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Wikileaks: Athas Fears Retaliation For Crucial Articles On Gota’s MiG Deal

&#8220Defense Correspondent Iqbal Athas is preparing to temporarily leave Sri Lanka with his household following a barrage of threats and intimidation apparently orchestrated by the Government of Sri Lanka (GSL). On August 12, he wrote an write-up for the Sunday Occasions about the Ukrainian Government&#8217s inquiry into &#8216irregularities&#8217 in the sale of 4 MIG-27 aircraft to Sri Lanka. On August 14, a Sinhala version of the write-up was published in a neighborhood paper. The subsequent day, the government withdrew Athas&#8217s safety detail. Since then, demonstrators have gathered to protest in front of his house, a man claiming to be a retired Air Force officer threatened to kill his translator, and he has received warnings that he might be kidnapped and questioned about his sources. Athas&#8217s scenario has received in depth coverage in each regional and international media. One of Athas&#8217s employers, CNN, and the Committee to Defend Journalists (CPJ) have championed his case. Ambassador Blake telephoned the Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa on August 24 and told him that it would be bad for Sri Lanka if anything have been to happen to Athas. Embassy believes the widespread publicity this case has received, and its personal efforts, will give some measure of protection to Athas and his loved ones. Post will continue to keep in close touch with Athas and intervene further if required.&#8221 the US Embassy Colombo informed Washington.

Athas

Athas

The Colombo Telegraph identified the related leaked cable from the WikiLeaks database dated August 30, 2007. The cable is classified as “CONFIDENTIAL” and written by the US Ambassador to Colombo Robert O. Blake

The ambassador wrote &#8220Defense Correspondent Iqbal Athas is preparing to temporarily leave Sri Lanka with his household following a barrage of threats and intimidation from the GSL. Athas writes often for the Sunday Times, a nearby English-language newspaper, and also regularly contributes to CNN, Jane&#8217s Defense Weekly and the Occasions of London. On August 12, he wrote an report for the Sunday Occasions about the Ukrainian Government&#8217s inquiry into &#8220irregularities&#8221 in the sale of 4 MIG-27 aircraft to Sri Lanka. In his report, he noted that the third-party facilitating company, Bellimissa Holdings, seemed to exist only on paper, while the GSL claimed the deal was handled directly in between the two states. Athas published comprehensive information on the transaction, even reprinting the letter of credit issued by a GSL-owned bank for the planes.&#8221

Ambassador Blake telephoned Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa on August 24 and told him the U.S. was concerned about Athas&#8217s security and that it would be bad for Sri Lanka if something have been to take place to such a prominent columnist.

&#8220Gothabaya mentioned &#8216Iqbal need to not worry&#8230 there ought to not be any dilemma at all.&#8217 He noted that other journalists had written much more damning articles and survived.&#8221 Blake further wrote.

Placing a comment ambassador Blake wrote &#8220The GSL&#8217s proffered explanation for the withdrawal of Athas&#8217s safety &#8212 that it was carried out right after a routine assessment showed no further threat to him &#8212 will not bear scrutiny. Clearly the articles have struck a raw nerve. The Government is specifically sensitive to criticism in the Sinhala papers well-liked among its nationalist help base. Embassy believes that international interventions, coupled with the glare of publicity surrounding the case, will probably afford Athas and his family members some measure of protection. Athas is a extended-time Embassy get in touch with. We have been in continuous touch with Athas because his predicament became precarious and are prepared to intervene once more on an urgent basis if essential.&#8221

Study the cable beneath for additional information

VZCZCXRO4412
OO RUEHBI RUEHLMC
DE RUEHLM #1187/01 2421231
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
O 301231Z AUG 07
FM AMEMBASSY COLOMBO
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC Immediate 6694
Info RUEHRL/AMEMBASSY BERLIN PRIORITY 0526
RUEHKA/AMEMBASSY DHAKA PRIORITY 0371
RUEHIL/AMEMBASSY ISLAMABAD PRIORITY 7357
RUEHKT/AMEMBASSY KATHMANDU PRIORITY 5472
RUEHLO/AMEMBASSY LONDON PRIORITY 3988
RUEHNE/AMEMBASSY NEW DELHI PRIORITY 1299
RUEHNY/AMEMBASSY OSLO PRIORITY 4057
RUEHKO/AMEMBASSY TOKYO PRIORITY 3143
RUEHCG/AMCONSUL CHENNAI PRIORITY 7950
RUEHBI/AMCONSUL MUMBAI PRIORITY 5596
RUEHON/AMCONSUL TORONTO PRIORITY 0379
RUEHGV/USMISSION GENEVA PRIORITY 2284
RHHMUNA/HQ USPACOM HONOLULU HI PRIORITY
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RHEHAAA/NATIONAL Safety COUNCIL WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RUEHBS/USEU BRUSSELS PRIORITY
RUEHLMC/MILLENNIUM CHALLENGE CORPORATION PRIORITY
UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 COLOMBO 001187

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

Department FOR SCA/INS
MCC FOR D NASSIRY AND E BURKE

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PREL PTER PHUM MOPS CE
Topic: SRI LANKA: DEFENSE CORRESPONDENT FEARS RETALIATION
FOR Essential ARTICLES ON MIG DEAL

REF: EMBASSY COLOMBO E-MAILS TO SCA/INS (NOTAL)

