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Sri Lanka 18 October 2002

Open letter to the Sri Lankan Prime minister

The Honourable Ranil Wickramesinghe
Prime Minister of the Republic of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka

Paris, 17 October 2002

Honourable Sir,

Exactly two years ago, on 19 October 2000, Sri Lankan journalist Mayilvaganam Nimalarajan was murdered in his Jaffna home . The day after his murder, the country’s highest authority, the President, promised an investigation to establish the motives for the killing and identify the perpetrators. However, Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières) and the Damocles Network, organisations committed to fight impunity for those who kill journalists, are obliged to point out that neither the perpetrators nor the instigators have so far been formally identified, brought to trial or punished..

At your government’s instigation, the police relaunched the investigation which had come to a halt under the preceding government. We welcome this and would like to convey to you, in this open letter, a number of observations and recommendations resulting from a fact-finding mission which we carried out in Sri Lanka in June 2002.

According to information obtained in Colombo and Jaffna, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) made remarkable progress with the investigation from January to September of this year. At least six persons were interrogated and placed in custody on suspicion of involvement in the murder. No suspect admitted direct involvement, but several implicated other persons. Despite the CID’s lack of resources, the investigation had been relaunched as a result of pressure from the Interior Ministry, the Attorney-General and Jaffna magistrate. Reporters Without Borders and the Damocles Network expressed their appreciation for this on several occasions, in particular, at a meeting on 19 June with Interior Minister John Amaratunga during which they asked him to ensure that all leads were pursued. He responded that the government was determined to get to the bottom of this affair.

Nonetheless, two of the suspects, David Michael Collins and one Vishua, were released on bail by the Vavuniya High Court on 11 September. The judgenailed them out and ordered them to pay a bond of 100,000 rupees each in response to a request by the lawyer who represents the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), a Tamil political party opposed to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). We deplore this decision by the judge, which could seriously compromise the outcome of the investigation, especially as the two suspects’ passports were not confiscated for the duration of the enquiry. Furthermore, another suspect known as Napoleon, who was an EPDP paramilitary leader, reportedly already fled the country after the EPDP’s electoral defeat.

Reporters Without Borders has on several occasions denounced the previous government for a lack of will in ensuring the progress of the investigation. As a result of our fact-finding mission to Sri Lanka, we were able to confirm that from October 2000 to January 2002, the work of the police was blocked by the authorities in Colombo and Jaffna, and that several suspects, including Napoleon, were seen moving freely in Jaffna during that period.

The evidence of this is conclusive. Journalists and human rights activists in Colombo told the Reporters Without Borders representatives that President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s public calls for an investigation immediately after the murder were paradoxically seen as a signal to the police and army that the political establishment would rather, or indeed was ordering, that they block the investigation. Thus, four months after the murder, Justice Minister Batti Weerakoon told the BBC that, death in the absence of a police station in Jaffna as a result of the fighting, the government was not in position to conduct an investigation into Nimalarajan’s.

The pressure also came from Jaffna, where the EPDP criticised Nimalarajan and his supposed links with the LTTE and opposed any progress in the investigation. "Once the EPDP had succeeded in convincing the police and army that Nimalarajan was close to the LTTE, it is hard to imagine their spending an ounce of energy on trying to find out who had killed one of their enemies," one Jaffna journalist told us.

The fact-finding mission also tried to get a better idea of the motives for the murder. We concluded that it was linked to Nimalarajan’s independent coverage of the situation in the Jaffna peninsula for several Sri Lankan news media (especially the daily Virakesari and the weekly Ravaya) and for the BBC’s Sinhala-language service. Those close to Nimalarajan have never really doubted that armed members of the EPDP killed him because of his reporting.

Testimonies gathered during this mission enables us to state with confidence that Nimalarajan received threats from the EPDP and the security forces, which worked together closely at that time. Although the EPDP’s spokesman in Jaffna insisted that his party had "nothing to do with this murder" and that this was just LTTE propaganda, Nimalarajan’s family members said he regularly received telephone threats, especially from the EPDP.

Two months before his murder, Nimalarajan’s wife received an anonymous phone call telling her that her husband’s body was at the morgue. She was in a state of shock when her husband arrived home a few minutes later. The president of the Northern Journalists Association confirmed the existence of those threats to us: "A week before his death, Nimalarajan came to see me and told me he had received a death threat. He had just reported that a ballot box in a polling station in the town of Palay had been stuffed with EPDP ballots. This report was carried by the BBC and many newspapers."

