Photo courtesy of Ada Derana
Today the People’s Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists in the Hague will commence hearing evidence in the assassination of my father Lasantha Wickrematunge. The indictment alleges the Sri Lankan government’s complicity in the crime and has invited the government to exercise its right of defence during the hearing. The tribunal does not have the legal capacity to punish perpetrators if found guilty; however, the evidence heard will invite global awareness to the issue of attacks on journalists, more often than not carried out with total impunity. And if a guilty judgement is delivered, it will put those that have long been considered responsible for my father’s killing in a negative spotlight.
My father was one of those journalists who paid with his life for speaking out and exposing the unvarnished truth, who informed the people of the many transgressions of the powers that be. Most of the stories he brought into the public domain through his incisive investigation and research shook the very foundations of the corridors of power.
It is my belief that my father’s investigation into the MiG deal was one of the many reasons he was killed. My father, in an explosive series revealed the fraud behind the purchase of second hand fighter jets from Ukraine where Sri Lanka paid an 87 percent commission to Singaporean wheeler dealers to buy arms and services used to defeat the LTTE. The Singaporeans paid at least $400,000 as a kickback to then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s cousin Udayanga Weeratunga. A hefty chunk of the remaining $6,428,547.24 made its way to accounts controlled by prominent Sri Lankans. Gotabaya Rajapaksa had sued my father, which resulted in a court order preventing anything about him being written in The Sunday Leader of which he was Editor in Chief.
Two years later, my father was assassinated on the streets of Colombo by men on motorcycles who followed his car and smashed its windscreen just days before he was due to testify in this lawsuit brought against him. That was the darkest day of my life, January 8, 2009. But today, more than 13 years later, his assassination remains unsolved and the killers and those who ordered this most heinous and cowardly crime roam free. This is hardly surprising. In Sri Lanka there is total, 100 percent impunity in journalists’ murders, torture and attacks on news organisations. No one has ever been convicted for the murders of journalists, torture of journalists, blowing up of newsrooms or torching of presses.
My father’s assassination caused outrage, not only in Sri Lanka but the world over. His posthumous editorial titled And Then They Came For Me where he foretold his own death became an oft quoted example of journalistic brilliance and a beacon of hope and inspiration for all those who stood for fairness, justice, accountability and a free and robust press.
Although a case was initiated and opened soon after his assassination, nothing came of it. When the government changed in 2015 and the Rajapaksas were voted out of office, Sri Lanka, and our family in particular finally braced ourselves for justice for Lasantha Wickrematunge. Police investigators soon zoomed in on a military death squad, the Tripoli platoon, that had allegedly been controlled by then-Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. However, certain members of the new government were more interested in covering up for the killers than seeking to punish the perpetrators of this crime.
Now 13 years later, the People’s Tribunal on Murdered Journalists in the Hague have taken up the case of my father, together with those of two other slain journalists from Syria and Mexico. I am indebted to Free Press Unlimited, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Sans Frontiers who collaborated to bring this trial to life and to human rights lawyer Almudena Bernabeu and all others who are contributing in no small measure in an attempt to see justice is done. I have long said that we, the families of these journalists, would never see justice done within the confines of Sri Lanka. The justice system, compromised as it is with ties to the rulers, is not geared to bringing justice to these brave men who fought so hard to speak out and put their lives on the line in doing so. It is indeed heartening that over a decade after his assassination, the People’s Tribunal is providing my family something resembling a day in court.
My father’s assassination, just like the murders of all journalists, was not only a heinous crime that denied our family of a wonderful father but also denied the people’s right to be informed. He wrote in his last editorial, “I hope my assassination will not be seen as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration for those who survive…I hope it will galvanise forces that will usher in a new era of human liberty in our beloved motherland.” Those prophetic words are now coming to fruition before our eyes as the people of Sri Lanka rise in unity against years of corruption, misrule, state sanctioned murder and impunity. Even as I write, remarkable and truly historic events are taking place in Sri Lanka. After years of suffering under the jackboot of tyranny, of Rajapaksa misrule and despotism, the people have risen in one strident voice and are demanding their exit from government. My father’s name is in the mix of their battle cries.
For the first time in our country’s post-independence history, we are witnessing people power result in concrete change. There have been cabinet changes, resignations and Prime Minister Rajapaksa finally caved into pressure and handed his resignation to his brother President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Now there are very valid calls for the president, prime minister and the defence establishment to be held accountable for the events of May 9, when on the 31st day of peaceful protests in the Galle Face Green, the young protestors were set upon by government sponsored thugs, assaulted and the protest site vandalised. The thugs arrived from the prime minister’s official residence Temple Trees where they listened to a rousing speech by Rajapaksa and an incendiary rant by former minister and henchman Johnston Fernando.
The government perhaps never expected the country’s rousing support for the protestors who have today become a symbol of hope for change and for a better tomorrow. The protestors, mostly youth from all walks of life, from all ethnic groups and religions, championed our cause day and night, in the blazing sun and pouring rain and became Sri Lanka’s beloved children and for me personally, my brothers and sisters in arms.
People always ask me how I feel about the protests. My family has paid a huge price for our father’s love and service to our country. I have carried the cross of my father’s commitment to Sri Lanka my entire life. When Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected as president, my world shattered and I felt my father had died in vain. I felt the pain of 6.9 million voters tell me my father’s life didn’t matter.
Today as I watch these very people rise up and cheer into the streets that my father was right all along and as I witness my father’s words being fulfilled I feel the wheels of divine justice are finally turning in our favour. My little brother was robbed of the opportunity of growing up with a father. After watching some of these protests he told me how surreal it is and how proud he feels to have been born to a father who is greater and more inspiring than any hero or person in history he idolises or looks up to. Our father gave his life for everything Sri Lanka is now fighting for and it is a cross we are now proud to bear.
If the changes we are seeing now is an indication of what is to come, we can dare hope for the “system change” that is being spoken of. Our new generation have made it clear they will settle for nothing less. A complete overhaul is not just needed in the electoral system; we need to see things change in the entire political system. For instance, undermining the justice system is deeply entrenched in the political culture of Sri Lanka. The people have lost faith in a system that throws out cases against politicians whose role is to represent us, where murderers are pardoned and investigations into crimes as shocking and far reaching as the Easter Sunday bombings are tampered with.
I can only dream that any system change will include a justice system which is truly independent, fair and just. Where investigations will be carried out, without scuttling of investigations, hiding of evidence and the preventing of successful conclusions.
Until then, I continue to look to the international community and now turn to the People’s Tribunal to give our loved ones and our families the justice they deserve.