Sri Lankan columnist badly beaten during abduction

New York, May 23, 2008—Prominent Sri Lankan columnist Keith Noyahr, who went missing late Thursday, returned home this morning after being severely beaten, according to the editor of his newspaper and news reports.

Lalith Alahakoon, chief editor of English-language weekly The Nation, told CPJ by telephone this morning that Noyahr, who is also the paper’s associate editor, was receiving treatment at the National Hospital in Colombo. He was “mercilessly assaulted” by an unidentified group that held him for about seven hours, according to Alahakoon. There were contusions all over his body and he was bleeding from one ear, but his injuries were not thought to be life-threatening, Alahakoon said. 

“We are relieved that Keith Noyahr has been released but alarmed at the brutality of his captors,” CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Bob Dietz said. “Attacks like this contribute to an atmosphere of fear for the Sri Lankan media. We call for a thorough investigation and the prosecution of those responsible.

CPJ spoke with Sunanda Deshapriya, who runs the local press freedom group Free Media Movement, late Thursday from Noyahr’s house in a suburb of the capital Colombo. Deshapriya said Noyahr had failed to return home after leaving his office. His wife alerted police and media when she found the journalist’s car abandoned at their front gate with the engine running, Deshapriya said.

Alahakoon told CPJ today that Noyahr was found early this morning near his home, barely able to walk. Alahakoon said he had spoken briefly with Noyahr, who had not yet made a statement to police. “He was reluctant to talk,” Alahakoon told CPJ. “He was intimidated badly.”

Noyahr, a veteran journalist, writes independent, often critical analyses of Sri Lanka’s security situation in his column “Military Matters.” He used the pseudonym “Senpathi,” according to a written statement by Krishantha Cooray, an executive of The Nation publisher Rivira Media Corporation. “[Noyahr’s] abduction followed a series of threats against him,” Cooray said in the statement published on the Free Media Movement’s Web site. Noyahr’s May 11 column on the newspaper’s Web site is headlined “An army is not its commander’s private fiefdom.”

Sri Lanka Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa described “those who published reports seen as harmful toward the security forces” as “traitors” in a live television interview earlier this month, according to the Sri Lankan Daily Mirror.

Hundreds of journalists demanded a government inquiry into Noyahr’s abduction and assault during a demonstration in Colombo today, according to international news reports. Police said three teams will investigate the attack, according to The Associated Press.

J.S. Tissainayagam, another prominent columnist with The Sunday Times who also edits a Tamil news Web site, was arrested along with several colleagues from the Web site by government forces on March 7. He remains in custody. On February 24, his column was headlined “Child soldiers: What the govt. report did not report.”

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