Journalist’s assailants sentenced to nine years imprisonment

New York, February 8, 2002 — The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) welcomes yesterday’s decision by a Colombo High Court judge to sentence two Air Forces officers to nine years in prison for their role in a nighttime raid on the home of Iqbal Athas, the award-winning defense correspondent for The Sunday Times. The raid, which occurred on February 12, 1998, was intended to silence Athas after he had written a series of exposés on corruption within the military.

“Iqbal Athas not only dared to expose the truth about abuses by members of the armed forces, he took a great risk by publicly challenging his assailants and resolutely pursuing their prosecution in the courts,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “His victory is a triumph for justice in Sri Lanka, and sends an encouraging message to journalists around the world.”

Athas, who received CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in 1994 for his courageous reporting on Sri Lanka’s civil war, said he felt vindicated by yesterday’s judgement.

Judge Sarath Ambepitiya, in his ruling, said, “In a democratic country like Sri Lanka, newspapers have a right to expose the corruption of anyone.” Noting that violent attacks against journalists undermine press freedom, the judge added that, “If crime is used to suppress [this right], then stern action should be taken.”

Attacks against the press have been common in Sri Lanka, in part because such crimes are typically committed with impunity.

Athas’s case stemmed from an incident four years ago, when five armed men forcibly entered his residence and threatened him, his wife, and young daughter at gunpoint. The intruders were backed by around 25 armed men who waited outside the house, according to neighbors. The intruders eventually left without inflicting serious injuries, but the raid was apparently designed to intimidate Athas.

Two Sri Lankan Air Force officers, squadron leaders H.M. Rukman Herath and D.S. Prasanna Kannangara, were eventually indicted on charges of unlawful entry, criminal trespass, and criminal intimidation, but their trial was postponed repeatedly. Trial proceeding began in earnest in May 2001, after CPJ sent letters protesting the delays to Sri Lanka’s attorney general and justice minister.