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Feet-dragging over Lasantha's grave

Police Spokesman admits failure to arrest suspects :

It has been seven years since the founding editor of the Sunday Leader Lasantha Wickrematunge was brutally murdered on January 8, 2009. One of the staunchest critics of the then Mahinda Rajapaksa Government, he was killed while on his way to work, inside a high security zone in the Ratmalana area, a Colombo suburb, just minutes away from his office.

But after six long years of investigations, police have been unable to locate any definite clues as to who was behind the heinous crime. Even the magisterial process at the Mount Lavinia courts is proceeding without any suspects.

However, rumours as to 'who-done-it' have been plenty.

No arrests

Police Media Spokesperson ASP Ruwan Gunasekera admitted that police have been unable to arrest any suspects connected with the crime. But in the same breath said that investigations would not be suspended and will proceed using available evidence.

What is clear however is that the investigation is at a virtually standstill right now. The murder that gained international notoriety for the then Mahinda Rajapaksa Government was for some time handled by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID).

There have been persistent rumours that a high ranker within the military was responsible for the murder. However, investigators say they are yet to uncover any evidence indicating such a link.

Soon after the new Maithripala Sirisena Government took office in January 2015, controversial ex-MP Mervyn Silva made a statement in which he claimed that former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was linked to the murder and many other such attacks during Rajapaksa's tenure. When contacted, Silva this week however declined to comment any further on what he told the CID.

Following Silva's statement, Wickrematunge's brother Lal Wickrematunge also recorded a statement with the CID.

"I expect that my statement will be compared to that given by ex-minister Silva and investigations will proceed at a satisfactory level," Lal Wickrematunge said in March 2015, soon after his meeting with the CID.

Nine months later, that does not seem to have taken place.

"The former government did not carry out any effective investigations into the attacks against the media. Few weeks after the January 8 elections last year, I met President Sirisena as a representative of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association (SLWJA) and I requested to make these investigations much more efficient.

That has sadly not happened," said journalist and media activist, Lasantha Ruhunege.

However investigations initiated during the Rajapaksa administration seemed to have yielded the best clues. Police say that these investigations had gone as far as available evidence affords them to proceed. The investigations were at a standstill because there was no line of new evidence.

The initial investigations by the CID began under the direct supervision of the then Inspector General of Police (IGP). The focus had been on how the prominent journalist was killed.

"Initial investigations looked into the modus operandi - how the murder was carried out. There were no spent shells or bullets recovered from the murder scene or embedded in the victim's body. The conclusion was that he was killed by assaulting him with something like a bayonet," an officer connected with the investigation said.

Shifting focus

Then the attention shifted to mobile phone communications. Police searched for Lasantha's phone but did not recover it from the victim's possessions as it had been stolen. Police did recover the phone and a suspect was in remand prison for over a year for having the phone in his possession.

But he was later released as it was clear that he had no connection to the murder.

Then, police zoomed in on mobile communications along the route that Lasantha Wickrematunge took. Here, attention focused on five phones that seemed to be on persons who were following Lasantha from the time he left home. Investigators were able to access tracking data and found that the phones kept moving along the same route that the slain editor took on that fateful day.

All five SIM's had been bought under the name of one person, P Jesudasan. He was a man who worked at a garage in Nuwera Eliya. His arrest thus far remains the main and only worthwhile breakthrough in the investigation.

Jesudasan had revealed that military intelligence personnel frequented the garage he worked at. He also told that he lost his ID card while drinking with some acquaintances including some connected to the military. He also said that he had reported its loss to police.

But investigations hit a snag when the suspect died of a heart attack while in prison. Jesudasan was 40 years when he died on 13 October 2012 due to what was deemed as a blood clot in the brain, according to medical reports. His family initially questioned the death but has not pursued charges.

A military intelligence officer who was taken into custody based on Jesudasan's evidence was also later released.

Investigations were also stalled because whoever used the SIM cards had inserted them in to brand new phones, and were active only for the duration of 8 January 2009 and were used only to communicate among users of the five other phones.

There were no other calls originated from or to any other phones from those five telephones.

As time went by, officers who were involved in the investigation were assigned other investigations or to other positions, further delaying progress.

New inquiry

When President Sirisena revitalised the investigations in 2015, the new case officers had to seek out those who had handled it in the past to gain information. Among those interviewed by the new case officers include former IGP Jayantha Wickremaratna. Officers have also been looking into how log books where numbers of the vehicles that followed Lasantha had been mysteriously lost.

Others who were interviewed included DIG Prasnna Nanayakkara, SSP Hemantha Adikari and former OIC of Mount Lavinia, Mahesh Perera.

Despite the lack of evidence, police say that the murder was well directed and coordinated.

Cabinet Spokesperson, Dr. Rajitha Senaratne said that investigations will not be halted under any circumstances.

"The Media Ministry has requested the police to continue the investigations.

There is no need to stop the investigations into the attacks on media, but there is pressure to do that from extremist groups. But we will not do that."

Despite the words of commitment by the Cabinet Spokesperson, scepticism remains high that the investigation is as good as being halted.

Even those who supported Sirisena at the last election seem to doubt that any further headway would be made.

"It is hard to believe that the investigations into Lasantha's murder would be carried out effectively. In countries like Sri Lanka, those in power are rarely prosecuted even after they leave office," Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, the former chairman of the Federation of University Teachers Associations, which was one of the leading civic groups that supported Sirisena's candidacy, said.

Police spokesperson Gunasekera however echoed Senaratne's words and said that investigations will continue.

"I am not in a position to divulge how the CID will proceed. But there will be no slowdown."

But journalist and media activist Ruhunege is not convinced. "Progress has been agonizingly slow, only dramatic change in that mode would make me change my mind."

The production of this article was supported by Rights Now for Democracy and Internews Network

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