ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, August 26, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 13
Columns - Political Column  

Athas in desperate situation

  • Journalist and family under threat after withdrawal of security
  • Select committee to probe MiG deal but questions remain on commissions
  • National Congress continues to draw crowds; Ranil gives more historical parallels

By Our Political Editor

A section of the crowd at the National Congress rally in Nittambuwa on Friday. Pic. by Gemunu Wellage

The reverberations that followed The Sunday Times exposures were more shattering than the burst of fiery engines of a MiG-27 fighter jet. Parliament on Tuesday decided to appoint a Select Committee to probe the latest procurement from Ukraine, badly tainted with allegations of corruption, misdeeds and even misinformation. Even if the strained efforts of some to brush the questionable deal under the carpet with verbal machinegun fire, the fact that damning details in The Sunday Times expose' merits a probe by a Parliamentary Select Committee speaks volumes. This is despite voluminous accounts in the print-media, hours on prime time TV and radio slots being devoted to the good virtues of the deal.

The Government of Ukraine has now launched an investigation. That is to ascertain why monies from the MiG-27 deal did not arrive in that country. They have launched a manhunt for one of their nationals, M.I. Kuldirkaev, a 'Director' of Bellimissa Holdings Ltd., to find the answers. This company was listed as the "Designated Party" in the Contract governing the MiG 27 deal. The man is on the run. The terms of reference of the Parliamentary Select Committee are yet to be formulated. Even if some were to argue that the outcome of such a probe could be guided by the influence of the majority membership from Government ranks, there is another view. In such an event, some political circles point out; there was the likelihood of a dissenting report from the Opposition constituents in the Committee.

But all this is only speculation. Since the Government has acknowledged that a probe would be launched, there is no need for another discussion on the merits and de-merits on the MiG-27 deal. Suffice to say any new developments would have to be disclosed in the public interest. But one inescapable fact remains and is reflected in the opposite page today. The Situation Report that disclosed the MiG-27 deal exclusively does not appear today. No doubt, the widely read page locally and on the worldwide through the web; nor the Sinhala translation in our sister paper, Lankadeepa will appear. The man behind the investigative reports, Iqbal Athas, Consultant Editor and Defence Correspondent is himself making the news.

For two successive weeks, the Situation Report (August 12 and 19) dealt with the MiG-27 deal. The first report which declared that the Ukranian Government had started an investigation had its sequel. A Sinhala translation, as is the practice now, appeared in our sister paper the Lankadeepa on August 14. The next day, personal security given to Athas was promptly withdrawn. Three days later, a static Police guard placed outside the Athas residence was withdrawn. Successive Governments had acknowledged there was the need to protect him in the light of threats to him and his family.

The personal security was assigned by former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, who was also Minister of Defence and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. She had received credible intelligence that after journalist Dharmaretnam Sivaram was killed in Bambalapitiya, Tiger guerrillas were planning a retaliatory attack by targeting Athas. She assigned a team of Army commandos. With the advent of a new Government, a powerful official and a senior Army officer threatened to withdraw the Commandos. President Mahinda Rajapaksa intervened. The duo succeeded in doing this later. Thereafter, upon an appeal made by the Chairman of Wijeya Newspapers Ltd., Commandos of the Police Special Task Force (STF) were assigned.

The static guard outside his residence was placed nine years ago. In February 1998, a group armed with automatic pistols stormed into his house in the night. One of them thrust a pistol on his head whilst his wife and seven-year-old daughter watched in trepidation. The investigative machinery did not move until US President's Special Envoy, a one time US Ambassador to the UN arrived in Sri Lanka. He raised this issue with Kumaratunga. At least two who were suspected were arrested and tried before the Colombo High Court. They were sentenced to eleven years rigorous imprisonment. This case is now in appeal.

