Escalating Attacks on Journalists in Sri Lanka Demand New Tack from Human Rights Council

(Editor’s Note: This is the latest in a series on the likely spotlight to be placed on allegations of war crimes and other abuses in Sri Lanka during the next session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, beginning Feb. 22. The series includes voices from former U.N. officials, international NGOs, human rights litigators, and researchers. The full list will appear, as installments are published, at the end of the first article, Spotlight on Sri Lanka as UN Human Rights Council Prepares Next Session.) 

On Jan. 8 this year, the 12th anniversary of her father’s death, Ahimsa Wickrematunge could not join those paying respect at his grave in Sri Lanka. With her family now living in exile, she marked the occasion with another step in her fight for justice for her father’s murder, seeking to hold Sri Lanka accountable through the United Nations.

Her father was renowned journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge. He was murdered on Jan. 8, 2009 on the streets of Sri Lanka’s capital by a military death squad after publishing reports critical of the government and exposing corruption. But the alleged perpetrators not only remain free; they are back in power. One of them is Gotabaya Rajapaksa – the former secretary of defense implicated in Lasantha’s assassination – who was elected president in 2019.

Rajapaksa accomplished his return to power despite evidence linking the military death squad under his command to Lasantha’s killing and other high-profile attacks against journalists, and despite multiple United Nations Human Rights Council resolutions and reports calling for accountability and promises by the government of Sri Lanka to take action.

The impunity for these abuses has opened the way to a new wave of attacks against journalists.  Given the futility of domestic accountability in Sri Lanka, human rights groups have joined the U.N. high commissioner for human rights in urging the international community to take action to prevent future violations.

Unfortunately, Lasantha’s brazen assassination and the government’s repeated efforts to block justice are not aberrations in Sri Lanka. As documented in a recent report by our organization, the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), that was prepared with support from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the Sri Lankan government authored a systematic and deadly campaign to silence critics and repress freedom of expression, and has methodically tried to cover its tracks. (CJA, along with Debevoise and Plimpton, also represents Ahimsa Wickrematunge in her litigation against Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the United States and her action before the United Nations.)

Previous Bout of Attacks on Journalists During War

Attacks on journalists in Sri Lanka escalated during the first Rajapaksa presidency from 2005 to 2015 under Gotabaya’s brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa. In the final years of the decades-long civil war, which ended in 2009, the government cracked down on journalists critical of the war effort and the corruption of the administration. Dozens of journalists were victims of this campaign, including Lasantha Wickrematunge (murdered), Keith Noyahr (abducted and tortured), Upali Tennakoon (assaulted), and Prageeth Eknaligoda (disappeared).

Each of these four emblematic cases have been traced back to the Tripoli Platoon, an elite unit commanded by then-Secretary of Defense Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In addition, Rajapaksa oversaw the “white van commando,” a team of special operatives that used white vans to kidnap and murder journalists. At least 14 journalists disappeared in this manner.

In addition to perpetrating violent assaults against journalists, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration systematically obstructed investigations into these attacks in a clear effort to cover up its responsibility. Police investigators and government officials falsified and concealed evidence, threatened witnesses, transferred cases to units partial to the government, and continually postponed judicial hearings. During this period, Sri Lanka was ranked amongst CPJ’s top 10 countries with the highest rates of impunity for killings of journalists.

Although 2015 brought a change of administration under President Maithripala Sirisena and initial commitments through Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 to pursue accountability, improve human rights, and promote the rule of law, Sri Lanka has since reverted on any progress made during that period. In his last year in office, Sirisena reinstated individuals implicated in serious human rights violations, including the former leader of the Tripoli Platoon responsible for the attacks on Wickrematunge, Noyahr, Tennakoon, and Eknaligoda.

New and Escalating Attacks

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election to the presidency in 2019 further dimmed the outlook for free press in Sri Lanka. Since assuming office, his administration has targeted critics and further undermined the already limited efforts to seek accountability. Journalists increasingly have been interrogated, beaten, subjected to unlawful raids, and forced to choose between exile and self-censorship. Inspectors investigating attacks on journalists have been arrested, and forced to flee the country. Witnesses to attacks on journalists have been intimidated, and state surveillance of journalists has increased.

