SRI LANKA: Two years after the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge — the failure to investigate caused by the police/political nexus 

Basil Fernando

Two years have passed since one of the most infamous assassinations in Sri Lanka in recent times. The editor of the Sunday Leader and an internationally known journalist, Lasantha Wickrematunge, was killed in an attack that occurred in broad daylight. It is reported that the police have submitted around 50 reports at various court hearings regarding this murder but that they have been unable to bring any credible evidence against any of the perpetrators of this murder.

Two questions arise: is this due to the incapacity of the police investigators? Or is it due to the pressures brought on the investigators and those who are in charge of such investigations not to condult credible investigations into this murder? The possibility that the failure is in the capacities of the investigators is a difficult hypothesis to maintain as in the past much more mysterious and intricate crimes have been solved in Sri Lanka. Furthermore, if the question was one of incapacities in terms of expertise or technical difficulties, it is the obligation of the policing department and the police to seek assistance from international agencies as they have done in the past. No attempt was made to get the advice of professional investigators or forensic experts to assist in the investigation of this case. Therefore the possibility of the failure of the investigation on the basis of incapacity can be easily dismissed.

However, the argument for the other alterative, that it was due to political pressure that the investigation does not happen, is very much more plausible. First of all the open allegation by the family members and those who were close to the assassinated Lasantha Wickrematunge is that the assassins were those associated with the political leadership of the government. Lasantha Wickrematunge himself predicted the possibility of his assassination on political grounds. There had been previous attacks on him and his newspaper, which too have never been properly investigated. The previous attacks were indicative of the possibility that the final attack was also made the same persons. The public enemies of Lasantha Wickrematunge on record are also prominent politicians.

It is under these circumstances that the state owed a greater responsibility for providing all resources for to make a proper investigation into this crime. This has not been done and this points a finger at the government.

Today, the fact of the control of the police by the political authorities is no longer a matter of controversy. The collapse of the public authorities in general and the police in particular has been observed and commented upon by almost everyone. Vast documentation exists on this issue.

What sharply comes through this murder is that when the government does not want investigations to be done, the police investigation units no longer have the capacity to carry out any investigations. What happens by way of submitting reports to the courts is mere compliance with the legal obligations. However, the legal obligations relating to carrying out the obligations is not accompanied with the filing of the reports. Filing reports has become an empty exercise and, in fact, an exercise in hypocrisy. The police officers in charge of the investigation have to submit such reports to the courts and, if they are not submitted, then the judges have the right to take such officers to task. To overcome this problem, more reports are submitted claiming that the investigations are being conducted without giving any details of what is actually being done by way of continuing investigations.

In Sri Lanka the judiciary has not adequately challenged the police practice of the submitting of reports being simply a formality and that it is being engaged in compliance with the legal rules in purely hypocritical way. The question of the duty to investigate and the obligations of those engaged in this need to be more clearly spelled out by the judiciary itself, who ultimately have the obligation of conducting the judicial process.

Judicial process relating to murder becomes a pointless exercise if serious and credible investigations are not done. This is not a matter only on this particular case but about the whole issue of serious crimes. If political or other purposes could stand against the officers who conduct investigations into serious crimes, then the system of investigations into murder cannot effectively function.

If investigations into serious murder become a farce it threatens the security of the public. Throughout civilization one of the major concerns has been about how the murders of persons could be stopped. What has been inbuilt in the laws relating to murder and the investigations are the rules that have been developed over centuries in order to stop people killing each other.

If the rule made to stop people killing each other can no longer be implemented in Sri Lanka, that is a societal crisis of the highest nature. It is, in fact, as bad as can be.

Many look into the absence of an investigation into the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge in a more cynical way, saying that such murders will never be investigated. What the cynics do not realise is that this is not about one man’s death but about social obligation to investigate murder.

Can Sri Lanka remain a stable society if the rules relating to murder are so flagrantly abused? This is a question that needs to be reflected upon on the second anniversary of the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge, who was an opinion-maker in Sri Lanka.

There is some paralysis in the opinion making process in Sri Lanka, perhaps due to fears generated by murders of similar sort that were not investigated. This has led to the opinion-makers themselves remaining silent on great issues that affect society itself, including in terms of rules relating to murder and other serious crimes.

Added to this is the nationalist sentiment that the investigations into this murder may cause political rifts which may be dangerous to the idea of the nation as it stands now. If one murder were to be properly investigated, then what would happen to many others that are not investigated, which may be of those who were terrorists? The fear that a proper investigation into one murder may lead to others seems to lurk very high as a concern of many persons who don’t want such investigations.

Nationalism that does not care about murders of citizens is a serious contradiction in itself. Nationalism is about citizens and their lives. If the lives of the citizens do not matter then how does a nation stand together? The nation is a gathering of individuals. If the death of an individual does not matter then there cannot be a deeper cause for internal divisiveness than that. One individual does not trust that another individual will intervene on his behalf if a catastrophe were to befall him, that they will not defend his right to life. What then is this so-called idea of the nation, a nation that does not care for the lives of the individuals? These are serious questions that arise on this occasion and not to reflect on such issues but merely make some kind of ritual celebration of the second anniversary is itself a farce. If death memorials become a farce, then what else is there in society to create basic societal meanings?

That is the kind of societal crisis that Sri Lanka is facing today. Rule of law is now been reduced to a noon day dream.

Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-003-2011
Countries : Sri Lanka,