¶1. (SBU) SUMMARY: Defense Correspondent Iqbal Athas is
preparing to temporarily leave Sri Lanka with his household
following a barrage of threats and intimidation apparently
orchestrated by the Government of Sri Lanka (GSL). On August
12, he wrote an post for the Sunday Times about the
Ukrainian Government&#8217s inquiry into &#8220irregularities&#8221 in the
sale of 4 MIG-27 aircraft to Sri Lanka. On August 14, a
Sinhala version of the report was published in a regional
paper. The next day, the government withdrew Athas&#8217s
safety detail. Since then, demonstrators have gathered to
protest in front of his property, a man claiming to be a retired
Air Force officer threatened to kill his translator, and he
has received warnings that he may be kidnapped and questioned
about his sources. Athas&#8217s predicament has received comprehensive
coverage in each local and international media. 1 of
Athas&#8217s employers, CNN, and the Committee to Shield
Journalists (CPJ) have championed his case. Ambassador Blake
telephoned the Defense Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa on
August 24 and told him that it would be undesirable for Sri Lanka if
anything were to occur to Athas. Embassy believes the
widespread publicity this case has received, and its personal
efforts, will give some measure of protection to Athas and
his family members. Post will continue to keep in close touch with
Athas and intervene additional if needed. Finish Summary.

¶2. (U) Defense Correspondent Iqbal Athas is preparing to
temporarily leave Sri Lanka with his loved ones following a
barrage of threats and intimidation from the GSL. Athas
writes routinely for the Sunday Times, a neighborhood
English-language newspaper, and also often contributes
to CNN, Jane&#8217s Defense Weekly and the Instances of London. On
August 12, he wrote an report for the Sunday Instances about the
Ukrainian Government&#8217s inquiry into &#8220irregularities&#8221 in the
sale of 4 MIG-27 aircraft to Sri Lanka. In his article, he
noted that the third-party facilitating business, Bellimissa
Holdings, seemed to exist only on paper, while the GSL
claimed the deal was handled straight between the two states.
Athas published extensive specifics on the transaction, even
reprinting the letter of credit issued by a GSL-owned bank
for the planes.

Government Harassment and Intimidation Mount
&#8212&#8212&#8212&#8212&#8212&#8212&#8212&#8212&#8212&#8212&#8212&#8212&#8212&#8212&#8211

¶3. (SBU) On August 14, a translation of the post
appeared in the biggest-circulation Sinhala language
newspaper, owned by the exact same firm as the Sunday Times and
Everyday Mirror and normally sympathetic to the opposition.
The subsequent day, Athas&#8217s safety detail was withdrawn by the
Government. (Note: Athas has had a government-offered
security detail for several years simply because of threats against
him stemming from articles critical of former President
Kumaratunga&#8217s government.) On August 18, the police guard
stationed at his property outside of Colombo was also withdrawn.
Athas claims that these actions were taken on the explicit
instructions of Defense Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa.

¶4. (SBU) On August 26, an post appeared in a Sinhala
paper distributed in the Colombo suburb where Athas lives,
which accused Athas of becoming an LTTE agent who has betrayed
crucial national security details. On August 27,
demonstrators, like a local politician of the governing
Sri Lanka Freedom Party, gathered to protest in front of
Athas&#8217s property. According to Athas, a man claiming to be a
retired Air Force officer entered the workplace of the Sunday
Instances&#8217 publisher the same day, sought out the
English-to-Sinhala translator, and, in a private
conversation, threatened him with death if he continued to
translate Athas&#8217s articles. He also reportedly stated Athas

COLOMBO 00001187 002 OF 002

himself would be killed if he did not quit writing and leave
the nation inside 90 days. The translator, nonetheless, has
because recanted his story, saying that the man did not
threaten him, but merely wanted to discuss the translation of
a book he was operating on. Athas also reports that he has
been followed by males on motor bikes and that suspicious
individuals have been hovering about his home. He has received
warnings from his sources that he might be kidnapped and
questioned about how he obtains his info.

Concerned Parties Attempt to Intercede
&#8212&#8212&#8212&#8212&#8212&#8212&#8212&#8212&#8212&#8212&#8212&#8212&#8211

¶5. (SBU) Athas&#8217s predicament has received substantial coverage
in both local and international media. CNN is reportedly
thinking about contacting President Rajapaksa on his behalf.
The Committee to Defend Journalists has already sent a
strongly-worded letter to the President, which has received
broad dissemination on the Web. The Sri Lankan Free of charge
Media Movement issued a statement condemning the withdrawal
of Athas&#8217s safety. Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe
warned at a press conference that if Athas was harmed, the
Government would be held accountable.

¶6. (SBU) Ambassador Blake telephoned Defense Secretary
Gothabaya Rajapaksa on August 24 and told him the U.S. was
concerned about Athas&#8217s safety and that it would be negative for
Sri Lanka if anything were to happen to such a prominent
columnist. Gothabaya stated &#8220Iqbal ought to not be concerned&#8230 there
need to not be any difficulty at all.&#8221 He noted that other
journalists had written more damning articles and survived.

¶7. (SBU) COMMENT: The GSL&#8217s proffered explanation for the
withdrawal of Athas&#8217s security &#8212 that it was carried out right after a
routine assessment showed no additional threat to him &#8212 will
not bear scrutiny. Clearly the articles have struck a raw
nerve. The Government is specifically sensitive to criticism
in the Sinhala papers well-known among its nationalist assistance
base. Embassy believes that international interventions,
coupled with the glare of publicity surrounding the case,
will probably afford Athas and his loved ones some measure of
protection. Athas is a extended-time Embassy get in touch with. We have
been in continuous touch with Athas since his scenario
became precarious and are prepared to intervene again on an
urgent basis if needed.
BLAKE

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