The tightening of the Saatakaya | Sunday Observer

The tightening of the Saatakaya

With several loyal officials being placed under arrest or denied bail in local courts while two cousins face imminent legal action in the United States and the United Arab Emirates for financial crimes against the state, these last several days have given the Rajapaksa brothers scant reason for ‘confidence’ in their own future, parliamentary machinations notwithstanding.

The week began with the news of the fugitive Udayanga Weeratunga, a cousin of Mahinda Rajapaksa and his hand-picked Ambassador to Russia, being arrested in Dubai and facing mounting evidence of complicity in the 2006 MiG deal. The news had barely sunk in before the Court of Appeal then threw out a bid by the other Ambassador in the family, Jaliya Wickramasooriya, to hide behind the cover of diplomatic immunity, thus clearing the way for the FBI in Washington DC to charge him with fleecing over $150,000 from the Sri Lankan Treasury as a ‘sales commission’ for the purchase of an embassy building in Washington DC.

Then, the CID, after extensive investigations, sprung out of hiding to arrest the former army colonel responsible for the Avant Garde floating armoury, and two law officers whom they allege had a blood-soaked hand in the 2012 Welikada Prison massacre of 27 inmates. Any doubt as to how far up the ladder the Welikada executions went was dispelled by the desperate phone calls from the highest echelons of the former regime to all quarters of the police and government in search of any clues as to the status of the investigation.

Meanwhile, evidence continues to mount in the CID’s marquee investigation into the January 2009 murder of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, who was bludgeoned to death in broad daylight before dozens of eye witnesses, not a stone’s throw away from a High Security Zone in Ratmalana. Lasantha not only predicted that he would be killed, but he also predicted with precision the outcome of an investigation into his murder.

“In the wake of my death I know you [President Rajapaksa] will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry,” he wrote, addressing the former president in the first person. “But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name.”

Indeed, Lasantha’s prediction could not have been more on the mark. After six years of “sanctimonious noises” and show trials, it was only the renewed investigation by the CID under the Sirisena government that exposed the lengths to which not only the killers but even the police themselves had gone to cover up the brutal murder, doctor medical reports, and destroy what little physical evidence was available.

Thanks to a panel of impartial medical officers who exhumed the body of the slain editor in 2016, we know that the original post-mortem report claiming that Lasantha was shot, was little more than a joke. No evidence of a gunshot was ever presented. No x-rays. No bullet. No shell casing. No gunshot residue. The murder weapon appears to have been a blunt instrument, according to the new medical and detailed medical report. Conveniently, despite the murder happening in morning traffic at a busy intersection, the police in 2009 recorded no more than four – that’s right, four – statements from eye witnesses, not one of whom was able to clearly identify the murder weapon.

With over a dozen former officers of the Mount Lavinia Police now cooperating with the CID, it is clear that the police committed far greater crimes than criminal negligence. Lasantha, a servant to his pen up until his last breath, had written down two motorcycle licence plate numbers on his field notebook, apparently those of his assailants, just before he was killed. According to the confessions of several police officers involved in the tawdry cover up, when police headquarters became aware of these licence plate numbers, orders came down from the top to remove all notes about these bikes, and to make Lasantha’s notebook itself disappear. Now the country waits with baited breath for the CID to discover who gave the order, and why?

Just days after Lasantha was killed, he was slated to make representations in the Mount Lavinia District Court on a defamation case filed against him on the 2006 MiG deal. Notwithstanding the fact that his newspaper settled the case after their editor was slaughtered and ownership changed hands, the FCID investigation into the deal has now revealed that every single thing that The Sunday Leader wrote about the MiG deal was true. Indeed, the core allegations, that a full half of the $14.7 million dollar value of the deal was siphoned off to a tax haven shell company owned by middle men with a fictitious London address, have been confirmed in writing by none other than the governments of Ukraine, the British Virgin Islands and the United Kingdom.

What of the visitor log books that Lasantha alleged would prove Weeratunga’s frequent visits to air force headquarters to lobby for the deal? Those particular log books have gone missing, the FCID was told by the air force. What of the original of the contract for the MiGs itself? Also missing, says the air force. The only other originals of the contract were handed directly to Udayanga Weeratunga himself, they say. The answers will have to wait until Weeratunga’s long overdue return to his motherland, and indeed until the FCID detectives finish tracing the ultimate destination of the MiG loot.

Of the two cousins in the dock, Wickramasooriya is no doubt the more immediate concern to his kin. Legal correspondence between his attorneys that has found its way into the public domain makes clear that the former Sri Lankan Ambassador to Washington DC has a deal on the table from American prosecutors to avoid jail time in exchange for evidence of financial crimes committed by his extended family. Only time will tell whether the genteel Wickramasooriya’s family loyalties will prevail over fears of conviction and sentence in the penitentiaries of the United States, without the luxury of a creative entry into a “prison hospital”.

With this surge of arrests and revelations across the battle lines of the criminal justice system, it would be cynical to neglect that this sudden change of tide has come not three weeks into the tenure of the new Law and Order Minister, Ranjith Medduma Bandara. Those among us who just last month continued to insist that the people’s outcry for justice could only be met by bluster and sabre rattling must find the humility to doff their hats to the self-effacing steward of our Ministry of Law and Order. Within a month of swearing in of his oaths, our investigative agencies have seen their morale spike, while the once-dreaded Saatakaya has begun to bear a striking, unmistakable resemblance to a fast-tightening noose.