact that he issued this order hesitantly, at your insistence. This was a thoughtful birthday gift on your part, but it was Mahinda’s birthday, not Gotabaya’s.
“I know Inspector Silva as the lead investigator into the murder of my father, Lasantha Wickrematunge, who was bludgeoned to death on January 8, 2009, exactly six years before you were historically elected President on a platform pledging to solve heinous murders like my father’s.
“In January 2009, two innocent youth were abducted in Vavuniya and executed in cold blood and their corpses burnt to ashes in Anuradhapura, all just so that their motorcycle could be planted as evidence at the crime scene. Senior police officers helped to destroy all traces of the notebook containing my father’s last words, which may have identified his attackers. We know this because of Nishantha Silva. Over the past two years, he travelled tirelessly around Vavuniya and Anuradhapura, interrogated dozens of witnesses, ordered DNA tests on decade-old samples and finally arrested the police officers responsible, including a Senior Deputy Inspector-General.
“On January 18, 2010, the CID made a breakthrough into my father’s murder when a mechanic in Nuwara Eliya identified a soldier in the Tripoli Military Intelligence platoon as having used his National ID card to purchase SIM cards used to coordinate the attack on my father. The ink was barely dry on that witness statement before the all-powerful Gotabaya Rajapaksa personally ordered that the commanding officer of the Tripoli Platoon be whisked away to a diplomatic posting.
The investigation was then yanked away from the CID overnight and given to the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID), who arrested the poor mechanic on trumped-up charges and covered up all involvement of the Tripoli Platoon. We know all this purely thanks to Nishantha Silva’s investigations. We would know more if the poor mechanic did not mysteriously perish in remand custody in October 2011.
“Nishantha Silva has also been the lead investigator into the brutal abduction and murder of eleven young men in 2008 and 2009 after their desperate families had been extorted for ransom, allegedly by several senior naval officers whom Inspector Silva has meticulously identified and arrested. It was Inspector Silva who had the unprecedented courage to share with open court evidence that your former navy commander, now Chief of Defence Staff, was instrumental in harbouring and smuggling out of the country a fugitive navy officer involved in these grisly murders.
After dilly-dallying for nearly six years under the Mahinda Rajapaksa Regime, the investigations into the Lasantha’s murder were begun in earnest after the ‘Yahapalanaya’ Government took office in 2015. The investigations are continuing though not at a pace many seekers of justice or human rights activists would appreciate.
“Ironically, it is this same Chief of Defence Staff, a suspect wanted for arrest by Inspector Silva, who seems to have provided you with unfounded and uncorroborated “intelligence” that Nishantha Silva was an “LTTE mole” – intelligence that you forced down the throat of your IGP to try and tarnish the name of one of the bravest, most dedicated and accomplished detectives in the Sri Lanka Police.
“I urge you to remember that you have taken an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of Sri Lanka, not to uphold and defend your Chief of Defence Staff and those who rule by white van death. I do not know if these people are guilty of any crime. Neither do you. That is for a court to decide after a thorough criminal investigation of the kind that Nishantha Silva was so ably and tirelessly performing before you cut him off at the knees. Our role in the criminal justice system is to support investigators however they may require.”
Let us remember not to forget the principles that Lasantha stood for and was murdered for. Let his death not be in vain but rather let it act as a stimulus to the law enforcement agencies to bring to justice the murderers and their equally guilty benefactors.