Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka fired the first shot. When CID detectives, probing the daylight killing of former editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, came to question him in January and obtain his testimony, he laid the blame squarely at the doorstep of former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He claimed that a ‘death squad’ run by military intelligence but who took their orders from Gotabaya was responsible.
Last Monday, the CID presented his explosive testimony in a Mount Lavinia court room and stated that their investigations, solely on the strength of Field Marshall Fonseka’s testimonial to them, had been carried out by a special group, operating under military intelligence and that the same group had been responsible for the attacks on journalists, Keith Noyah and Upali Tennekoon and abducting several other media persons.
The revelation in open court implicating Gotabaya Rajapaksa by claiming he directed a top secret death squad that targeted journalists and dissidents was picked by the international TV news channel the Qatar-based Al Jazeera and the French news agency AFP and presented to the world as another instance of the Rajapaksa regime’s ruthless crackdown on the media.
The flare up occurred when Al Jazeera and AFP reported that the CID’s report was read in open court which alleged that “Testimony from the former army commander Sarath Fonseka shows that there was a special secret unit outside his authority and controlled by Gotabaya Rajapaksa through the then-chief of national intelligence and that unit was operated outside the army command structure and was used to target journalists and other dissidents.”
But an allegation in court remains an allegation if not backed by solid evidence acceptable by a judge and jury as beyond reasonable doubt. But though Fonseka’s bullet didn’t quite hit the bull’s eye in the archer’s target, it did, however, narrowly hit a line cutter and scored a few points and drew enough blood to hit international news stands.
But now that the first salvo had been fired by the then Commander of the Lankan Army, General Fonseka, the then Defence Secretary assumed his legal right to defend his patch and shoot back from the hip and claim that if such a shotgun unit existed in the armed forces, the then Army Commander Fonseka would have known of its existence; and to charge that it would have been a dereliction of duty on his part as commander to have been ignorant of it. In other words, he shot back the missile to Fonseka’s arena.
On Monday, Rajapaksa denied Fonseka’s allegations carried in news reports published by Al Jazeera and AFP that he operated a death squad with the intention of silencing his critics. Sending a letter through his lawyer to Al Jazeera and AFP news, he said that the news was a blatant ‘lie’ because the Police Report did not refer to him per se and that, in any event, no report whatsoever was read out in court implicating him as mentioned in the news item.
His lawyer’s letter stated: “It was not possible to operate any Army unit and/or deployment without the sanction and/or approval of the Army Commander. In any event, my client, during the said time period was a civilian and had no direct links to operate any military or other deployment. Therefore, I’m instructed by my client to write to you demanding an immediate correction of the distorted and false publication carried out by you,”
Gotabaya was to pull the trigger again in this high noon duel between him and Sarath Fonseka but this time it was more in self-defence than a direct blast at his friend turned foe. He told the Colombo-based foreign journalists group on Wednesday that with regard to “top-secret death squads” during the Rajapaksa regime, there were no such units and claimed that “a lot of things happened without my knowledge” and that he was working more at “policy and strategy-level and not on things at the tactical-level”.
The investigation into the murder of former Sunday Leader Editor which occurred on January 8th 2009 has still not resulted in the killers being brought to justice – as has been in the case of Lankan rugby player Thajudeen who met his death in a mystery car crash on May 17th 2012. Investigations into their deaths had remained in limbo until the coming of Sirisena to power in January, 2015 when the probes were resurrected as were their bodies raised from their early graves to shed more light on their murderers.
In the case of Sunday Leader Editor Wickrematunge’s killing consider the following log:
• On January 8, 2009, Lasantha Wickrematunge was murdered in broad day light at Attidiya, Dehiwela.
• Nine days after on January 17, 2009 The Sunday Leader reported that the initial post-mortem examination, carried out at the Colombo South Hospital in Kalubowila, is inconclusive with regard to the cause of death. The report claimed that medical teams have expressed mismatching views with regard to the murder weapon.
