In the evening of 7 September 1999, Rohana Kumara, Editor of Satana ("Battle"), a Sinhalese-language weekly newspaper, was murdered while going in a trishaw (three wheeler taxi) within 50 metres of his home in a suburb of Colombo. The murderer shot him at point-blank range with a 9mm handgun. To date, this crime remains unpunished. The State has committed large sums of money to protect the obviously high-ranking officials who ordered this crime to be committed and to prevent them from being identified. Certain witnesses and suspects have also been eliminated.
Reporters without Borders initiated an inquiry in an attempt to shed light on the motives behind this murder and several other serious attacks made against some Sri Lankan journalists. The organisation is now in a position to assert that members of, or individuals with close ties to, the Presidential Security Division, are implicated in these crimes.
The organisation is asking the members of Parliament chosen in the upcoming elections of 2 April to form an investigative committee to look into the murder of Rohana Kumara and the other attacks mentioned in this report. Should a parliamentary commission of inquiry prove that PSD officers are implicated in these crimes, the perpetrators-whomever they may be-must be tried and punished.
Before being murdered on 7 September 1999, Satana’s Editor had already received several death threats. He had been regularly publishing what some deemed to be harsh, and often sensationalistic, criticisms of the government and of President Chandrika Kumaratunga. But his widow, Gayani Pavithra, contends that "he had reliable sources to back up what he wrote." She told to Reporters without Borders that the opposition leader at the time, Ranil Wickremesinghe, as well as another statesman, Rajitha Senaratne, had sent certain documents to her husband. "Because of the high-ranking status of those individuals, my husband had never hesitated to publish them in Satana," she added.
A journalist is threatened for what he revealed
Both before and during the 1999 electoral campaign, Satana had accused President Chandrika Kumaratunga of corruption, along with some members of her entourage-namely, her Media Advisor, film actor Sanath Gunathilaka. A few hours after her husband’s murder, the journalist’s widow had designated the head of state’s advisor as being the person who ordered the homicide.
Gayani Pavithra stands firmly behind her accusations: "I believe that Sanath Gunathilaka is implicated in the murder because Satana had uncovered a bribery-related scandal in which he was involved. Sanath was trying to obtain broadcasting rights on behalf of the foreign television network, Channel 9. Some opposition leaders had given my husband documents proving that the President’s advisor had pocketed a very substantial commission." After divulging this information in his newspaper, Rohana Kumara had made an audio cassette recording entitled "Komi-Sana"-a play on the words Komi ("commission") and Sana (referring to Sanath Gunathilaka) that had been broadcast in 1999, with some success, at certain meetings of the opposition’s United National Party (UNP).
Satana had also published information implicating the President in some paybacks linked to the privatisation of the state-owned railroad company. The weekly had moreover revealed the existence of influence-peddling during Emirates Airlines’ buy-out of Sri Lanka’s national airline. The article had specifically mentioned former defence secretary Chandarananda de Silva, a man with close ties to the President.
In 1999, Rohana Kumara was a staunch supporter of the main opposition party-the UNP-and made no attempt to hide it. However, prior to the 1994 elections, he had vigorously attacked the UNP in the Threeshula and Thoppiya newspapers. According to some of his colleagues in Colombo, Rohana Kumara practiced a vitriolic form of journalism bordering on invective. But to his credit, he brought many incidents of corruption and collusion before the public eye.
After the murder of Satana’s Editor, Rajitha Senaratne, a UNP leader, alerted the police and helped to plan the funeral. Ranil Wickremesinghe, who headed the UNP, attended the services to present his condolences to the journalist’s widow. The opposition party, which would win the 2001 elections, issued a press release, stating: "Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government must be held responsible for this murder." At the time, the journalist’s widow had publicly confirmed those accusations, notably through the Sinhala language service of the BBC. She recalls her husband’s advice: "He would tell me that if anything were to happen to him, Sanath Gunathilaka should be held accountable for it. I had personally received phone calls from people asking me to tell my husband to stop printing those accusations. But he was so sure that he could prove it, he kept on doing it."
His widow receives death threats
At the very moment that the widow was filing her complaint citing the name Gunathilaka, Rohana Kumara’s mother was appearing on the country’s state-controlled television channel, claiming that the murderer was one of her son’s colleagues. According to her version-reprinted in the state-owned press-this affair was nothing more than a sex scandal with a tragic ending.
