This week marks the 15th anniversary of the brutal assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge, one of Sri Lanka’s most prominent independent wartime journalists and the editor of The Sunday Leader. The government had targeted Lasantha since 2006 following a series of articles he wrote investigating official corruption by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, then Sri Lanka’s secretary of defense. In the weeks before his death, Lasantha grew concerned enough to write an editorial for the Leader, later published as a “Letter from the Grave”: “When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.” Tragically, Lasantha’s fears came true when masked assailants killed him as he drove to work on Jan. 8, 2009.
Since then, we – Lasantha’s daughter and her lawyer – and the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), a nonprofit advocacy organization, have worked to seek redress for Lasantha’s killing and to shed light on the profound failure of accountability for such crimes against independent journalists in Sri Lanka. That work continues and demands renewed international attention.
Like other journalists, Lasantha was targeted for his fierce independent reporting focused on wartime corruption and impunity, and he was frequently subjected to threats and intimidation. Evidence – including conclusive forensic evidencesuch as cell-tower data – has shown that in January 2009, in the final months of Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war, intelligence officers in Rajapaksa’s ministry murdered Lasantha in broad daylight. This cold-blooded killing sentshockwaves across Sri Lanka and served its purpose of chilling free expression and stymieing accountability for those in power. Tragically, the intimidation continues, with government forces attacking at least seven other journalists.
The government of Sri Lanka has undertaken no meaningful investigation into Lasantha’s murder. This is perhaps unsurprising given the longstanding and notorious culture of impunity in Sri Lanka, and that Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s brother, Mahinda, served as president for six years following Lasantha’s death. Making the push for accountability even more difficult, Gotabaya himself served as president from 2019 to 2022 despite widespread evidence of his complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In light of the obstacles in Sri Lanka, we and CJA have sought justice in international forums. In 2019, we filed a civil lawsuit in federal court in California – where Gotabaya had fled after the civil war before returning to Sri Lanka to become president – under the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victims Protection Act, federal laws that allow for civil suits in U.S. courts to remedy certain human rights violations. Unfortunately, the case could not proceed after he became entitled to absolute immunity as Sri Lanka’s head of state later that year. Our complaint before the U.N. Human Rights Committee for Sri Lanka’s failure to investigate or prosecute the assassination remains pending.
Fifteen years later, we know that Lasantha’s murder is far from an isolated incident. It formed part of a violent campaignof intimidation, abductions, and even killings to silence and suppress independent journalists amid Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war. The international community has spoken forcefully about those abuses and the urgent need for accountability. In 2021, the U.N. Human Rights Council adopted a landmark resolution expressing “serious concern” about “ongoing impunity and political obstruction of accountability for crimes and human rights violations” in Sri Lanka, and urging the government to live up to its obligations under international and domestic law. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, followed up on that message last September, noting that, 14 years since the end of the civil war, “tens of thousands of victims and their families in Sri Lanka still seek truth and justice.”
Lasantha’s murder, and the government’s failure to meaningfully investigate it, is a potent illustration of the importance and necessity of holding the perpetrators of crimes against journalists to account. The government of Sri Lanka cannot be allowed to suppress the kind of critical reporting that Lasantha’s work represented, thus creating a vicious cycle of impunity. Renewed international attention to Lasantha’s case is critical not only to obtaining justice for him and his family, but in helping to protect brave journalists who, against all odds, are taking steps to promote and ensure the legitimacy of free press in Sri Lanka.