15th February 1998


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Mirror Magazine


A senior journalist, family under siege

By Imran Vittachi

Iqbal Athas never imagined the end might meet him on his doorstep.

But for this veteran combat and defence correspondent, who so often has courted death while transiting through Sri Lanka’s war zones, Thursday night brought a rude and clear realisation. For a brief but seemingly timeless moment, Mr. Athas was certain he would die in the privacy and comfort of his home.

At precisely 9:00pm, as he would later recall, a gunman burst into his bedroom, while he and his wife, Anoma, were relaxing in front of television. The unmasked man, who wore civilian clothing — light-yellow trousers and a T-shirt — went up to Mr. Athas, seated on the bed, and aimed an automatic pistol point-blank at his right temple and then his chest.

“I thought I was dead when that happened,” related Mr. Athas. “So I screamed because I thought that spelt death.”

Luckily for Mr. Athas, the gunman never pulled the trigger. But he was not alone. The intruder, who Mr. Athas suspects was a military man dressed in civvies, had brought some heavy company. Four other armed men formed the rest of the break-in team, while, outside, ten to 15 others, all also toting automatics, were staked out along the approaches to his three-storey home in Nugegoda.

For around 25 long and tense minutes, until the intruders suddenly fled in apparent panic, they were to assault Mr. Athas’s domestic aide, Subramaniam, and menace other occupants, including his seven-year old daughter, Jasmin.

Sitting behind a large desk in a private study that resembled a state-of-the-art newsroom, Mr. Athas, nearly 24 hours after he and his family’s ordeal, looked haggard and shaken. He and his wife had not slept since, and had only taken their first post-traumatic meal at 5:00pm on Friday.

For the first time in his 35-plus years of reporting for Sri Lankan newspapers and a host of international news organisations including United Press International, CNN, Worldwide Television Network, and Jane’s Defence Weekly, this was perhaps the one story that got to him. The normally cool-headed and emotionally detached Mr. Athas, who has witnessed so many innocents go under the terror of the gun, admitted that, being forced into such a helpless situation before his child’s eyes and within earshot of her screams, he finally cracked.

“Here there was a difference I never expected, having to live and see my seven-year old daughter go through this,” Mr. Athas said. “That was too much.”

By his account, the five-man gang broke in at around 8:45pm, after they assaulted Mr. Subramaniam, and forced open the main gate. Mr. Subramaniam, for his part, was walking to the Athas home when he spotted three men standing by the side entrance. The men, addressing him in Sinhala, said they wanted to see Mr. Athas immediately.

“Can we speak to Iqbal Athas because we need to get a news item published in The Sunday Times?” the men were reported to have asked Mr. Subramaniam. But when he insisted on their identifying themselves, according to Mr. Athas, they flashed what appeared to be security services I.D. cards. And when Mr. Subramaniam replied that Athas was not in, one of the men took out an automatic and assaulted him, forcing him to lead them inside to Mr. Athas.

Upstairs on the second floor, having just showered after a hard day’s work, Mr. Athas was settling down to watch cartoons on TV with his wife and daughter, who was next-door putting on her pajamas. Mr. Athas suddenly heard a bang as the door to the master bedroom flung open to reveal the gunman, the group leader by Mr. Athas’s account.

After threatening Mr. Athas with his pistol, the leader was joined by another gunman who aimed an identical automatic at him, and then others.

While later telling his story, Mr. Athas, an internationally well-known defence correspondent, remarked that they all carried themselves like soldiers, each appearing to brandish SLAF standard-issue Browning 9mms.

“These were people from a service,” Mr. Athas said. “Their build and demeanor leave me firmly convinced that they were servicemen.”

Mr. Athas was also reminded of another unexpected visit paid to his home in September 1997, when Thursday’s intruders, who refused to identify themselves, accused Mr. Athas of housing prostitutes.

“Several months ago, two men on a motorbike rang the doorbell and asked whether there were women for sale here.”

Looking back on this latest episode, Mr. Athas, no stranger to political threats from ruling parties, suspects that the break-in was part of an extended campaign of intimidation and surveillance conducted against him by some of the top brass in the Armed Forces, whom he has constantly criticised in his “Situation Report” column in The Sunday Times, exposing Air Force Commander Oliver Ranasinghe, in particular.

Thursday’s intruders then led Mr. Athas to the landing — where one of them kept his gun cocked against his cook’s breasts — and from where they were going to take him downstairs.

According to theories that have emerged since, the gunmen were either planning to take Mr. Athas downstairs to rough him up, or to abduct him and finish him off elsewhere.

It appears, however, that their plans were thwarted by Mr. Athas’s terror-stricken daughter, who began to scream when gunmen ran into her room as Mr. Athas was being led out of his bedroom.

When they tried to lock her and another domestic in her room, the girl bolted outside to her panicking father, clutching his side and continuing to sob loudly. Apparently overcome by fear that neighbours might hear the commotion and alert the police, the gunmen suddenly called everything off, fleeing downstairs and then away in a blue Lite-Ace van.

