On January 8, 2009, eight helmeted men on four motorcycles forced Lasantha Wickrematunge’s car to the side of a busy street outside Colombo and beat him with a blunt object. He died in a local hospital a few hours later.
Wickrematunge, editor-in-chief of the weekly The Sunday Leader, was a prominent senior Sri Lankan journalist known for his critical reporting on the
government. According to his brother, Lal Wickrematunge, chairman of the paper’s parent company, Leader Publications, the editor had received anonymous death threats for months.
Lasantha Wickrematunge’s wife, Sonali Samarasinghe-Wickrematunge, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that the couple had been followed by two men on a motorcycle as they ran errands earlier that morning. Samarasinghe-Wickrematunge left Sri Lanka shortly after her husband’s
death. The couple had married only two weeks before.
Wickrematunge foresaw his own murder. In an editorial written shortly before his death and published three days after the murder, he said: “Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened, and killed. It has been my honor to belong to all those categories and now especially the last.”
In April 2019, Wickrematunge’s daughter, Ahimsa Wickrematunge, filed a civil suit in a California court against Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was defense secretary at the time of Lasantha Wickrematunge’s murder, alleging that Rajapaksa “instigated and authorized the extrajudicial killing” of Wickrematunge, which was allegedly carried out by a squad of military intelligence personnel known as the “Tripoli Platoon.” Rajapaksa was a dual U.S.-Sri Lanka citizen at that time. The suit was dismissed in October 2019 when a judge ruled that Rajapaksa had common law immunity as secretary of defense.
Rajapaksa was elected president of Sri Lanka in November 2019.
In May 2022, Nishantha Silva, the lead detective assigned to investigate Lansantha’s murder in 2015, gave public testimony for the first time in a mock trial held by The People’s Tribunal in The Hague. Silva provided detailed evidence that a squad of military intelligence personnel under the command of the defense ministry carried out the murder. Silva told the tribunal that Rajapaksa had command authority over the Tripoli Platoon and said that he had a strong motive for the murder. The killing took place shortly before Wickrematunge was scheduled to give testimony in a defamation suit that Rajapaksa had filed against Wickrematunge over Wickrematunge’s published allegations of corruption in arms procurement deals.
Rajapaksa has denied any involvement in extrajudicial killings, abductions, and disappearances, according to The Guardian.
CPJ’s requests for comments emailed to the office of President Rajapaksa and the Ministry of Defense were not answered.