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Lankan PHD student from NZ allegedly killed by ex-husband

A Victoria University of Wellington PhD student has been killed in Weliweriya, allegedly by her former husband, two days after arriving from New Zealand.

Apsara Wimalasiri died last Sunday in the town of Weliweriya during a short holiday to visit family and take part in the Galle Face protests.

The 33-year-old moved to Wellington in 2020, completing a masters by thesis, before moving on to become a PhD candidate at the university’s School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies on a full scholarship.

Her PhD supervisor and friend, Dr Corrine Seals, said Wimalasiri was “so loved by so many people” and was connected to many communities both in New Zealand and Sri Lanka, New Zeland media reports said.

“She was an activist and a scholar, who was always supporting everyone around her. She was a very central part of my school … but she was also connected to Samoan studies and psychology and had friends all across the university.

“She was constantly impressing people, both academically [and] also with her heart and who she was as a person, which is why this has impacted so, so, so many people.”

Wimalasiri “connected instantly and easily” with people as soon as she met them, making them laugh and smile, Seals said.

João Guilherme, Wimalasiri’s flatmate of two years, described her as the type of person that would be more excited about her friend’s achievements than her own.

“She was always supportive, always there for you.”

As an activist, Wimalasiri was “really involved in anything to do with Sri Lanka and supporting Sri Lanka”, Seals said.

She had previously been at the forefront of protests in Wellington about the civil unrest in Sri Lanka and had planned to participate in protests during her trip to her home country to visit family.

She had previously met Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and been “empowered and inspired” by her, Seals said.

Guilherme said Wimalasiri had felt proud to see Sri Lankans of all different ethnicities joining together to protest and wanted to be there.

She hadn’t told her former husband she was coming to Sri Lanka, as he had previously made threats against her family after their relationship had broken down, Guilherme said.

He felt as though Sri Lankan authorities hadn’t taken the threats seriously enough.

Weliweriya Police told the media that, a 37-year-old resident of Matara, had attempted to commit suicide after allegedly killing Wimalasiri and critically injuring her sister and friend.

He is now in hospital under police guard.

In her academic studies, Wimalasiri was passionate about empowering people with multilingual background, and had also studied at the University of Colombo Sri Lanka and The Open University of Sri Lanka.

Professor Sarah Leggott, who is Victoria University acting Pro Vice-Chancellor, Humanities, Social Sciences and Education, said the university community was grieving the loss of Wimalasiri.

“The thoughts of the whole university community are with Apsara’s family. The university is providing support to impacted staff and students. A commemorative event for Apsara is being planned by friends and colleagues at the university.”

A social media post on the page of The Open University of Sri Lanka’s Postgraduate Institute of English department (PGIE) said staff were saddened and shocked Wimalasiri’s death, describing her as one of the “brightest graduates”.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said MFAT and the New Zealand High Commission in Colombo were aware of the death of a Sri Lankan citizen in Sri Lanka, who had studied in New Zealand. They directed queries to Sri Lankan authorities.

Sri Lankan police have been approached for comment and a spokeswoman for New Zealand police said they had not yet been notified of the death.