Sri Lanka marks decade since journalist murder amid justice calls

COLOMBO (AFP) – Sri Lankan journalists yesterday paid tribute to anti-establishment editor Lasantha Wickrematunge 10 years after his murder by a suspected government death squad that came to symbolise a deadly decade-long crackdown on the country’s media.

Just days before he was due to give evidence against the brother of the country’s then strongman leader Mahinda Rajapakse, two assailants on motorcycles blocked the car of the 50-year-old editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper before smashing the windows and stabbing him in the head.

The assassination is one of many unresolved killings of journalists carried out during Rajapakse’s decade in power, which also saw a 37-year conflict with Tamil separatists brought to a brutal conclusion.

Friends, family and colleagues of Wickrematunge placed flowers and candles on his grave at the Colombo General Cemetery.

White cards with Wickrematunge’s name and those of 18 other journalists were also put among the golden trumpet flowers and white frangipani blooms.

A message from Lal Wickrematunge – the dead journalist’s brother who lives in Australia – was read out, saying the family was also grieving for other journalists killed by unidentified assassins.

It said many journalists from the minority Tamil community were killed “during the darkest period in our nation’s history” – the four-decade civil war, ended by government forces when they crushed the rebel Tamil Tigers in 2009.

The murdered Wickrematunge was a critic of that military campaign, which allegedly massacred 40,000 ethnic Tamils.

“Reconciliation and closure will not be possible without prosecution,” his brother said.

Before his death Wickrematunge had revealed corruption in a multi-million dollar purchase of second-hand MiG planes from Ukraine implicating then defence secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapakse – Mahinda Rajapakse’s brother who was president at the time.

The editor was killed days before he was due to give evidence.

After Rajapakse lost a 2015 election, a breakthrough in the Wickrematunge case saw investigators tell a Sri Lankan court that army spies were responsible for his killing.

A former army commander accused Gotabhaya of running a secret unit used to target journalists and dissidents during his brother’s presidency, during which rights activists said dozens of journalists and media workers were killed.

Gotabhaya has denied any link to the killings. He remains under investigation for corruption related to the MiG deal.