But, according to Mr. Athas, the siege laid to his house that night, wasn’t entirely over. Despite assurances made by local DIG Indra De Silva that police patrols would afterwards carry out half-hourly checks on his home, Mr. Athas said, until midnight not one policeman was to be seen, and members of the same group of gunmen were later spotted by the bodyguards of a friend who had come to console the family.

Mr. Athas, nevertheless, expressed thanks to Defence Secretary Chandrananda De Silva and Information Department Director Ariya Rubasinghe for promptly organising a round-the-clock security watch at his residence, after he had complained to them about DIG De Silva’s apparent failure to deliver on his promise.

It had, indeed, been a long day for Mr. Athas and his fellow householders. Throughout the interview, he was interrupted by calls or fax messages of sympathy that poured in from friends, relatives, and colleagues. On his desk stood a photographic memento to a visit he paid to the United States, when the glitterati of the American press and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists awarded him for outstanding courage in telling it as it is.

But observing Mr. Athas now, one could now sense an unfamiliar jumpiness about him. Perhaps this borne out of fear that his unwanted visitors might be coming back.

CPJ calls for probe, immediate action

Attack on Athas:

A New York based international journalist organisation has urged President Chandrika Kumaratunga to launch an immediate probe on the attack on the residence of The Sunday Times journalist, Iqbal Athas by an armed gang.

The Committee to Protect Journalists in a letter to the President soon after the attack says that it was the latest and the most disturbing incident todate directed against Mr. Athas.

The letter, copies of which were sent to 23 journalist and human rights organisations, including the London-based Article 19, says:

“The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is gravely concerned over an attack today by armed men on the home of Iqbal Athas, an internationally respected Sri Lankan journalist.

This is the latest and most disturbing incident to date directed against Athas, one of Sri Lanka’s leading military reporters, who is widely known for his column “Situation Report” in the Sunday Times of Colombo. In 1994, he was the recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award for his courageous reporting in the face of grave dangers to himself and his family.

“At approximately 9.00 pm on February 12, Athas was in his room watching television with his wife and seven year old daughter on the second floor of his Colombo residence. Five armed men, meanwhile, forced their way into the house at gunpoint and assaulted a household watchman and the family cook. Athas heard a loud bang as his door was broken open and a man thrust an automatic pistol to his head and demanded that he go downstairs. The men refused to identify themselves and rudely charged that prostitutes were being kept in the house. Based on their appearance and the automatic pistols they were carrying, Athas believed the men were soldiers.

“As Athas was struggling with the men in his room, his daughter and wife were also accosted. When a man pointed a pistol at Athas’ daughter, she became hysterical and ran sobbing to her father’s side.

Before Athas could be led away, one of the five men in the house told the group to call off the attack, apparently out of concern that they might be caught.

Athas speculated that the attack may have been halted as a result of a police vehicle passing through the neighbourhood or perhaps the men became alarmed when his daughter began screaming and crying. As the armed men withdrew from the house, neighbours counted a force of some 20 to 25 other armed men in the area outside the house.

“Athas immediately filed a police complaint over the incident and informed Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Chandrananda de Silva who ordered that an armed guard be posted outside of Athas’s home. Some three hours after the attack, however, Athas and some colleagues said that a vehicle that had been seen carrying the attackers earlier returned to the neighbourhood and parked for a time outside the Athas home before leaving the vicinity.

“Athas believes the attack came as a direct result of a recent series of exposes he has written for The Sunday Times on military corruption and irregularities in air force procurement practices. The incident follows an apparent attempt to discredit Athas in November when a former Tamil Tiger guerrilla was widely seen in a televised interview saying that Athas reports in The Sunday Times were of great interest to the guerrilla movement fighting a secessionist war against the Sri Lankan army. In June of last year Athas reported that armed men had placed his home under surveillance. Our records indicate that Athas has been the target of repeated attempts at harassment and intimidation which we believe are linked to his reporting on military affairs for The Sunday Times.

“On July 24, 1997, and again on December 4, 1997, we wrote to your office requesting that you investigate the harassment and threats against Athas. It now appears that matters have simply escalated.

“As a non-partisan organization dedicated to the defence of press freedom worldwide, the Committee to Protect Journalists urges Your Excellency to undertake an immediate and thorough investigation into this latest incident.

We ask that the results of your findings be made public and that your government demonstrate its commitment to a free press by apprehending the individuals responsible for this heinous attack and guaranteeing the safety of Iqbal Athas and his family.

Media group seeks probe on charges

Arthur C. Clarke

As lawyers for space prophet Arthur Clarke collected evidence for court action against a British newspaper, a journalist movement committed to the protection, of children has called on the government to probe the allegations that the world famous science fiction writer is involved in child sex.

The “Journalist for Children” movement in a statement said:

“We are concerned over the serious allegations of paedophilia made against Dr. C. Clarke, by a London tabloid.

Dr. Clarke has denied these allegations.

As paedophilia is a serious crime, we earnestly urge the government to initiate an immediate investigation into the allegations”.

Several other groups including the Patriotic Front of Buddhist Priests, the Citizens Voice and the Patriotic Christian Movement have also called for an investigation.

