Sri Lanka’s police made a major breakthrough Saturday in their investigations in to the abduction of news editor Keith Noyahr as well as a string of other attacks, disappearances and killings of journalists by arresting at least three military personnel attached to a hit squad which operated from Kohuwela.
Police headquarters in a statement said the three military personnel were arrested in connection with the May 2008 abduction of Noyahr, a then deputy editor of the Nation weekly, but official sources said they were also suspected to be involved in many other acts of violence between 2006 and 2010.
The three men, all serving military personnel, were being questioned by the police and they were due to be taken before the Mount Lavinia magistrate later Saturday, the statement said.
Military spokesman Brigadier Roshan Seneviratne confirmed that the trio were still in the service.
The authorities have identified a white coloured van used by the abductors of Noyahr and established that the same vehicle operating out of an army camp in Kohuwela was used for a several other crimes.
OperatingSeveral army units which operated in the north and the east had used the Kohuwela base to station some of their staff
to coordinate with army headquarters. This made it easier for clandestine operations to be organised from Kohuwela.
Despite pressure from the then regime to go easy on the investigations, the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) had preserved evidence and protected case files, a source close to the probe said.
He said some of the local police stations involved in the investigations had suppressed evidence, but the CID had carried out a fresh investigation to fill in the gaps and disciplinary action was being proposed against some of the senior officers at the time.
A former Inspector General and a retired Deputy-Inspector-General who was based in Mirihana are likely to join retired Deputy Inspector General Anura Senanayake in custody for allegedly destroying evidence in the Thajudeen murder.
Noyahr was abducted as he drove home after work. His car was found abandoned at Waidya Road, Dehiwala just outside his house. After intense diplomatic and political pressure on the then government, a badly bruised Noyahr was set free although investigators have now established that the intention of the abductors was to kill him.
Krishantha Cooray, the then Chief Executive of the Nation group of newspapers, led an intense campaign to pressure police as well as mobile phone companies to trace where Noyahr was being held. However, Cooray himself ended up being a target for assassination and was forced to seek refuge abroad.
Colleagues believed that Noyahr had been beaten up to get at his sources of a story which was critical of the then army chief Sarath Fonseka who has denied involvement in a string of attacks on journalists.
In January, police questioned Fonseka, a minister in President Maithripala Sirisena’s cabinet, in connection with the January 2009 assassination of Sunday Leader chief editor Lasantha Wickrematunga.
Investigators are convinced that most of the abductions and attacks on journalists, including the disappearance of cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda, were carried out by members of the military intelligence.
The then head of the military intelligence Major General Kapila Hendavitharana had been questioned by police in connection with another high profile case and sources close to the investigation said several arrests of former top brass will also follow shortly in addition to Saturday’s arrest of three junior level individuals.
Since his assault, Noyahr has sought refuge in Australia and it is learnt that he had recently made his first formal statement to the authorities about his ordeal leaving to the reopening of the case.
Police investigations have shown that a military intelligence unit which was involved in the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunga was responsible for a spate of other attacks too.
“The involvement of the military intelligence has been established, now it is a question of gathering evidence on command responsibility,” a source close to the investigation said adding that the government spent millions of rupees to obtain foreign technical expertise to retrieve telephone records and analyse them.
A key suspect who tried to kill the editor of the Rivira newspaper, Upali Tennakoon, has also been identified as a military intelligence operative and a court case is now pending.