Even though there is supposed to be an ongoing police investigation into the 2009 murder of Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunga, what we have been seeing for the most part is a series of investigations and arrests in relation to various matters on the sidelines of the murder. One of the first persons to be arrested in this connection was a bystander who had stolen Lasantha’s phone from the crime scene. This was just a theft and the suspect was soon released. In December 2009, the investigation was handed over to the CID. Then came two much more sensational arrests on February 26, 2010. According to a report published in the Sunday Leader, investigators had zeroed in on five SIM cards which on the basis of communication tower data, had been detected as having moved in the same direction as Lasantha’s phone on the day the murder had been committed. It was also said that the five numbers had not been used before or since the day of the killing – a telltale sign that these were SIM cards used for a special operation.
All five cards were said to have been registered in the name of one Pitchai Jesudasan a garage owner from Nuwara Eliya. When arrested and questioned, he had claimed that he had lost his National ID card, which could have been used to buy the five SIM cards. However he had made no complaint to the police about the loss of his ID card. It later transpired that this Jesudasan was a close associate of one Kandegedara Piyawansa, a Sinha Regiment soldier who was said to be attached to Military Intelligence. He too was arrested by the CID. P. Jesudasan is supposed to have died of a heart attack while in remand on 13 October 2011. Two years later, on September 6, 2013, Kandegedara Piyawansa was released due to the lack of evidence. Thereafter the investigation into Lasantha’s murder went into abeyance.
Immediately after the Rajapaksa government was defeated in January 2015, the investigation into Lasantha’s murder was revived, but nothing much happened for one and a half years. In July 2016, a Warrant Officer named Premananda Udalagama attached to Military Intelligence was arrested on the charge of abducting and assaulting Lasantha’s driver. Contrary to some confused media reports that appeared at the time, this driver had not been driving Lasantha’s car at the time of the murder. The Colombo Telegraph was later to explain that this driver had been in the habit of getting drunk in the evenings and telling everybody who would listen that it was Gotabhaya Rajapaksa who had got Lasantha killed. Lasantha’s driver obviously had no way of knowing whether Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was responsible for Lasantha’s killing and he was plainly babbling his imaginings after getting drunk. The story is that the driver had been abducted by Army Intelligence and assaulted and told not to go around accusing Gotabhaya Rajapaksa of being behind the killing and then released.
Thereafter the driver had gone underground through fear. After the government changed, the CID had traced the driver and got his story from him and it was on that basis that Warrant Officer Premananda Udalagama had been arrested. The latter is said to have been identified by Lasantha’s driver as the person who had abducted and assaulted him at the identification parade held subsequently. This case is yet being heard. Even if it is found that Warrant Officer had abducted and assaulted Lasantha’s driver, that does not mean that we are any closer to knowing who killed Lasantha. So far there has not been the remotest suggestion that Warrant Officer Udalagama had been involved in Lasantha’s killing.
Latest addition to multiplying storylines
After Warrant Officer Udalagama’s arrest in July 2016, the investigation went into hibernation again for another one and a half years. It was only from the beginning of 2018 that more arrests were carried out, this time of policemen who are supposed to have scuttled the investigation by concealing or destroying information. But between the arrest of Udalagama in July 2016 and the latest spate of arrests in 2018, another story emerged around October 2016 which we had not been heard before. This was about a motorcycle purportedly used in the murder that was said to have been recovered from the Attidiya canal. It appeares that on January 27, 2009, the Mt Lavinia police had recovered a motorcycle from among the attikka bushes on the banks of the Attidiya canal which is supposed to have been used in Lasantha’s murder. According to information pieced together from the B reports filed in the Mt Lavinia Magistrate’s courts and more information that the Sunday Leader had obtained from the CID, the story is basically as follows:
Police Constable Athugal Pedige Priyantha Kumara Athugala is supposed to have told the CID was that he had searched for the motorcycles that were said to have been used in the murder along with SI Tissasiri Sugathapala for two days (on 26 and 27 January 2009). On the second day they had found the motorcycle on the banks of the canal. Police Constable Premasiri Samayawardhana said that he too had participated in the search for the motorcycle in the Attidiya canal and that while they were engaged in the search, SI Sugathapala had received a call telling him to say that a motorcycle had been retrieved from the attikka bushes on the banks of the canal. Constable Samayawardhana had also told the CID that on the days that the search was taking place, two officers of the PSD had come wearing sarongs and shirts and were carrying out propaganda (pracharanaya) saying that a motorcycle used in Lasantha’s assassination was to be recovered from the Attidiya canal.