They have pointed out that among other things Dr. Clarke is the Chancellor of a Sri Lankan University and thus his conduct needs to be exemplary.

Last weekend an angry Dr. Clarke described the allegations in the London Sunday Mirror as “revolting nonsense”.

He said in a statement his lawyers would file defamation action against the newspaper, but a spokesman for Dr. Clarke said on Friday no action has been filed yet and evidence was being collected.

Why CWE chief quit his post

By Arshad M. Hadjirin

CWE Chairman Peter Jayasekera’s resignation created a stir over the weekend as employees picketed, in a bid to get him reinstated .

As CWE employees demanded reasons for Mr. Jayasekera’s resignation, a deputy minister was accused of blotching the establishment’s development.

‘The Sunday Times’ learns that Mr. Jayasekera’s elaborate plans to modernise the CWE, and his proposals to introduce career promotion schemes came under attack from a deputy minister, leading to his resignation.

CWE which has a massive Rs. 21 million turnover each day, employs over 4000 workers at nearly 200 wholesale and retail outlets.

“When I took over the CWE in June 1996, the turnover was only a mere six and a half million,’ said Mr. Jayasekera and rated the establishment as the nation’s biggest.

It is learnt that Mr. Jayasekera had been instrumental in modernising the CWE to match the standards of private supermarkets, and in the process introducing many new features.

A top official speaking for the CWE said that a top Trade ministry official didn’t like new ideas.

Also a promotion scheme to benefit deserving workers had been reportedly frozen by the government, drawing the displeasure of employees.

Mr. Jayasekera said that his relationship with the CWE management and Trade Minister Kingsley Wickramaratne was healthy at the time of his resignation. “It was actually other elements in between,” he said.

Houses the minister built

Upcountry is buzzing with rumour of a minister building two houses for his two brothers and a palatial 20 roomed three storey house for himself.

It is whispered that the house costs Rs 5 million cach for the two brothers and his own Rs.10 million.

People wonder how the houses came up on unauthorized land.

No permission had been sought from the local agrarian department, it is alleged to put up the houses on paddy land.

Dumping will double the problem

An MP has called on the President to appoint a commission to probe what he sees as a massive fraud that threatens the education of thousands of students of Alexandra College and the AI-Iqbal Maha Vidyalaya in Kompanna Veediya.

UNP Parliamentarian A.H.M. Azwar, in a stinging letter to President Kumaratunga has warned that the decision to shift some 2500 Alexandra students to the Al-Iqbal MV would ruin the education of both schools.

Al-Iqbal MV caters mainly to poor children from Kompanna Veediya, Wekanda, and Hunupitiya areas.

Bringing in so many extra students from Alexandra would create chaos, Mr. Azwar said.

Accusing some top politicians and officials of being involved in fraudulent deals connected to this crisis the MP has urged the President to get the matter fully investigated by the committee.

The dispute arose last year when half of the land on which Alexandra is situated in Colombo 7 was taken over for a BOI project. Charges and counter charges have been swirling about who was getting what from this whole affair.

The matter came up in Parliament regularly last year and at one noisy sitting Mr. Azwar was nearly carried out of the House.

It’s a bomb, it’s an attack, no it’s the Chinese fireworks

Residents in Colombo, unaware of a massive firework display organised by the Ministry of Power and Energy were confused, mistaking the loud noise created, for a bomb blast followed by a gun attack.

‘The Sunday Times’ talking to people about the initial reaction to the noise, learnt that the majority of them had thought of an explosion but had later realised it was only a fireworks display on at Police Park Bambalapitya.

Only a few of them had read a news item and an advertisement in an inside page of a newspaper.

Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte who was presiding over a press conference at the BMICH too also made inquiries from his security about the noise and thereafter told the media ‘don’t get scared it is only the fireworks provided by the Chinese’.

“We really got a shock, as we heard the noise first,” said Ms. Murali a resident of Havelock Road.

Ms Kumaratunga a resident from Nugegoda, said that though she was aware of the fireworks display, the loud noises shook her up for a moment. Nimal Jayawardene, from Boralesgamuwa too had mistaken the noise for a bomb blast, while Rohan Wijesundera from Dehiwela had made inquiries whether there had been a firing incident in Ratmalana.

“Unite to seek peace” - OPA

The Organisation of Professional Associations of Sri Lanka while condemning the bomb attack on the Dalada Maligawa, has appealed to the government and the opposition to forget their differences and co-operate with each other to restore peace in the country.

The OPA has pointed out that the defence of the country and the safeguarding of its religious and cultural treasures and the safety of the people should never be a matter of cheap political gimmick, but be approached with seriousness and solemnity which it deserves.

Coffee evening

A coffee evening will be presented today at the Galle Face Hotel by the Lanka Mahila Samithi, as part of its fund raising efforts. The chief guest will be Bank of Ceylon Chairman Dayani de Silva.

Highlights of the evening include a bridal show by Harris Wijeyasinghe, music by Hilary Christic, traditional dances by Sandra de Mel, live entertainment by Angela Seneviratne and Indira Perera and much more.

Tickets can be had from the venue for the event which begins at

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