No one, including Athas, can claim personal security or static guards if the Ministry of Defence deems they are no longer necessary. In fact, Defence Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella told a news conference the withdrawal of Athas' personal and static security was carried out after a threat assessment. By a strange co-incidence this revelation came immediately after his revelations of the MiG-27 deal. Yet, the provision of security remains the sole prerogative of the Ministry of Defence. It is determined by the Defence Secretary. It is clear that security was provided to him by successive Governments on the basis that there were threats. Now they conclude there are no threats.

Since then, he has been forced to face a new threat which prevents him from exercising his legitimate duties as a journalist. Athas who has specialized in reporting defence and security related matters has been told by his sources of a number of insidious efforts to harass and intimidate him. He fears for his life and that of his family. Some of them which he says he could disclose include surveillance around his house.

Under the pretext of carrying out house-to-house searches, plans were afoot to search his residence. It is not to look for terrorists, but for documents that contain tell tale evidence of the MiG-27 deal. He has also been warned to be cautious of attempts to kidnap him. Here again the aim is to demand his sources of information on the MiG-27 deal. Three days ago, Athas saw a green double cab with blackened glass panes parked outside his house. Evidently, some seated inside were making observations. He had later learnt it belonged to the intelligence outfit of a service arm. He says he cannot reveal details of some actions against him for fear of exposing his sources.

The New York based Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) are already raising issue over the Athas affair. Their concern, as media rights groups, is over the duplicitous situation - on the one hand the Government acts on Athas exposures and decides to appoint a Parliamentary Select Committee. On the other, the Government withdraws his security and he faces grave threats designed to silence him. These developments naturally focus attention on corruption, particularly at a time when the Security Forces and the Police have stepped up their armed campaign against Tiger guerrillas.

Commission reports

A string of The Sunday Times exposures, after President Mahinda Rajapaksa assumed office, led to the appointment of two Commissions. Important enough, they comprised eminent serving Supreme Court Judges. They were named by Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva upon a recommendation by President Rajapaksa.

The Sunday Times reported last week that one of these Commissions has already handed over its report to President Rajapaksa. However, it has not bee acted upon yet, and some knotty issues are standing in the way. The Commission referred to is the one headed by Justice Nimal Gamini Ameratunga. His task was to probe "high value weapons, military equipment, material and services between 2001 and 2005 - the period when Admiral Daya Sandagiri was the Commander of the Navy.

This Commission had dealt with two specific matters - alleged corrupt activity in the renovation of Navy House and the purchase of the passenger vessel Pearl Cruiser. This vessel was used to transport troops and even small quantities of cargo when Admiral Sandagiri was the Commander of the Navy. This Commission concluded its sittings in June, this year. A report is being formulated.

The Chief Justice also named a three member bench comprising Shirani Tillekewardena, Justice N.K. Udalagama and Justice N.E. Dissanayake. This Commission is probing all military procurements during the period 2001 to 2005. Naturally, the procurements of the Navy also came under its purview.

This Commission handed over an interim report to President Rajapaksa on November 17, 2006. The Sunday Times has learnt that this interim report dealt exclusively with the Navy and has made some serious and strong indictments against Admiral Sandagiri and two other officers who served in the Navy then. Ten months have gone by and no action has been taken on the interim report. The usual practice was to refer such a report to the Attorney General for follow-up action. Perhaps, the Government would argue that it is awaiting the report of Justice Gamini Ameratunga to proceed.

But, this virtually vitiates the need for the Shiranee Tillekewardena Commission to have devoted considerable time and effort to come up with an interim report if its recommendations are not acted upon. It is costing public money to keep this Commission going and if no action is taken, it is an exercise in futility. The eminent Judges of the Supreme Court are carrying out this task in addition to their day to day responsibilities.

The Commission headed by Justice Shiranee Tillekewardena has already concluded their probe into procurements by the Sri Lanka Navy and the Sri Lanka Army. They are now probing purchases by the Sri Lanka Air Force. The Sunday Times learnt their attention is focused on the purchase of MiG-24 helicopter gun ships.

