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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Sri Lanka: Probe Into Lasantha’s Murder Takes A Twist

Image: Maj. Gen. Kapila Hendawitharana, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Field Marshal Fonseka.

by Nirmala Kannangara.

Fonseka pointed the finger directly at former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa;   Gotabaya Rajapaksa directly centralised and supervised all security and intelligence operations in and around Colombo.

The investigation into the murder of founding editor of The Sunday Leader Lasantha Wickrematunge has taken a stunning twist after the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) interrogated Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, whose involvement in the high profile assassination has long been suspected.

Field Marshal Fonseka, who is also the Minister for Regional Development, was summoned to the fourth floor of the CID headquarters and has been questioned for over five hours on January 20, and in a stunning show of confidence appeared hours later on the Sirasa TV Satana programme and revealed  what he had told CID detectives earlier that day.

The former army commander, stressed that he had never had any dealings or falling out with Wickrematunge, despite repeated hints and rumors by key figures in the former regime that he was the mastermind behind Wickrematunge assassination and other attacks on media figures. Instead, he pointed the finger directly at former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother, former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, highlighting that they were the ones who had serious disputes with Wickrematunge.

With regard to the means of bringing about the assassination, Fonseka had alleged on a TV program that Gotabaya Rajapaksa directly centralised and supervised all security and intelligence operations in and around Colombo from the Ministry of Defence, through a separate chain of command packed with loyalists, bypassing the normal organisational structures of the three armed forces and the police. It is through this group, he alleges, that the Rajapaksas put together a faction to plan high profile assaults, abductions and murders of media personalities and others, under the auspices of the targets being a threat to national security.

However, the Field Marshal is yet to provide any hard evidence of these claims, and efforts by The Sunday Leader to confirm them sparked a surprising controversy.

Fonseka himself, when contacted by this newspaper, elaborated on what he had told the CID

 Famous clique

“Senior DIG Anura Senanayake, DIG Vass Gunawardena, DIG Keerthi Gajanayake, Major General Kapila Hendawitharana and many more were members of this ‘famous’ clique. Although military intelligence directly came under me, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa handled the Colombo operations and intelligence unofficially from the Defence Ministry. Rajapaksa and his henchmen were engaged in various unscrupulous activities including the white van culture,” Fonseka charged.

Of those named by the former army commander, some could not be contacted as they are being held in prison. Anura Senanayake is being held in remand without bail, charged with complicity in the 2012 murder of rugby player Wasim Thajudeen. Vaas Gunawardena is being held in Welikada prison after being sentenced to death for abduction and murder.

Former Chief of National Intelligence retired Major General Kapila Hendawitharana, one of those accused by Fonseka to have been a mastermind of this cabal, flatly denied that there was any merit to Field Marshal Fonseka’s claims. Speaking to The Sunday Leader, General Hendawitharana said “the overall intelligence and security in the country came directly under Army Commander Sarath Fonseka and there were no intelligence or security groups under the Defence Secretary or the Defence Ministry”.

A veteran of Military Intelligence himself, General Hendawitharana stressed that after he retired from the army he was appointed to the post of national intelligence by the cabinet, a position in which he served until his resignation on January 9, 2015. He further denied any involvement by himself or the former defence secretary in any secret murder operations.

Meanwhile, Rtd. Major General H.M.H.A. Herath, too confirmed Hendawitharana’s claim and added that there was no separate chain of command for operations in Colombo. “What Fonseka said on TV soon after he was grilled by the CID over Lasantha Wickrematunge murder is baseless,” Herath added.

Others, including current senior officers of the police and armed forces who declined to be named agreed with the assertion by Fonseka that these operations were conducted directly through the defence ministry. “No one can deny something so obvious. What the, CID has to do is to request the minutes of the meetings and the correspondence at the Ministries of Defence and Law and Order, and that will be the proof

 Gotabhaya chaired meetings

According to retired Senior DIG Nimal Lewke, it would be even easier than that for the CID to confirm that Fonseka is telling the truth. Lewke, who was a member of the National Security Council during 2008 and 2009, said that every Thursday the special security and intelligence meeting for the Western Province was held at the Ministry of Defence, and that the meeting was chaired by none other than Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

“The then Defence Secretary took lot of interest in these Western Province intelligence meetings. I too attended these meetings and the present head of the CID, Senior DIG Ravi Senaratne, who was then head of the Western Province intelligence, also attended these meetings with us,” Lewke claimed.

