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Cablegate: Sri Lanka: Defense Correspondent Fears Retaliation

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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
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RUEHNY/AMEMBASSY OSLO PRIORITY 4057
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RUEHBI/AMCONSUL MUMBAI PRIORITY 5596
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RUEHGV/USMISSION GENEVA PRIORITY 2284
RHHMUNA/HQ USPACOM HONOLULU HI PRIORITY
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RHEHAAA/NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
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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
SUBJECT: SRI LANKA: DEFENSE CORRESPONDENT FEARS RETALIATION
FOR CRITICAL 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 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 Gothabaya 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. End Summary.

2. (U) 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.

Government Harassment and Intimidation Mount
--------------------------------------------

3. (SBU) On August 14, a translation of the article
appeared in the largest-circulation Sinhala language
newspaper, owned by the same company as the Sunday Times and
Daily Mirror and generally sympathetic to the opposition.
The next day, Athas's security detail was withdrawn by the
Government. (Note: Athas has had a government-provided
security detail for several years because of threats against
him stemming from articles critical of former President
Kumaratunga's government.) On August 18, the police guard
stationed at his home outside of Colombo was also withdrawn.
Athas claims that these steps were taken on the explicit
instructions of Defense Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa.

4. (SBU) On August 26, an article appeared in a Sinhala
paper distributed in the Colombo suburb where Athas lives,
which accused Athas of being an LTTE agent who has betrayed
vital national security information. On August 27,
demonstrators, including a local politician of the governing
Sri Lanka Freedom Party, gathered to protest in front of
Athas's house. According to Athas, a man claiming to be a
retired Air Force officer entered the office of the Sunday
Times' 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's articles. He also reportedly said Athas

COLOMBO 00001187 002 OF 002


himself would be killed if he did not stop writing and leave
the country within 90 days. The translator, however, has
since recanted his story, saying that the man did not
threaten him, but merely wanted to discuss the translation of
a book he was working on. Athas also reports that he has
been followed by men on motor bikes and that suspicious
people have been hovering around his house. He has received
warnings from his sources that he may be kidnapped and
questioned about how he obtains his information.

Concerned Parties Attempt to Intercede
--------------------------------------

5. (SBU) Athas's situation has received extensive coverage
in both local and international media. CNN is reportedly
considering contacting President Rajapaksa on his behalf.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has already sent a
strongly-worded letter to the President, which has received
broad dissemination on the Internet. The Sri Lankan Free
Media Movement issued a statement condemning the withdrawal
of Athas's security. Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe
warned at a press conference that if Athas was harmed, the
Government would be held responsible.

6. (SBU) Ambassador Blake telephoned Defense Secretary
Gothabaya 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.

7. (SBU) COMMENT: 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.
BLAKE

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