Randeep Ramesh, south Asia correspondent
February 09, 2009
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Sri Lanka is on the road to a "Zimbabwe-style dictatorship or rule by a military junta like that of Burma" committed to snuffing out dissent, according to the widow of Lasantha Wickrematunga, the crusading Sri Lankan editor who was shot dead last month.
Speaking from an undisclosed location, Sonali Samarasinghe told the Guardian she had had to flee the country after the government "did nothing" to catch her husband's killers.
A month after he was murdered on his way to work by a gang on motorbikes, the police have still not published a description of the murder weapon or asked for help in tracking down the assassins, she claimed.
"I was increasingly under threat. His murderers knew me. They saw my face. They knew I was working with Lasantha on investigations. I went into hiding and then decided to leave Sri Lanka. It was too poisonous and dangerous to stay," she said.
Almost 30 journalists have left Sri Lanka after being "threatened". Reporters have been detained without charge and last month the biggest private television station was ransacked for not beaming enough "patriotic broadcasts".
Samarasinghe said the government was determined to wipe out Tamil Tiger guerrillas and bring an end to the 26-year-old civil war but had also embarked on a campaign to silence criticism.
"We are being labelled traitors and terrorists by state media for expressing concern for civilians killed in a warzone. Sri Lanka is sliding towards some kind of mono-ethnic dictatorship where minorities and dissent is not welcome. It could soon be Zimbabwe or Burma," said Samarasinghe.
Her husband edited the Sunday Leader, a newspaper that had been a fierce critic of the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and questioned the cost of the military campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatists. Yesterday, a female Tamil Tiger suicide bomber killed 20 soldiers and eight civilians as fighting flared in the north of the country.
Wickrematunga had known the president for decades but it was only last summer that the two became close – brought together by a "soothsayer" called Eliyantha White who claimed to have mystical healing powers. Samarasinghe said: "It was mumbo-jumbo but Lasantha trusted him, said he had helped with high blood pressure. Before that Lasantha had refused to meet the president but this quack convinced him to go and see Mahinda."
Despite the burgeoning friendship, Wickrematunga continue to expose corruption and human rights abuses – especially by the defence ministry run by the president's younger brother, Gotabaya . It was after Wickrematunga's last dinner in December with the president that he became "worried and anxious".
Samarasinghe said her husband had told the president he had proof of who had killed a decorated war hero turned politician, Major General Janaka Perera. The former soldier and one-time diplomat had entered politics and become a determined foe of the government's "total war" strategy. He and his wife died in a bomb explosion in October.
"Lasantha was being taken to court by the defence ministry. He told the president he had evidence against the defence ministry about who killed the general and he would use it in open court and then be able to report on it as it would be part of trial proceedings. He told the president that taking him to court was a mistake," said his wife.
However, Wickremetunga had become agitated in the weeks that followed and believed his life was under threat. He attempted to shield himself by inviting the president to his wedding reception in late December but the president never attended.
"He had serious threats from the government, which he had communicated to me. He was upset about the court case. More than ever, I had never seen him so upset. He was angry and deeply worried but he knew who killed the general. We invited Rajapaksa so that people would know we had friends. But he never came."
The evidence about the general's killing, said Samarasinghe, was with a lawyer in Colombo. She said her husband wrote the "finger from the grave" editorial in which he said if he were murdered the government would be behind it.
"Lasantha was killed on Thursday and on Friday a colleague found it on his computer in the office," said Samarsinghe. "I decided to put it on the front page. It was a fitting reply."