While DIG Keerthi Gajanayake could not be contacted for comment, a retired officer with close links to the former State Intelligence director spoke in his defence, asking not to be named for fear of drawing the wrath of the former regime. “Gajanayake was a very professional officer who did a lot of honourable work against the LTTE. His name is only getting dragged into this because of his position,” the officer said. Responding to the claim that DIG Gajanayake was also the signatory of letters leaked to the media last year about surveillance of Wickrematunge ‘by order of Secretary Defense’, the officer replied that Gajanayake would of course follow orders, but would never knowingly assist in the murder of a journalist.

Three other officials believed to be key figures in the meetings, all of whom have been questioned by the CID, declined to comment on the record when contacted. They are former IGP Jayantha Wickremaratne, former Terrorist Investigation Department Director, DIG Chandra Wakishta and former Military Intelligence Director, Major General Amal Karunasekara.

While the former army commander alleged complicity of these officials, there was no doubt that the heart of his message to the CID and the country was to directly point the finger at former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the alleged masterminds with means and motive to kill Wickrematunge.

Fonseka called attention in particular to a 2006 episode wherein then President Rajapaksa had telephoned Wickrematunge, cursed him in vulgar language and sworn to ‘destroy’ him, and the high profile lawsuits brought by Gotabaya Rajapaksa against Wickrematunge and this newspaper to prevent articles being published in the purchase of military aircraft. According to the former army commander, these episodes gave rise to motive for both Rajapaksa brothers to wish Wickrematunge dead.

According to a political figure connected to both President Rajapaksa and Wickrematunge, the former president was deeply stunned and affected by the murder for several days and still displays a unique discomfort when discussing Wickrematunge. “It was Lasantha, and Maithripala Sirisena who worked hard to make Rajapaksa the Prime Minister in 2004, when Chandrika tried to give it to Lakshman Kadirgamar,” he said.

Mahinda in a difficult position

“Even when Mahinda was fisheries minister, when Basil got caught misusing a Salt Corporation Credit Card, it was Lasantha who jumped in to shield his friend and prevent Chandrika from finding out and sacking Mahinda. Lasantha’s murder put Mahinda into a very difficult position” sources added.

The claim by Fonseka about a unique and deadly friction between Wickrematunge and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, however, is easy to confirm. The defence Secretary brought legal action against Wickrematunge, and according to CID submissions to Mt. Lavinia Magistrate Mohamed Miham, there is ample evidence that Wickrematunge believed that he would be murdered before he had a chance to expose the defence secretary in court.

While The Sunday Leader formally retracted the articles in a settlement with Gotabaya Rajapaksa after Wickrematunge was murdered, it appears that the so called ‘MiG deal” continues to bind together the destinies of the former editor and defence secretary.  The aircraft purchase is the subject of a high profile investigation by the FCID, and a fundamental rights petition filed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the Supreme Court alleging that the investigation is without merit and politically motivated.

Further muddying those already murky waters is the fact that, as exclusively reported in The Sunday Leader last year, Rajapaksa’s Attorney-at-Law in the FR case is none other than President’s Counsel Romesh de Silva, who appeared for Wickrematunge and Leader Publications, in Appeal Courts proceedings of the MiG case between Wickrematunge and Rajapaksa. A close friend and confidant of Wickrematunge, Romesh de Silva was also one of the pall bearers who carried the editor’s coffin from the Borella roundabout to the Colombo cemetery for burial.

According to Supreme Court rules, an attorney can only appear for the other side in a case with such a conflict of interests if they have the express permission of their first client. As Wickrematunge was murdered several years before the case was considered, he would have had no opportunity to grant such permission.

 Daughter’s statement

The CID also told the Mount Lavinia Magistrate that detectives had interviewed Wickrematunge’s daughter in Melbourne, Australia, who was living with her father at the time he was killed and was one of the last person to see him alive. According to Wickrematunge’s daughter Ahimsa’s statement, her father had told her that it was only a matter of time before he was murdered by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and had reminded her of what she was to do in the event of his death, specifically, where to find valuables and money, and whom to call for help.

