The unedited footage of an interview with former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa aired on a private television channel over a year before Lasantha Wickrematunge’s assassination, was ordered into CID custody by the Mount Lavinia Magistrate’s Court last week, as friends and colleagues marked a decade since the senior journalist was assassinated in broad daylight.
OIC of the CID Gang Robbery Branch Police Inspector Nishantha de Silva made an application to court to obtain the original and unedited footage of an interview with former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa aired on August 19, 2007 from Derana TV’s News Manager.
Lasantha Wickrematunge was assassinated on January 8, 2009 as he was driving himself to work, at the Bakery Junction in Attidiya. Assailants on a tight formation of motorcycles intercepted The Sunday Leader Editor’s vehicle and stabbed him in the head and torso, delivering brutal blows that proved fatal. Wickrematunge succumbed to his injuries after undergoing emergency trauma surgery at the Colombo South Teaching Hospital in Kalubowila.
In a chilling portion of the interview aired by Derana TV in August 2007, about 16 months before Wickrematunge was murdered, the then Defence Secretary refers to journalists writing ‘filth’ about him then driving around alone in their cars, making driving gestures with his hands for the camera. This portion of the interview was shared widely on social media last week.
The B Report in case [B 92/2009] filed by the CID applies for a court order on the basis that the unedited footage was “necessary for investigations into the crime”.
According to the CID B report, the interview was conducted by journalist Dilka Samanmali of Derana TV.
While the order was granted by the court on Monday January 7, A senior official at the television channel yesterday told the Sunday Observer that they had not yet been notified of the court order to hand over the footage.
At the time of his death, Wickrematunge and The Sunday Leader were facing civil litigation for defamation by then Defence Secretary Rajapaksa, after that newspaper exposed alleged irregularities in a controversial arms procurement involving the purchase and overhaul of military aircraft by the Sri Lanka Air Force. The transaction is widely known as the “MiG Deal”. Wickrematunge was killed shortly before he was expected to testify in the case.
After the CID was handed the murder investigation in 2015, several senior police and military officers have been arrested for complicity in various aspects of covering up the murder, including destruction of evidence and abducting and threatening witnesses.
The CID has uncovered evidence tying military intelligence officers operating out of the Tripoli Army camp in Slave Island the abduction and assault of journalist Keith Noyahr eight months prior to Wickrematunge’s assassination. Detectives have drawn a link between the two crimes before the Mount Lavinia Magistrates Court. [R1]
The investigation has hit major roadblocks over the past decade, including the disappearance of key evidence contained in Lasantha Wickremetunge’s notebook found inside his car, for which a Senior DIG has been arrested, and a false postmortem report that claimed the journalist had been shot and killed despite the lack of any of the telltale signs of firearms use such as bullet slugs, shell casings or gunshot residue.
An exhumation and second postmortem found that Wickrematunge had in fact been clubbed to death by his killers. On November 18 2018, an attempt was made to transfer OIC Silva out of the CID, putting the Wickrematunge’s assassination probe and several other key cases seriously in jeopardy. Public outcry and swift action by the National Police Commission reversed the transfer in 24 hours. The slain editor’s daughter referred to the transfer attempt as a gift to Gotabaya Rajapaksa in a letter that was widely publicised after the transfer was announced.
The former Defence Secretary has variously dismissed the allegations of military involvement in the murder and accused former army commander Sarath Fonseka of being responsible for any such involvement. Rajapaksa has accused law enforcement authorities pursuing the perpetrators of this and other attacks against journalists as ‘witch hunts’ against war heroes including himself.
In an article penned on the 10th anniversary of her father’s assassination, Ahimsa Wickrematunge referred to the interview now court-ordered into CID custody, recalling that her father had referred to it in a telephone conversation between them in 2007.
“I tracked down the interview that he was referring to on that call. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, clad in a crisp pink shirt and a subdued tie, talked about the MiG deal to Derana TV at 9:30Pm on August 19, 2007, on their “360” program with interviewer Dilka Samanmali,” Ahimsa wrote. [See full letter on page 10]
During the interview, the former Defence Secretary refers to the Government purchase of MiG-27 aircraft in 2006, insists the transactions were above board and the articles – by then published in the Sunday Times and The Sunday Leader newspapers – were aimed at demoralising the armed forces and supporting the LTTE.
Subsequently shifting to the subject of media freedom, then Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa states as follows in the interview aired on the private television channel in August 2007: “They put my picture, and write filth. If they can get away with that in this country, where else is there more freedom,” he went on. “If they can criticize the President and the Defence Secetary by writing lies and after writing these things, they can nicely drive their cars by themselves alone and go around,” he added, raising his hands in a mock driving gesture.
After she obtained the video from an undisclosed source, Ahimsa Wickrematunge says she immediately informed the CID of its existence and possible relevance to their investigation into her father’s murder. “Because he was obviously referring to my father, and my father was later killed on the road while driving himself alone in his car, I think that this interview might be important evidence for the investigation,” she said.
Rajapaksa has been questioned extensively in connection with the Wickrematunge murder, Keith Noyahr abduction and the ‘MiG Deal’, and has not been named as a suspect by the CID or FCID in any of these investigations