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Sri Lanka’s top admiral remanded over mass-murder cover-up

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s highest-ranking military officer, Admiral Ravindra Wijegunaratne, was remanded by court Wednesday for trying to cover up war-time murder of 11 young men that attracted international condemnation.

The Colombo Fort magistrate ordered that the Chief of Defence Staff who had evaded arrest for weeks, be held in remand custody for a week pending investigations into the abduction and murder of young men between 2008 and 2009.

Magistrate Ranga Dassanayake denied bail for Wijegunaratne after the Criminal Investigation Department reported that he had attempted to abduct a key witness over the weekend and also tried  to get lead investigator Inspector Nishantha Silva removed from the case.

"I am denying bail because in your position you are able to influence witnesses and disrupt the investigations," the magistrate told a packed court house where Wijegunaratne’s bodyguards assaulted journalists to prevent him being photographed.

Earlier in the day, he surrendered to court after weeks of ignoring court summons. In September, he dodged a summons and travelled to Mexico to attend that country’s national day.

Police detective told court that Wijegunaratne shielded a naval intelligence officer accused of 11 murders in the closing stages of Sri Lanka’s bloody separatist war that ended in May 2009.

Three warrants for Wijegunaratne’s arrest were issued by the magistrate in early November but the Chief of Defence Staff, the highest military official in Sri Lanka, had refused to surrender.

In a dramatic new development, prosecutors told the court that Wijegunaratne and his bodyguards tried to abduct a key witness, another navy officer Lt. Commander Laksiri Galagamage, at the weekend who had previously testified against him.

He has denied all allegations and sought bail Wednesday.

Investigators say Wijegunaratne helped Chandana Prasad Hettiarachchi, a navy intelligence officer and chief suspect in the murders, escape arrest.

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Hettiarachchi, who is separately accused of involvement in the 2006 murder of a Tamil legislator, was captured in August.

Police believe the 11 victims were murdered while in the illegal custody of the navy. Their bodies were never found. The victims belonged to all three main communities in Sri Lanka.

Military figures were accused of abductions and extrajudicial killings during the 37-year war against the Tamil Tiger separatist movement.

Several intelligence officers are facing prosecution over the murder of journalists critical of Mahinda Rajapakse, the former president whose tenure was marred by allegations of war crimes and grave rights abuses.

His recent controversial appointment as prime minister by Sri Lanka’s president has plunged the country into crisis, with parliament twice voting against the war-era strongman ruler taking over government.

Rajapakse, who has refused to step aside as Sri Lanka drifts in a power vacuum, and several members of his family are being investigated for fraud and murder during his ten-year presidency.

But those inquiries were thrown into doubt after his surprise return to the helm of government in an alliance with President Maithripala Sirisena.

Rajapakse lead Sri Lanka as government troops defeated the Tamil insurgency in May 2009, ending years of bitter and brutal fighting.

The final days of the offensive were marked by major abuses, according to rights groups. A UN panel has said 40,000 civilians may have been killed in the final stages of the war. (COLOMBO, November 28, 2018)

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