Finally, two weeks before the October 2000 elections, the army accused Nimalarajan of having tried to pass an envelope containing photographs of all the Jaffna candidates to the Tamil Tigers. In fact, Nimalarajan had taken these photographs at the request of Jayasiri Jayasekera, editor of Ravaya, one of the newspapers he reported for. He had dispatched them using another journalist as intermediary and the envelope was intercepted by the security forces. Members of the police and army went to his home to question him about the envelope and he was again interrogated by members of the army about this matter a few hours before his death. Family members urged him at the time to leave home and depart from Jaffna altogether, but he refused.

We are aware that the investigation has been held back by a lack of material evidence. Nonetheless, finger prints were left on a bicycle found near the scene of the murder that was probably used by the perpetrators. Also, 9 mm handgun bullet casings and the remains of an assault grenade were found at the scene. The bicycle is without a doubt the best lead. It belonged to Kandasamy Jegadeeshwaran, also known as Jegan, a former EPDP member who had left the movement before the murder. He told the police he had given his bicycle to the EPDP. It was thereafter reportedly used by EPDP members at the party’s headquarters in Jaffna. Prints taken from the bicycle’s frame should  have been compared with those of the suspects but no findings have so far been made. Similarly, a ballistic analysis of the casings found at the murder scene and a pistol taken from EPDP headquarters by the CID has not yet been sent to the Jaffna magistrate.

We urge you to intervene with the relevant authorities to ensure that the fingerprint and ballistic reports are completed as soon as possible and given to the Jaffna magistrate. If you think it could be useful, our organisations stand ready to provide the Sri Lanka police and judicial authorities with the help of international experts, in particular experts in ballistics and judicial identification.

The fact-finding mission also established that the police never really considered the complicity Nimalarajan’s murderers may have enjoyed within the security forces. It is true that there is no evidence of direct army involvement in preparing the murder. But Nimalarajan lived in a high-security zone strictly controlled by the army. Its residents needed official authorisations to move about and all visitors had to obtain a pass from the military authorities. Furthermore, dozens of military personnel were posted within a 400-metre radius of Nimalarajan’s home.

We were able to establish that there was one path that did not have any checkpoint, and the murderers could have used this route to get away. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that they were able to approach his home on bicycle, crossing part of the town during curfew, without being seen by army personnel. According to journalists in Jaffna, patrols systematically checked individuals moving about at night. EPDP members, especially those who belonged to the paramilitary forces, had special authorisations for night-time movement.

Defence Secretary Austin Fernando assured the mission that the army would cooperate fully with the CID investigation. However, the police have not yet taken the initiative of reinterrogating military personnel on duty on the night of the murder.

(JPEG) The investigators have furthermore never questioned those who might have been behind the murder. The name of EPDP leader Douglas Devananda, Minister of Rehabilitation of the North and Tamil Affairs in the previous government, was mentioned to the mission by several persons close to Nimalarajan. Mr Devananda has had to defend himself from media suggestions that he might have been behind the killing. In a counter-attack in November 2002, he suggested that Nimalarajan was close to the Tamil Tigers. The police told the mission that Mr Devananda would be summoned for questioning, if necessary, but this has not yet happened. Although still an MP in the new parliament, Mr Devananda does not enjoy any immunity.

As you know, Sri Lankan journalists pay a high price for exercising their profession. At least 31 journalists have been killed since 1988. In most of these cases, the murderers were never arrested and brought to trial.

You have often affirmed your support for press freedom, together with that of your government. Reporters Without Borders has been pleased to see that promoting press freedom has become a priority for your government. Within six months, the authorities have abolished an old repressive law under which journalists ran the risk of imprisonment for defamation. Furthermore, two military personnel were sentenced to long prison terms for staging a mock execution of a well-known journalist. Lastly, all restrictions on media access to the North and East of the country, including zones held by the Tamil Tigers, have been lifted. We now hope your government will espouse the fight against impunity as part of the peace process.

Two years to the day after Nimalarajan’s murder, we urge you to make all the necessary resources available so that the police can conclude their investigation. We also ask you to ensure that R. T. Vignarajah, the magistrate in charge of the case in Jaffna, is able to conduct an independent judicial investigation. In particular, it seems to us that suspects should be prevented from leaving the Sri Lankan territory. Finally, we ask you to keep us informed of  the progress of the investigation.

Yours faithfully,

Robert Ménard
General Secretary

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