Wikileaks: Athas Fears Retaliation For Critical Articles On Gota’s MiG Deal
“Defense Correspondent Iqbal Athas is preparing to temporarily leave Sri Lanka with his family following a barrage of threats and intimidation apparently orchestrated by the Government of Sri Lanka (GSL). On August 12, he wrote an article for the Sunday Times about the Ukrainian Government’s inquiry into ‘irregularities’ in the sale of four MIG-27 aircraft to Sri Lanka. On August 14, a Sinhala version of the article was published in a local paper. The next day, the government withdrew Athas’s security 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 may be kidnapped and questioned about his sources. Athas’s situation has received extensive coverage in both local and international media. One of Athas’s employers, CNN, and the Committee to Protect 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 were to happen to Athas. Embassy believes the widespread publicity this case has received, and its own efforts, will give some measure of protection to Athas and his family. Post will continue to keep in close touch with Athas and intervene further if required.” the US Embassy Colombo informed Washington.
The Colombo Telegraph found the related leaked cable from theWikiLeaks 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; “Defense Correspondent Iqbal Athas is preparing to temporarily leave Sri Lanka with his family following a barrage of threats and intimidation from the GSL. Athas writes regularly for the Sunday Times, a local English-language newspaper, and also frequently contributes to CNN, Jane’s Defense Weekly and the Times of London. On August 12, he wrote an article for the Sunday Times about the Ukrainian Government’s inquiry into “irregularities” in the sale of four MIG-27 aircraft to Sri Lanka. In his article, 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 between the two states. Athas published extensive details on the transaction, even reprinting the letter of credit issued by a GSL-owned bank for the planes.”
Ambassador Blake telephoned Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa on August 24 and told him the U.S. was concerned about Athas’s safety and that it would be bad for Sri Lanka if anything were to happen to such a prominent columnist.
“Gothabaya said ‘Iqbal should not worry… there should not be any problem at all.’ He noted that other journalists had written more damning articles and survived.” Blake further wrote.
Placing a comment ambassador Blake wrote; “The GSL’s proffered explanation for the withdrawal of Athas’s security — that it was done after a routine assessment showed no further threat to him — will not bear scrutiny. Clearly the articles have struck a raw nerve. The Government is particularly sensitive to criticism in the Sinhala papers popular among its nationalist support base. Embassy believes that international interventions, coupled with the glare of publicity surrounding the case, will likely afford Athas and his family some measure of protection. Athas is a long-time Embassy contact. We have been in continuous touch with Athas since his situation became precarious and are prepared to intervene again on an urgent basis if required.”