At the same time, the former leader of the Tripoli Platoon has been promoted, and other military officials implicated in war crimes have been reinstated to positions of command, including Lieutenant-General Shavendra Silva, who is subject to U.S. sanctions for “gross violations of human rights.” Silva was also appointed to lead Sri Lanka’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which includes employing emergency powers to arrest critics of the government’s pandemic response and further curtail freedom of expression.

Rather than taking action to protect free expression, the Rajapaksa administration has instead attempted to enact measures to legitimize its attacks on the press. In February 2020, Sri Lanka withdrew from Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 and its commitments to promote accountability, claiming the country would pursue peace and reconciliation domestically. But instead of investigating or prosecuting human rights violations, Gotabaya Rajapaksa established a Presidential Commission of Inquiry to investigate alleged “political victimization” of public officials, police, and armed forces members named as perpetrators of human rights violations. The Commission has intervened in and undermined investigations into Wickrematunge’s murder, Eknaligoda’s disappearance, and other human rights abuses.

And per a leaked copy of its final report, the commission will recommend the exoneration of every individual accused in emblematic human rights cases highlighted by the U.N., including those responsible for the attacks against journalists. The commission’s report also recommends compensating and promoting the accused and prosecuting the investigators and officials who named them responsible.

Pursuing Accountability for Her Father’s Killing

The Sri Lankan commission’s recommendations are the latest and clearest sign – after a decade of ever-clearer deterioration – that Sri Lanka will not pursue accountability for attacks on journalists and other human rights violations. Fed up with Sri Lanka’s false promises of action and the dashed expectations of UN resolutions, Ahimsa sought accountability against Gotabaya Rajapaksa – then a U.S. citizen and civilian—in the U.S. through the Alien Tort Statute and Torture Victim Protection Act. See Just Security’s coverage of this case here.  However, the case was following Rajapaksa’s election as president and accompanying head of state immunity.

With no hope of domestic accountability or justice through universal jurisdiction, Ahimsa marked this year’s anniversary of her father’s death by filing a complaint against the government of Sri Lanka with the U.N. Human Rights Committee, a panel of independent experts that monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The complaint seeks to hold the Sri Lankan government accountable for both its role in orchestrating and executing her father’s death, and for its repeated and deliberate attempts to impede investigations.

Today, Sri Lanka faces a critical juncture. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet concluded in her most recent report on Sri Lanka, “[t]he decade-long lack of progress and the insurmountable barriers for victims to access justice in emblematic cases [such as Wickrematunge’s and Eknaligoda’s] indicate the inability and unwillingness of the State to prosecute and punish perpetrators of crimes when State agents are the alleged perpetrators.” Sri Lanka is exhibiting “clear early warning signs of a deteriorating human rights situation and a significantly heightened risk of future violations,” she reported. Further, the cost of inaction will be “repeated patterns of human rights violation and potential conflict in the future.”

But there is an alternative. the Human Rights Council, set to convene later this month and again consider Sri Lanka, can heed the high commissioner’s warnings and take action to protect freedom of expression and promote accountability in Sri Lanka.

As Bachelet urges, it is time for strong international action to ensure justice for these crimes. States should explore targeted sanctions, asset freezes, and travel bans, as well as a new Human Rights Council resolution that provides for enhanced monitoring of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, the creation of an independent mechanism to collect and preserve evidence to support future accountability processes, and prioritized support to civil society initiatives aimed at supporting victims and their families. Such international action represents some of the last hope of survivors to combat Sri Lanka’s entrenched impunity and signal to the Rajapaksa regime that, despite its efforts to quash independent reporting, the world is still watching.

(Authors’ note: With thanks to the Committee to Protect Journalists for their contribution to this post. Nushin Sarkarati represents Ahimsa Wickrematunge in CJA’s case against Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the U.S. under the Alien Tort Statute and Torture Victim Protection Act, and filed the individual communication before the U.N. Human Rights Committee along with pro-bono co-counsel at Debevoise and Plimpton.) 

IMAGE: Journalists and well-wishers light candles on the grave of slain anti-establishment editor Lasantha Wickrematunge on the 12th anniversary of his death, in Colombo on January 8, 2021. (Photo by LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Elise Baker

Elise Baker (@elise__baker) is a legal fellow at the Center for Justice and Accountability.

Nushin Sarkarati

Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Justice and Accountability - Follow her on Twitter (@NushinSarkarati).