Backing up with her statement, according to the CID, was the abduction and threatening of Wickrematunge’s driver Dias, in which senior army intelligence officer Premananda Udalagama was arrested for allegedly reprimanding the driver about what he had made openly in 2009- that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was behind Wickrematunge’s murder. When abducted, the driver allegedly had confessed to Udalagama that he was merely repeating what he was told by Wickrematunge’s daughter, to which Udalagama had allegedly threatened him with death if he continues to speak about the Defence Secretary’s involvement.

Speaking to The Sunday Leader, Sarath Fonseka also recounted the first time he met Gotabaya Rajapaksa after the January 8 murder. According to the former army commander, when he had asked Rajapakse what happened to Wickrematunge, he remembers the exact Sinhala phrase with which the Defence Secretary had terrifyingly but delightedly had said that Kāllakanniya uda panna vedi.

According to Fonseka, no sooner any abduction, assault or any murder of a media figure was reported, Mahinda Rajapaksa would immediately summon the print and electronic Media Heads and promise to take full measures to investigate, while indirectly hinting that he was behind these incidents.

Concentrate on the war

“I had to concentrate on the war but not on how to kill journalists. Gotabaya Rajapaksa knew that Lasantha was a threat because he was exposing the MiG deal. I had no issue with Lasantha,” Fonseka added. He also said that the attacks on Keith Noyar, UpaliTennakoon, Raviraj’s murder and Ekneligoda abduction too were the work of the ‘clique’ who were experts and was operated under Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

Reports of the Rajapaksa brothers pointing the finger at Fonseka are not new. It has been widely reported that President Mahinda Rajapaksa had told Lasantha Wickrematunge’s brother Lal Wickrematunge on three separate occasions that the Field Marshal was behind the murder. On another instance, then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa is alleged to have told veteran journalists Sanath Balasooriya and Poddala Jayantha that there would be no investigation into the abduction and assault of The Nation journalist Keith Noyahr because the armed forces ‘worshiped the army commander like a god’, who was essential to win the war and it will come to a certain point, and then it will stop without going forward.  When asked as to why he remains silent when the people were pointing their fingers against him for all these murders, assaults and abductions, Fonseka said that he was not aware that he was being made the scapegoat until after he had left the service. Although he had his own suspicions about who was behind these incidents, he says he was powerless to investigate or interfere. “I was working under the Defence Minister – Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary- Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. I could not criticise them at any point although I had my suspicions,” Fonseka claimed. All attempts contact Gotabaya Rajapaksa failed. When contacted his security, one of his security officers who answered the phone said that Rajapaksa is overseas and will be returning in two weeks.

Regarding his feeling for the slain editor, Rajapaksa gave an interview to the BBC days after the murder, appearing jubilant and dismissive of the high profile assassination. “Who is Lasantha Wickrematunge? He’s just another murder. There are so many murders everywhere. Why are you asking about Lasantha? Who is Lasantha?” he challenged the reporter. Prompted that it is believed that he was killed for what he wrote, Rajapaksa said that the editor had criticised several former politicians and that any of them could have killed him.

Responding to allegations Rajapaksa had told the BBC Correspondent that he had done the correct thing- to take him to court (Wickrematunge) without harming him.

Last year, speaking to the press about the ‘white flag’ case, Gotabaya Rajapaksa asked aloud why the government was not investigating into the murder of Wickrematunge, challenging them to do so, and hinting at a possible suspicion that the government was stonewalling the investigation to protect those within.

CID officers had previously investigated and questioned several army officers who served for the former army commander and their surveillance detail, according to what they reported to court. However the CID is yet to interrogate Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, raising questions whether politicians in the present regime is protecting all Rajapaksa family members.

Meanwhile, on condition of anonymity, a Rajapaksa loyalist who later stood up for Field Marshall Fonseka said that if Fonseka was involved in Wickrematunge’s murder, the former regime would have certainly taken action against him after the 2010 presidential election, when Fonseka was arrested along with several soldiers and officers
Sunday Leader


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