Sonali Samarasinghe: A widow on the run

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Her husband predicted the authorities would murder him. Now in hiding, she is on a mission to bring justice to Sri Lanka. Andrew Buncombe reports
Monday, February 9th, 2009
Sonali and Malik's Hand
There had been previous incidents, threats and warnings scrawled in red paint. And on that very morning, when they had driven before work to the chemist's shop, two sinister-looking men on a large black motorbike raced past their car. Lasantha Wickrematunga, a newspaper editor, and his wife, Sonali Samarasinghe, were convinced they were being tailed.

Back in their home, Mrs Wickrematunga, who is also a journalist, pleaded with her husband to stay at home. But it was a Thursday – a vital production day at her husband's Sunday newspaper – and he had to go. "See you in the office," she said as he left. Thirty minutes later she received a phone call telling her he had been fatally shot as he made his way to the office on the outskirts of Colombo. She rushed to the hospital and found her husband on a trolley, blood seeping from his mouth and ears. Doctors struggled to save him, but there was nothing they could do.

Mrs Wickrematunga has been forced to go into hiding through fears for her safety. But in the first interview she has given since her husband's assassination last month sparked outrage across Sri Lanka and around the world, she told The Independent: "I don't feel anger, truly. I feel grief, I feel despair.

"But I know that there is only one mission for me. I have to take forward what he was fighting for. His death cannot have been in vain."

Lasantha Wickrematunga edited The Sunday Leader, a newspaper that had persistently highlighted the civilian toll of President Mahinda Rajapaksa's military campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatist guerrillas. The newspaper has also campaigned on other human rights issues, highlighting the soaring number of attacks on journalists in Sri Lanka since the President took office in late 2005. Sonali, Mr Wickrematunga's second wife – they had been married just two months, though they had been a couple for several years – is editor-in-chief of The Morning Leader. In the aftermath of Mr Wickrematunga's death, his newspaper published a remarkable editorial written by him perhaps just days earlier: he said that if he were ever to be murdered the finger of blame should be pointed at the government. His wife agrees with that assessment and believes the authorities are involved in a cover-up. Even now she has yet to be handed the results of her husband's post-mortem examination.

"There is a phrase cui bono? – who benefits?" she said. "Well there is no doubt that it was the government that stood to benefit. He was a thorn in their side week after week. I do not yet have any evidence of complicity, but their actions afterwards suggest there was some complicity."

She added: "The Defence Secretary [Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, younger brother of the President] was asked by the BBC about the murder. He just giggled. He said 'I'm not concerned'. This is the man who is in overall control of the police. What message does that send to the police?" Mrs Wickrematunga, who last year received the Global Shining Light Award for investigative journalism, said that when she rushed to the hospital and saw him, fatally injured, she saw deep cut marks on his side yet no bullet wounds. The cause of death, however, was officially listed as a gunshot wound.

Mrs Wickrematunga said doctors told her they found no such wounds but did discover a large injury to his head, consistent with having been viciously attacked with a metal bar. She said no one reported hearing any gunshots. "A month has passed, yet there has been no proper investigation – no appeal for people in the area, no call for anyone who saw people on motorbikes," she said, speaking from a location she asked not to be identified. "All they have done is to question the people who stole his mobile phone."

The assassination of Mr Wickrematunga took place against a determined military operation by government forces to crush the LTTE separatists who have been engaged in a vicious guerrilla war for the past three decades. Up to 250,000 Tamil civilians are trapped in the north of the country where the fighting is taking place. Aid groups say hundreds have been killed and wounded after being caught up in the crossfire. Campaigners say there has been a parallel operation by the government to silence its critics, with at least 15 journalists killed since 2006 and another 29 having fled the island after receiving death threats. Many journalists have been held without charge and the premises of media organisations critical of the government have been attacked.

Among those who have fled is Mrs Wickrematunga. "It was out of fear," she says. "You cannot live in a place where the [government] says that any dissent is treason and that if you are against you are a traitor." She stresses that while she and her husband have been critical of the government, neither of them supported the methods of the LTTE.

"When you talk about the LTTE, it is the most ruthless terrorist organisation of our time," she said "It's an insult to the Tamil people that all they have to represent their cause is the Tigers. Lasantha and I fully support the view that in a civilised world there is no room for the LTTE or al-Qa'ida." What they were also opposed to, she said, was civilians being driven from their homes in the effort to crush the LTTE.

Mrs Wickrematunga insists that a military defeat of the LTTE will not solve Sri Lanka's problems. The minority Tamil population must receive a political settlement and be treated as equals rather than inferior to the Sinhalese Buddhist population. As an example of lack of willingness to treat Tamils as equals, she points to a comment from the army commander, Lieutenant-General Sarath Fonseka, that minorities "can live in this country with us. But they must not try to – under the pretext of being a minority – demand undue things".

"Reconciliation will take such a lot of work," she said. "We have wounded a section of our society to such an extent. Scars are lasting. This problem is not going away."

A death foretold: Wickrematunga's last article

Just before his murder, Lasantha Wickrematunga wrote an article which he said should be published if he was assassinated. Here are some extracts:

No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism. In the course of the past few years, the independent media have increasingly come under attack. Electronic and print-media institutions have been burnt, bombed, sealed and coerced. Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all those categories and now especially the last...

The Sunday Leader has been a controversial newspaper because we say it like we see it: whether it be a spade, a thief or a murderer, we call it by that name. We do not hide behind euphemism ... Every newspaper has its angle, and we do not hide the fact that we have ours. Our commitment is to see Sri Lanka as a transparent, secular, liberal democracy ... It is well known that I was on two occasions brutally assaulted, while on another my house was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Despite the government's sanctimonious assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry into the perpetrators of these attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended. In all these cases, I have reason to believe the attacks were inspired by the government. When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.

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©independent.co.uk