COLOMBO: An international rights group Thursday expressed alarm over the Sri Lanka army’s decision to reinstate an intelligence officer accused of high-profile attacks against journalists, including the assassination of a senior editor.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said reinstating major Prabath Bulathwatte created new threats for the media in Sri Lanka, which is currently under a state of emergency following the Easter terror attacks.
Bulathwatte was arrested in 2017 in connection with a string of attacks against journalists during the former regime of strongman president Mahinda Rajapakse and is currently on bail.
One of the attacks was against editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, who was stabbed to death by members of a military intelligence unit in January 2009. Court records have named Bulathwatte as the key suspect.
But army chief Mahesh Senanayake last week told a local television network that Bulathwatte had been reinstated to boost the battle against local jihadists following the April 21 bombings in which 258 people died.
The CPJ’s Asia programme coordinator Steven Butler said reinstating Bulathwatte within the intelligence setup would create “new threats to journalists in Sri Lanka, who are not safe to do their jobs”.
“Promoting to active duty an intelligence officer who has been implicated in the killing of one journalist and the torture of two others severely undermines Sri Lanka’s claim that it is fighting impunity for crimes against journalists,“ he said.
Senanayake told reporters in Colombo on Thursday that Bulathwatte had been taken back “for a specific task,“ and would not work with the military intelligence unit.
He added that Bulathwatte would not have the ability to influence witnesses in the ongoing investigation into Wickrematunge’s murder.
“I give the assurance now as army commander that Major Bulathwatte or any other officer … will not have those powers or any extra powers against anyone,“ Senanayake said.
At the same time, the army chief sought to downplay Bulathwatte’s personal responsibility for Wickrematunge’s killing.
“If a soldier has done something wrong, it is the people who have given the orders (who should be held responsible),“ Senanayake said.
“So I request kindly all of you to go and find out who gave the order to him.”
Wickrematunge had accused defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse, brother of the former president, of taking kickbacks in arms purchases, including a deal to buy used MiG jet fighters, and was due to testify against him in court when he was killed.
Sri Lanka’s war-time military commander Sarath Fonseka has also accused Gotabhaya of running a secret unit used to target journalists and dissidents, including Wickrematunge.
Gotabhaya, who is a US citizen, has denied involvement, but faces civil action in the United States, where a case has been filed by the slain editor’s daughter Ahimsa.
Mahinda Rajapakse, president from 2005-15, and several members of his family are under investigation for alleged large-scale fraud and murder during his presidency.
All deny any wrongdoing and in turn accuse the current government of a political vendetta. — AFP