But several pieces of information provided notably by Victor Ivan, Editor of the weekly Ravaya, prove that the statement made by the journalist’s mother was merely the first phase of an extensive cover-up orchestrated at the highest level of government. In fact, the victim’s mother is said to have received a large sum of money to present this version of the facts to the media. Media Minister at that time Mangala Samaraweera with the help of a female journalist from the state owned Lake House newspaper group is said to have personally intervened to persuade her to go on the air.
Police questioned Sanath Gunathilaka, whose name is cited in the complaint lodged by the journalist’s wife, but the Department of the Attorney General concluded that there was no legitimate reason to charge him.
A few days after the murder, the Satana offices were broken into and several documents were stolen. The police have been unable to identify the burglars.
His widow has received personal threats: "I’ve had dozens of phone calls from people asking me to drop the case. I was even summoned by the Prime Minister’s office but I didn’t go (...) Then I was told that I would be killed if I ever published Rohana’s articles. I filed a complaint after getting those threats, but the policemen never registered it."
The anonymous testimony of a Sri Lankan journalist who works for an international media group substantiates those threats: "Sanath Gunathilaka paid a large sum of money to Charitha Dissanayake who, at the time, was news editor of the state-owned Lakhanda radio station, to convince the widow to keep her mouth shut." Two PSD vehicles accompanied the editor-in-chief when he went to deliver the money to the widow. Charitha Dissanayake, who now lives in Australia, was very reluctant to discuss this matter when journalist Victor Ivan asked him questions about it.
Presidential Security Division implicated
The inquiries initiated by Victor Ivan and Reporters without Borders lead to the Presidential Security Division. The PSD, composed of elite police officers whose task is to safeguard the head of state, rapidly expanded under Chandrika Kumaratunga’s presidency. Directed by Senior Superintendent of Police Nihal Karunaratne, this unit has considerable financial resources at its disposal. Victor Ivan has shown that the PSD regularly employs delinquents to do its dirty work.
In this instance, Amarasinghe Dhananjaya Perera, better known as Baddegana Sanjeewa, allegedly murdered Rohana Kumara. First, he broke into the journalist’s office intending to kill him but had found him absent. A few days later, he followed Rohana Kumara and ambushed him on his way home from his office. He shot him at point-blank range.
Baddegana Sanjeewa, leader of a criminal group in Colombo, was also under surveillance by men hired by Ashoka Perera, another Colombo gangster, also known as Pamankada Ashoka. The men had seen Sanjeewa going towards the road where Rohana was assassinated and they had heard gunshots. The latter wanted to eliminate Baddegana Sanjeewa so that he could take control of Sanjeewa’s territory in the capital.
Arrested for his role in six murders committed in June 1999, Ashoka Perera had admitted to police that Baddegana Sanjeewa was involved in the journalist’s murder. He had maintained that he was prepared to testify before a judge. But he was killed in a bomb attack on 5 July 2000 while at the Gangodawila courthouse, in the Colombo district. A remote-controlled bomb had been placed in the ceiling of the room he was in at the time.
Despite all of the charges made against Baddegana Sanjeewa, investigators have never questioned him.
Doctoring of the official version
On 28 June 2000 Bandula Show Wickremasinghe, Director of the Crime Detection Bureau (CDB), announced that Rohana Kumara’s killer had been arrested. Ajith Kulatunga, also known as Tarawatte Ajith, was shown on state television channels. The suspect admitted that he had killed the journalist with the help of two accomplices, Nimal Kalingawansha and Moratu Saman alias Moratu Saman (both of whom had also been arrested), while acting under the orders of a man named Prasanna Jayawardhana. The latter supposedly had a personal score to settle with Satana’s Editor. The state-controlled media-particularly television-gave these confessions full coverage. However, the jumbled and contradictory explanations provided by the Director of the CDB regarding the circumstances of the suspect’s arrest were never broadcast. He ultimately proved unable to say whether the person who ordered the killing had been taken into custody and questioned.
Several Colombo journalists had reservations at the time about the way in which the inquiry was being conducted. It was only after it had come to a standstill that the police came up with a murderer and some motives. Victor Ivan and two officials of the Free Media Movement (FMM), a press freedom organisation, recall going to see Bandula Wickremasinghe of the CDB to ask him why the suspect had appeared before TV cameras rather than before a judge. The police officer did not seem to know what to answer. But Ajith Kulatunga was released on bail after three months in custody, allowing him to flee to Europe, where he currently resides.
A murdered murderer
Several suspects in Rohana Kumara’s murder-some of whom worked directly for the PSD-have since died under shady circumstances.