• On February 26, 2010, two suspects, P. Jesudasan and Kandegedara Piyawansa, were arrested by the Terrorism Investigation Department over the murder and alleged terrorist activities. A bystander who had stolen Wickrematunge’s phone from the crime scene is also arrested. He is detained for six months and then released. Later on, seventeen other army officers are arrested with regard to the murder. However, each suspect was released over the course of three years.
• On October 13, 2011 the suspect P. Jesudasan is found dead of a suspected heart attack in prison.
• On September 6, 2013* the second suspect Kandegedara Piyawansa was released on bail after making a statement to the courts. He was released due to lack of evidence.
• On February 17, 2016 the CID released composite sketches of two suspects who are believed to have carried out the murder.
• On July 15, 2016 the CID arrested an officer of the Directorate of Military Intelligence in connection with the murder. The suspect was charged with abduction of an eye witness, assault, conspiracy, and making death threats.
• On July 27, 2016 at an identification parade, Wickrematunge’s driver identified the arrested DMI officer as one of the suspects present at the crime scene.
• On August 8, 2016 the Mt. Lavinia Magistrate’s Court granted approval to exhume the remains of slain journalist Wickrematunge.
• On September 27, 2016 the CID exhumed Wickrematunge’s remains for a new autopsy. The remains were handed over to the Colombo Judicial Medical Officer.
• On October 14th 2016, an ex-Army intelligence officer who hanged himself at his home in Kegalle with a nylon rope, leaving a suicide note saying that he was responsible for the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge and requesting that his friend, a suspect in the Wickrematunge murder, Udalagama should be released.
• On March 20th last week the CID claims in court that on the basis of their investigations and the testimony of former army chief Fonseka that a death squad run by military intelligence had carried out the execution; and that a group of medical experts who examined the Wickrematunge’s exhumed remains had concluded that he was killed with a sharp weapon.
Wickrematunge’s death was a tragedy, both on a personal note to his family and to the nation as a whole to have witnessed a voice of free speech silenced in cold blood. But due to a shabby investigation that has tottered for the last eight years on political crutches and marks its every twisted hobble with some announcement of some breakthrough in the probe mainly designed for public consumption which serves only to justify its procrastination in reaching its ultimate destination, the shocking killing of an editor eight years ago has put both the former army commander and the former defence secretary in the dock of international opinion and transformed the incident from a mere tragedy to a calamity.
Both men can justly say they won the war. In their own way: with Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as Defence Secretary, providing the logistics, ‘policy and strategy’ and Sarath Fonseka, as Army Chief, planning and executing battle tactics and directing the troops. It’s a tragedy indeed that the glorious victory won by these two war heroes should now be traduced in the dust by a bullet-for-bullet battle to shoot down the canard of the existence of a ‘death squad’ by a shadowy military intelligence unit.
But if they were unaware, as Gotabaya told the Colombo based Foreign Correspondents on Wednesday, that “a lot of things happened without my knowledge” and Fonseka issuing an affidavit to the contrary, the question must inevitably arise in the public mind, ‘Who Dun It, then?’
Thus the sooner the CID completes its investigation and brings the real culprits to book the better it will be. Especially since President Sirisena also decided to step into the ongoing battle between these two war heroes.
This Wednesday, speaking at the opening of the newly constructed three-storied building at the Defence Services School in Kurunegala, the President, perhaps in reference to the ongoing battle of allegations between these two knights who once occupied the top most floor of the war edifice, said that though he would always take the fullest responsibility on behalf of any problem faced by the officers, staff members and war heroes who fought against the LTTE, he was “unable to protect those who are found guilty of acts that are not connected to the national security and those who are guilty of killing media persons or sportsmen.”
One day, perhaps, in the not too distant future, if the CID pursues or is allowed to pursue its investigation to its logical conclusion, the truth will be out? And if it happens while Sirisena remains in office, the people responsible for the dastardly attacks will be unable to find shelter in a presidential cove of protection to guard them from the winds of justice, war heroes or not.