Police Constable Samayawardhana had gone with SI Lalith Weerasinghe to Vavuniya to arrest the owner of the motorcycle recovered from the canal, Paramasivam Tyagarajah. The story that emerged was that Tyagarajah the owner of the motorcycle, had lent it to one Thangavelu Balraj the owner of a jewellery shop in Vavuniya. On Sunday January 18, 2009, this Balraj had left home with a friend on this motorcycle saying that he was going to Settikulam to collect some money but had never returned. Balraj’s wife and her relatives had then gone towards Settikulam in search of the missing Balraj and stopped at a wayside boutique where they got the information that her husband and his friend had been blindfolded and taken away in a Defender Jeep. The motor bicycle too had been taken away by the same group. The CID had then received information that two unidentified charred bodies had been found in the Anuradhapura area the day after the abduction took place i.e. on January 19, 2009.
The CID got the relatives of these two Tamil youths to identify the pictures of the charred bodies on October 10, 2016. The families had identified the two bodies. The killing of these two youths and the theft of the motorcycle has taken place ten days after Lasantha was killed. Now the story is that the military had planned to connect Lasantha’s murder with the LTTE by killing the two youth and taking their motorcycle and throwing it to the Attidiya canal. This is the latest horror story to be added to the Lasantha Wickrematunga murder investigation. This story about a motorcycle being recovered from the Attidiya canal gives rise to more questions than answers. Firstly, if what the military intelligence wanted was a motorcycle to link the killing to the LTTE, they could have simply stolen a motorcycle from the north or east without going to such lengths and trouble as to murder two people and to hide their bodies in far away Anuradhapura just to get their motorcycle.
Anyone familiar with clandestine operations will know that operatives always try to leave no traces of what they have done. Certainly no operative is going to leave a trail of dead bodies just to obtain a motorcycle. Furthermore, who in his right senses will believe that the assassins who killed Lasantha in Attidiya and sped away on their motorcycles, later came back to the Attidiya area to dispose of the motorcycles used in the operation? Furthermore, who were the two officials from the PSD that Constable Samayawardhana had said were hanging around carrying out the propaganda (pracharanya) that the motorcycles used in Lasantha’s assasination were to be retrieved from the Attidiya canal? PSD officers are police officers and why would two PSD men come in sarong and shirts among other police officers who obviously knew who they were?
This story about a motorcycle found in the Attidiya canal was added to the Lasantha Wickrematunga murder saga only in October 2016. So now we have a mega story with multiple storylines where a series of murders have taken place to cover up one murder. The bottom line however is that despite the multiplication of storylines, we are no closer to knowing who killed Lasantha Wickrematunga.
The motorcycle numbers
The latest spate of arrests began on February 1, 2018, with one Hettiarachchige Don Tissasiri Sugathapala, a former Sub Inspector of police who had been attached to the Mt Lavinia police at the time Lasantha Wickrematunga was murdered, being taken into custody. Former SI Sugathapala had told the CID that he had conducted investigations into the two motorcycle registration numbers that Lasantha had written in his notebook and had obtained their registration details from the RMV. When the Mt Lavinia SP Hemantha Adhikari heard that he was doing this investigation, he had told Sugathapala to stop the investigation at once. Thereafter SP Adhikari had taken him to see their superior DIG Prasanna Nanayakkara who had also berated Sugathapala asking him whether he is trying to get himself killed. Thereupon the DIG had called the then IGP Jayantha Wickremaratne and explained what had been happening.
After the conversation, the DIG had told Sugathapala that the IGP had told him that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa wants the notebook on which the numbers had been written and also the pages on which details of the investigation had been written and that these had to be handed over to him. Sugathapala had then handed over Lasantha’s notebook to the DIG. Thereafter he had removed the pages on which the details of the investigation had been written from the PCIB book and he had inserted new pages into the book in the place of the pages that had been removed. These pages of the PCIB book had also been handed over to DIG Prasanna Nanayakkara. However, Sugathapala had said that he had taken photocopies of his notes on the PCIB book before handing over the originals to the DIG and he had kept the copies safely. These photocopies had then been handed over to the CID by Sugathapala. He had told the CID that the then DIG Prasanna Nanayakkara had once held a progress review of the Lasantha Wickrematunga murder case and said among other things that “this has been done by someone high up. Gotabhaya is involved, no one else would do this; it is he who had problems with Lasantha”.
The CID had observed in their B report that according to former SI Sugathapala’s statement, the DIG under whom the investigation had been conducted had been working on the presumption that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was responsible. Furthermore they had pointed out that DIG Prasanna Nannayakkara had said that the IGP is asking for Lasantha’s notebook and the PCIB pages on which details of the investigation into the motorcycle numbers had been written, and that these were to be destroyed on the instructions of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. CID officer Inspector A.Nishantha Silva had contended that according to the statement given by former SI Sugathapala and the statements given earlier by Lasantha’s daughter, his brother and close associates, a reasonable suspicion arises that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is a party to this murder.
