'Until a month ago, people were scared to talk' about the killings: lawyer
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s former defense secretary, inspects an honor guard in April, 2013 (AFP Photo/Ishara S. Kodikara)
Sri Lanka's new government will reopen investigations into the murders of a high-profile newspaper editor and two lawmakers after evidence linking the former regime to the killings came to light, a minister said on Wednesday.
The move came after a former cabinet minister on Sunday publicly accused the deposed president's brother, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, of ordering the assassination of newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunga in January 2009.
"We have got all the information," said Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne, referring to the killings of Wickrematunga and opposition legislators Nadarajah Raviraj and Joseph Pararajasingham.
"We know who is responsible. Arrests will be made soon."
Rajapaksa could not be reached for comment. The family has insisted it had no role in the editor's killing, which sparked international outrage.
Wickrematunga and his Sunday Leader newspaper were staunch critics of the administration of then-president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Gunmen shot Wickrematunga dead in broad daylight on a public street as the journalist drove to work.
The Sunday Leader had accused Gotabhaya, who served as defense secretary under his brother, of corruption over the purchase of second-hand aircraft and arms for the military.
Suspects in Wickramatunge’s murder were released due to lack of evidence. Media groups, trade union leaders, lawyers staged demonstrations, but ultimately, no one has been convicted in the editor’s death.
“I did not see any real effort to find [the] perpetrators for his killing within [the] past few years,” Sakuntala Perera, the Sunday Leader’s current editor, told ucanews.com. She said Senaratne’s pledge to re-investigate the killing should have happened long ago, but it is nevertheless a positive sign.
“This new government’s action will bring hope for journalists and removes future threats or fear,” she said.
According to the Colombo-based Free Media Movement, a journalists’ watchdog group, there have been 138 recorded attacks on journalists and media institutions over the past decade.
Last year, Reporters Without Borders ranked Sri Lanka 165th out of 180 countries on its World Press Freedom Index.
Upul Jayasuriiya, president of Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), which represents more than 15,000 lawyers in the country, said that the Rajapaksa regime fostered an environment of fear.
“Until a month ago, people were scared to talk about this. People never opened their mouths and were even scared to mention the name of Rajapaksa,” he told ucanews.com.
Senaratne, the health minister, said there would also be a full investigation into Gotabhaya's running of the defense ministry amid allegations that he maintained a private army.
He is also accused of financial misappropriation and passing government weapons to private individuals.
Rajapaksa's family stands accused of amassing huge wealth during his 10-year rule, which ended earlier this month when he was voted out of office on a tide of resentment over alleged corruption and nepotism.
Police are investigating a ship full of weapons that was seized in the island's southern port of Galle and an arms cache found at an international convention center which was visited by the pope last week, Senaratne said.
"The defense ministry had established a private security company. That company outsourced security work to another private company," he said. "It was a private army with weapons of the state."
The new government, which came to power following the January 8 presidential election, is also looking into allegations that the former president tried to use military force to remain in power when early results showed he was headed for a defeat.
The alleged coup bid failed when the attorney general, the police and army chiefs declined to collaborate, the new government has said.
Former army chief exonerated
Meanwhile, the government on Wednesday also exonerated former army chief Sarath Fonseka of all charges, including treason, that were filed by former president Rajapaksa, and restored his rank and medals.
New President Maithripala Sirisena used his executive powers to clear Fonseka of all the allegations that were framed after he mounted a failed bid to unseat Rajapaksa during 2012 elections.
“I am happy about the pardon and [being] given all the privileges,” Fonseka said, adding that he would continue to “serve” the country.
Fonseka led troops to victory over the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009, but then fell out with Rajapaksa over who deserved the credit.
The decorated general was publicly humiliated, stripped of his rank, pension and medals collected in a 40-year career. He spent two years in jail and lost the right to contest elections for seven years.
The US considered Fonseka a political prisoner and campaigned for his unconditional release, which eventually came in May 2012.
However, his rights were not restored, keeping him away from politics.
The new president, who was backed by Fonseka in the run-up to the January 8 elections, granted a pardon Wednesday completely exonerating him of previous convictions as well as pending charges of treason.
"In line with the pardon, General Fonseka gets back his civic rights and he is now free to contest elections," said an official at the president's office.
After his 2010 poll defeat, Fonseka was detained on a charge of corruption relating to military procurements and then given a 30-month jail sentence.
In November 2011, he was sentenced to three more years in jail for saying that Tiger rebels who surrendered had been killed on the orders of Rajapaksa's brother Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the then defense secretary.
Fonseka had also angered the government by saying he would testify before any international tribunal probing possible war crimes charges.
Sri Lanka has denied any civilians were killed by its troops at the climax of the 37-year war in 2009, which is believed to have left up to 100,000 people dead.
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