US: attacks against journalists in Sri Lanka should be treated as international crimes

ARTICLE 19 was asked by the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) to provide legal advice on impunity against journalists and international human rights law related to the extrajudicial killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge. ARTICLE 19 prepared an Expert Opinion in the legal case that followed: Ahimsa Wickrematunge v. Nandesena Gotabaya Rajapaksa (US District Court Central District of California).

Circumstances of the case:

This case concerns the alleged involvement of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s former Secretary of Defence and brother of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in the killing of journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge.

More broadly, the case relates to the general climate in Sri Lanka in this period, during which there were widespread and systematic attacks against journalists perceived to be critical of the Rajapaksa government.

Although the government denies involvement in these attacks, it is alleged that they can be traced back to government security forces within the Ministry of Defence, during the time in which Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the Secretary of Defence.

Summary of the Expert Opinion:

In the Expert Opinion, ARTICLE 19 concludes that violence and attacks against journalists were not incidental events during the armed conflict in Sri Lanka during this period. On the contrary, the evidence shows that journalists were the primary target of such attacks, which were directly intended to suppress journalistic activities perceived as critical of the government.

Given the general climate in Sri Lanka, ARTICLE 19 supports the claim of the Plaintiff that access to justice in Sri Lanka has been, and will most likely continue to be, illusory.

In brief, the Expert Opinion shows that:

  • Between 2005 and 2015, there is evidence that journalists and media workers critical of the government of Sri Lanka constituted a specifically targeted group, attacked because of their journalistic activities;
  • In the same period, there is evidence of a lack of judicial independence and of prevailing impunity regarding serious crimes, gross human rights and humanitarian violations

In light of the above, ARTICLE 19 concludes that the targeted attacks against journalists in Sri Lanka – of which the case of journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge is one of many examples – should be treated as international crimes, due to the continued impunity which has impeded access to justice and redress for the victims of these crimes.

Read our Expert Opinion.