The constant refrain
Even before the statement given by former SI Tissasiri Sugathapala, CID officer Nishantha Silva had been stating in open court that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was responsible for Lasantha’s muder and this was reported in the local and international media. More than one year ago on January 17, 2017, the state owned Daily News reported that the CID had informed the Mount Lavinia Magistrate’s Court that Lasantha’s daughter Ahimsa Wickrematunge, currently domiciled in Australia, had told the CID that her father received death threats over his revelations on the MIG deal and that Wickrematunge had told his family members that former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was allegedly responsible for the threats.
On 29 January 2017, The Sunday Leader reported that the CID had questioned Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, and that Fonseka had stated that he had never had any dealings or falling out with Wickrematunge, but that both President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa, had serious disputes with Wickrematunge. Fonseka had drawn attention to a 2006 incident where the then President Rajapaksa had telephoned Wickrematunge, and berated him in vulgar language and sworn to ‘destroy’ him, and the high profile lawsuits brought by Gotabaya Rajapaksa against Wickrematunge and this newspaper. Fonseka had further said that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa directly centralized 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 organizational structures of the three armed forces and the police.
It is through this group, Fonseka alleged, that the Rajapaksas put together a group to plan high profile assaults, abductions and murders of media personalities and others and that the attacks on Keith Noyhar, Upali Tennakoon, Raviraj’s murder and Ekneligoda abduction too were the work of the group under Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Thus we see that the CID seems quite willing to accept the story that Fonseka was telling them even though it was Fonseka who was originally accused through special statements made in Parliament in July 2008 and January 2009 by the then Chief Opposition Whip Joseph Michael Perera, and Opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe of being behind the assaults on Keith Noyhar, Namal Perera, Mahendra Ratnaweera and Upali Tennakoon and the killing of Lasantha Wickrematunga. Those were not accusations that were lightly made. For more than six months the UNP had been consistently accusing Fonseka of being behind the attacks on journalists. (See: The Politicisation of the Lasantha Wickrematunga murder investigation, The Sunday Island, 4 March 2018)
However now with a UNP government in power and Fonseka holding cabinet office in that government, the investigation is being nudged in a different direction. The CID has not bothered to record statements from Joseph Michael Perera and Ranil Wickremasinghe about the statements they made in Parliament in 2008 and 2009. They did record a statement from Fonseka but that has clearly been more for appearances sake. The CID appears to be falling over itself in its eagerness to place the blame for Lasantha’s murder on Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Back in March 20, 2017, long before former SI Sugathapala gave his statement, Al Jazeera reported that the CID told the Mount Lavinia Magistrate’s court that day that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa led a unit that is accused of assassinating former Sunday Leader newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge.
From the information available to us it appears that hundreds of people have been questioned by the police and the CID with a good proportion of them being from the army. But nearly a decade later, we are no closer to finding out who had actually murdered Lasantha. Last week, on March 15, 2018, the CID had reported to courts that they had questioned seven army men who had been attached to 112 Brigade. The 112 Brigade which was responsible for the security of the Colombo city had motorcycle teams. Though Military Intelligence is often blamed for the killing, we learn that Military Intelligence did not have motorcycle teams. Besides, all the motorcycles registered by the Army would carry the army number plates. Military Intelligence had a limited number of motorcycles with civilian number plates which had been obtained from the Registrar of Motor Vehicles by a special arrangement.
However, the motorcycles used by Military intelligence were ordinary motorcycles which would not attract attention. They did not have trail bikes or other powerful motorcycles which could be used in operations. The most powerful motorcycle that the Military Intelligence unit has had apparently been one with a 200cc engine, and there was only one of those. The others were all inconspicuous ordinary motorcycles which would not attract too much attention. The 112 Brigade which was in charge of Colombo security did have powerful motorcycles for their specialized motorcycle teams. However we are to understand that the CID had informed court last week that the two numbers that former SI Tissasiri Sugathapala had taken down from Lasantha’s notebook appear to be false numbers. Indeed one can never expect anyone going on such an operation to have genuine number plates. So now it appears that the Lasantha Wickrematunga investigation has hit another stone wall.
First there was a man who had stolen Lasantha’s phone from the crime scene. Then there were two men arrested over some SIM cards which had been observed to have followed Lasantha’s movements on that day. Then we had a man who is supposed to have abducted and assaulted one of Lasantha’s employees long after the latter’s death. Now we have two policemen in jail for having concealed information that they need not have bothered to conceal since the numbers that Lasantha is supposed to have written down of the motorcycles that had been following him now apparently have turned out to be false. So there have been a lot of stories around Lasantha’s murder and a fair number of arrests – all leading absolutely nowhere.