One freed, but what about the others silenced in Sri Lanka?

By Bob Dietz/Asia Program Coordinator on January 12, 2010 4:37 PM ET

With Monday’s release  of J. S. Tissainayagam on bail, maybe things are looking up for the media in Sri Lanka. CPJ welcomed Tissainayagam’s release from a sentence of 20 years' “rigorous imprisonment,” but called on President Mahinda Rajapaksa to extend him a full pardon, as it is within his presidential powers to do. For now, at least, Tissa, as he is known, is out of his prison cell though not free to leave the country—the appeal court that set him free demanded that he hand over his passport as part of the bail agreement. But there are many other cases still hanging in the air in Sri Lanka that will not go away, even though they are making their way through the courts.

Lasantha Wickramatunga

Last week, a friend in Sri Lanka forwarded me a story from the country’s Daily Mirror that reported from court documents about the murder weapon used in the January 2009 killing of The Sunday Leader’s editor-in-chief, Lasantha Wickramatunga. The investigation into Wickramatunga’s death is still moving ahead, glacially, in the Mount Lavinia Magistrate’s Court in Colombo. The coroner’s autopsy (in Sri Lanka it’s called the Judicial Medical Officer’s (JMO) Report) was never released, though the court had recorded the cause of death as gun shot injuries. The Daily Mirror reported:

“The JMO who conducted the post mortem inquiry had revealed Lasantha's death had been caused not due to gunshot injuries, but injuries caused to his head with a sharp weapon. The cause of death as gunshot injuries had apparently been recorded based on entries made by the medical officer who recorded his admission to the hospital.”

It may seem gruesome, but there is great significance in the specifics of how the well-known editor was killed. When CPJ first reported Wickramatunga’s death on January 8, 2009, we quoted The Sunday Leaders staffers as saying he was killed with guns equipped with silencers. They said that witnesses at the scene—he was killed at around 10 a.m. on a busy road while on his way to work by eight men on four motorcycles—heard no gunshots fired, which they would have surely heard even over the busy traffic noises at the intersection where he had been forced to pull over.

His assailants bashed in the window of the car before shooting him in the chest and head, according to colleagues and local and international news reports,” we said in our initial alert on the day he was killed.

CPJ repeated those assumptions in subsequent alerts and blogs, and it wasn’t until I got to Colombo in February that I began to be told a more horrible angle to the story. I was working on a CPJ special report, Failure to Investigate, an investigation not only into Wickramatunga’s killing, but the January 6 attack on Sirasa TV, and the January 23 attack on another newspaper editor, Upali Tennakoon and his wife, Dhammika.

Several sources, all of whom insisted on anonymity, told me that Wickramatunga was killed not by gunshots, but by piercing his skull with a “sharp pointed metal rod” and that the other weapons used were pointed wooden poles. Convinced by the sources’ access and integrity, we reported the murder weapon as a metal pole in Failure to Investigate.

The sourcing had been bolstered after I interviewed Tennakoon and his wife in the hospital room where he was recovering from his wounds—Dhammika had also been injured, but not as seriously. They said the four men on two motorcycles who attacked them used wooden and iron poles similar to those described by our sources, who were working from the evidence they had from Wickramatunga’s wounds, not from evidence at the scene of the crime. One of the attackers also stabbed at Upali with a knife, but it was deflected and only nicked his stomach.

The next hearing in Wickramatunga’s case will be on January 21.

This is a two-part blog entry. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about the relevance of these cases to the elections coming up on January 26, and why it is not likely that the anti-media atmosphere that was part of the government’s all-out effort to win the war with Tamil secessionists is not likely to end soon.  


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