Friends and colleagues of slain Sri Lankan newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, seen in the portrait, place candles and flowers on his grave as they commemorate the anniversary of his death on January 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

New details raise questions about whether Sri Lankan president was complicit in the killing of journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge

Nishantha Silva is obsessed with details. The missing notebook. The unusual telephone number. The motorcycle tossed into a lake and the person who knew exactly where to find it. 

Those details and others are the pointillist dots of color that Silva, formerly a detective with Sri Lanka’s Criminal Investigation Department, has assembled into a vivid picture building what he says is the complicity of Sri Lanka’s current president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in the 2009 murder of journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge. Silva believes that Rajapaksa—then secretary of defense—had the means, the opportunity and as, he said in a written statement, “a clear motive for killing Lasantha Wickrematunge” – to prevent the journalist from testifying against him in court. 

Rajapaksa has denied any involvement in extrajudicial killings, abductions, and disappearances, according to The Guardian.

Silva ran an official probe into Wickrematunge’s killing from 2015 to 2019, but his work was cut short when he fled the country after Rajapaksa, whom he had questioned in a related case and who had been accused in a civil suit filed by Wickrematunge’s daughter, Ahimsa Wickrematunge, of having “instigated and authorized the extrajudicial killing” of the journalist, was elected president. The civil case, filed in a U.S. court, was dismissed because the court said Rajapaksa was entitled to legal immunity in his official role. 

Now, the detective has spoken publicly about his findings for the first time in explosive testimony at a May 13 hearing of The People’s Tribunal in The Hague. Co-sponsored by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the tribunal features staged trials with real witnesses, experts (including the author of this piece), prosecutors, and esteemed judges to draw attention to journalist killings that have eluded justice. 

Tribunal witnesses presented reams of evidence pointing to culpability by the Ministry of Defense when Rajapaksa was secretary. Successful prosecution of the case in an actual court of law would mark an enormous victory for press freedom in Sri Lanka. However, while some arrests were made while Silva was in charge of the investigation, suspects were released on bail and official proceedings have ground to a halt. 

The story of the murder is as follows: On January 8, 2009, while Wickrematunge, editor of The Sunday Leader, was driving to his office, motorcycle riders stopped his car and bludgeoned him to death in broad daylight on the streets of Colombo, the capital. Coinciding with a crescendo of violence in Sri Lanka’s long-running civil war, his murder came to epitomize the extensive attacks against the media, as well as the lack of justice for any of the journalists harmed or killed. This impunity, along with the election of a man widely seen as responsible for crimes against journalists, continues to haunt the media industry today. 

Most journalists attacked and murdered during this period came from Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority. Wickrematunge hailed from the Sinhalese majority, but he became an especially prominent critic of the government and a widely known and revered figure. In particular, he had exposed alleged corruption involving then Defense Secretary Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa subsequently lodged a defamation suit against Wickrematunge, who was murdered just weeks before he was due to give testimony in court.

From the day of the murder, it seemed obvious to observers, as Wickrematunge himself pointed out just before he was killed, that only government officials would have had a motive to go after him due to his reporting on government corruption. Wickrematunge predicted his own death in a column written just before his murder and published posthumously. But proving what that connection was, who was behind it, and seeing justice in a court of law, was a different matter. Silva’s testimony, sometimes excruciatingly detailed, has been key in piecing the evidence together. 

Silva’s testimony has three broad elements: 1) the stalling of the investigation; 2) the cover-up and generation of misleading clues; 3) links to the Ministry of Defense. Silva argues that the murder was committed by the Ministry of Defense, then headed by Rajapaksa, who had the institutional power to thwart any investigation. 

In 2015, Sri Lankans voted in a new government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena, who had campaigned in part on promises to seek justice for transgressions of the previous government, including attacks on journalists. At that time Silva, an experienced detective, was assigned to head Wickrematunge’s murder investigation at the Criminal Investigation Division. What Silva found, he told the tribunal, were that authorities took steps aimed at stalling the investigation. 

Local police in Mount Lavinia, a southern suburb of Colombo where the murder took place, initially picked up the investigation. In response to a complaint from the victim’s family, Silva explained, the case was transferred later in the year to the Criminal Investigation Department, which had greater experience and resources to pursue the investigation. But the next year, the case was transferred again to the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID), which lacked the experience or resources for an investigation, according to Silva’s oral testimony. There, after a fashion, the investigation ground to a halt.

Before Silva took over the investigation, obvious clues or anomalies in the evidence were pursued half-heartedly, if at all, and mysterious events seemed to block avenues of inquiry, he said. For example, police named an eyewitness to the murder who claimed he could identify the attackers, but they never pursued that lead. Police took possession of Wickrematunge’s notebooks that were in the car, but they were confiscated by the deputy inspector general of the police, after which they disappeared. (A photo taken of a notebook cover shows motorcycle license plate numbers that Wickrematunge apparently scribbled down before his murder.)

Silva’s written testimony described cell phone SIM cards used by the motorcyclists who chased Wickrematunge that were traced back to a man linked to military intelligence, whose salary and allowances continued to be paid as he spent a year in jail. Silva called the payments “hush money.” Another individual linked to the SIM cards died in custody, which Silva termed “suspicious.” No investigation followed the death. 

A police inspector launched a search in a lake for one of the motorcycles used to chase the journalist and mysteriously knew exactly where to find it. Then police arrested a person who had sold the motorcycle months earlier. Silva concluded the episode was a ruse designed to throw the investigation off the trail.

There were other misleading arrests. The TID arrested and held security officials of a political rival to Rajapaksa who had no apparent connection to the murder.  

The case Silva makes is, broadly, as follows: By tracing cell phone data, including movements between different towers, Silva established that members of a military intelligence unit known as the Tripoli Platoon chased Wickrematunge on a circuitous route through Colombo before killing him. The same cell phones and individuals were linked to attacks on other journalists, including Keith Noyahr and Upali Tennakoon

Silva uncovered evidence of official pressure to falsify the initial autopsy in what he saw as an effort to confuse the investigation. The initial autopsy listed the cause of death as a gunshot wound; Silva obtained a court order to exhume the body, where the cause of death was determined to be heavy blows with a pointed weapon. 

These are just examples from the mass of evidence relating to the murder of Wickrematunge. As for the possible guilt of then Defense Secretary and now President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the case is still circumstantial, but Silva’s mountain of details led him to a number of key findings.  First, that the military men Silva says carried out the killing “could not operate without the knowledge of senior officers.” Second, that the chain of command has only three intervening levels between these intelligence officers and the defense secretary, who was directly engaged in other cases involving the same Tripoli Platoon. Third, the defense secretary had a clear motive to get rid of Wickrematunge, as well as the means through the chain of command to either support or thwart an investigation. 

CPJ requests for comments emailed to the office of President Rajapaksa, the Ministry of Defense, and the Terrorism Investigation Division of the Criminal Investigation Department were not answered. 

Silva cites “credible suspicion” that the 2008 abduction of journalist Noyahr was a crime “committed with the knowledge and possibly orders of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.” And he notes that there is evidence that the same crew was complicit in “several atrocities, including the murder of Lasantha,” thus, he says, drawing a direct line to Rajapaksa. 

Would that hold up in a court of law? While Silva’s details point clearly up the chain of command at the Ministry of Defense, the direct link to Rajapaksa remains circumstantial. Perhaps that could be firmed up with further investigation. Let’s hope that’s put to the test and that The People’s Tribunal in The Hague has added momentum to the search for justice in Wickrematunge’s murder.