Baddegana Sanjeewa is without question the central figure in this case. Formerly a bodyguard for Chandrika Kumaratunga when she was the chief minister of the Western Province, he joined the PSD after she became the President in 1994. A ruthless man with close ties to Colombo’s mafia circles, he soon became the PSD’s designated "dirty job" expert. Several testimonies obtained by Victor Ivan and Reporters without Borders describe him as being directly responsible for murdering the journalist, as well as a vocal Tamil lawyer Kumar Ponnampalam, and for assaulting several other information professionals. But he cannot speak up or be sentenced, because he, too, was murdered on 2 November 2001. The police found his body, riddled with six bullet holes. A PSD identification card was in one of his pockets. The PSD had dismissed him a few weeks prior to his murder. According to several sources, this provided a way for some Presidential Security Division’s elite officers to save face.
Victims of several other assaults and murder attempts recognised Baddegana Sanjeewa and several journalists knew of his affiliation with the PSD. In particular, Baddegana Sanjeewa had been involved in the attack on musician Rookantha Gunathilaka and his wife, singer Chandralekha Perera. The latter had identified him.
He is also thought to have participated in several PSD-ordered assaults, notably in June 1998, when intruders armed with machine-guns attacked the home of Lasantha Wickramatunga, Editor of The Sunday Leader weekly, and a smoke bomb was thrown into the Ravaya weekly’s office in Colombo. Actress Anoja Weerasinghe, yet another PSD victim, stated to Victor Ivan that the inquiry into her assault had been blocked by S.B. Dissanayaka, the Sports Minister of Chandrika Kumaratunga’s regime, who crossed over to the UNP camp in the 2001 elections. After being informed of the suspicious activities of these PSD elements, S.B. Dissanayaka allegedly used his influence to stall the investigation.
In December 2001, The Sunday Leader weekly published two articles implicating the PSD and President Chandrika Kumaratunga. "This is completely false and fabricated information," she claimed in a letter to the Inspector General of the state police, whom she advised to initiate an "impartial investigation."
Several witnesses assert that Baddegana Sanjeewa was about to publicly denounce the PSD’s unlawful practices, which was why he was eliminated. The PSD agent responsible for killing him, Dhammika Amarasinghe, was himself murdered in January 2004, inside the Magistrate’s Courts of Colombo, by an Army deserter Sirivardanage Camindakumara. Brought in for questioning by police, he was to serve as a witness in several cases implicating the President’s security services.
What is the status of the investigation?
Day after day, the police keep postponing the end of the inquiry. When questioned by court, the investigators claim that they are still working on it, but the suspect designated by the police themselves has managed to find asylum in Europe. It is not even known whether the Sri Lankan authorities have contacted Interpol, asking them to issue an international arrest warrant.
According to several journalists interviewed by Reporters without Borders, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government has made no attempt since 2001 to further the investigation because it might implicate prominent officials, one of them being S.B. Dissanayaka-who became a UNP ally following the 2001 election victory and joined the government.
These two former supporters of Chandrika Kumaratunga, who have now changed sides, always seem to be sufficiently protected to avoid being legally prosecuted for their crimes.
A surprising development arose in this case in July 2003, when Minister of Fisheries Mahinda Wijeskera publicly announced that, while Chandrika Kumaratunga’s government was in power, he had been a member of a group who planned journalist murders on three different occasions, including that of Rohana Kumara. The Minister also stated that he wanted to "lock up Lasantha Wickramatunga [Editor of The Sunday Leader weekly] in a room and have him shot or stabbed." This terrifying admission compelled Reporters without Borders, in July 2003, to call for an inquiry into these activities.
Moreover, some of President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s close associates, notably Sanath Gunathilaka, have never been formally questioned by the police. Yet in January 2002 the police, acting under the orders of the UNP government, announced that a former deputy minister, a member of Parliament and a presidential advisor should be interrogated in conjunction with the inquiry into the murder of Satana’s Editor.
Reporters without Borders urges those candidates who are elected members of parliament in the forthcoming election to give this case the attention it deserves. They could put an end to this vicious cycle of violence and impunity by calling on the government to expedite the investigation and bring the perpetrators of Rohana Kumara’s murder to justice. The organisation also calls for a review of the PSD that has been shown to serve as a state apparatus for silencing dissident voices.
In view of all of the evidence gathered during this inquiry, the organisation vigorously denounces the wrongdoings committed by the Presidential Security Division’s men, backed by the very person whom they are commissioned to protect: President Chandrika Kumaratunga.