Though fuller details cannot be revealed at this juncture in view of the Commission's investigations being under way, one point can be emphasized very strongly. That is the stark fact that corrupt activity had accompanied major military procurements. These have come to light during the probe by the Commission into various deals. And that too, in the recent past after the Rajapaksa administration took office. Of course, this is a continuation from the previous administrations.

These developments come at a time when the newly formed National Congress is fast gaining ground in the countryside and is drumming the message of Government corruption. Its fourth public rally in Nittambuwa on Friday, the pocket borough of the Bandaranaikes, drew large crowds. The fact that this trend is continuing has elated the Congress leaders. Opposition and UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe revealed at the rally that his party had on Friday dispatched letters to foreign banks not to extend commercial loans to the tune of US$ 500 Million to the Rajapaksa administration. The letter said that some of this money was for projects already funded by foreign aid and warned that a future Congress Government will not honour any of the loans thus extended.

Wickremesinghe who is now prone to quoting from history and comparing past Kings and their administrations to the present administration this time quoted from the Portuguese era. In Matara he quoted from the Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe era of the last Kandyan Kingdom and in Anuradhapura from the era of King Walagambahu.

At Nittambuwa, he said there was a Captain-General called de Azavedo who stole elephants, gems, cinnamon etc., and pocketed 75 percent of the funds and sent only 25 percent to the Portuguese Treasury. False figures were submitted. He said such things were happening even today. What he forgot to mention was that the Church reported de Azavedo to Lisbon, and the man was caught and jailed thereafter. He also referred to the MiG deal and said that the UNP defeated the LTTE in the East without MiGs, and that 800 LTTE cadres were allowed to escape from Toppigala despite the MiGs.

In what appeared to be a broadside on the JVP, though he did not name them, Wickremesinghe said that people who criticize the Government cannot remain without wanting it changed.

SLFP-M leader Mangala Samaraweera said Police Chief Victor Perera had plucked some soil from near his Matara house. He charged that this was to help the Government to carry out a Kodivina (witchcraft) on him. Samaraweera said it would have been better for the Police Chief to have obtained some soil from Mullaitivu so they could carry that out on the LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran.

Not to be outdone by the rising popularity of the National Congress, the JVP has also embarked on a programme to further extend its rural base. Its leaders are now conducting meetings at the Grama Sevaka level with MPs, provincial and local councilors participating. The programme that began on Friday will continue until September 7. Posters have sprung up in villages about these meetings. The JVP is focusing on the rising cost of living, mounting corruption and its stance on national issues.

The party is however torn between opposing the Rajapaksa Government on the rising cost-of-living and corruption issues, but supporting it on the war on terror. On the other hand they don't want to support Ranil Wickremesinghe. They are, in a sense, between the devil and the deep blue sea, and dreading the thought of falling between the two stools.

At last Wednesday's weekly Cabinet meeting, a focal point of discussion was development activity in the Government controlled areas of the Jaffna peninsula. It came after the Commissioner General of Essential Services, D.S. Divaratne, presented to Ministers a detailed report on the peninsula and the activities he had planned.

President Rajapaksa said Ministers should travel to Jaffna but warned that they should not reveal their movements in advance. He said Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka was flying to Jaffna last Tuesday. When his aircraft was due to land, Tiger guerrillas fired artillery into the airport area. However, there were reports that said the guerrillas were engaged in unloading of weapons in the western shores of the Wanni and carried out the artillery attack as a diversion. Recently, the Indian Navy and Customs apprehended Tamil Nadu fishermen who were in an organized racket transporting fuel to the LTTE in Sri Lanka.

The Divaratne report came in for praise by Human Rights and Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe. He said both Divaratne and Basil Rajapaksa, brother of President Rajapaksa and Senior Advisor, were responsible for the smooth flow of essential supplies to the Jaffna peninsula. He said the duo's efforts should be lauded. A pleased President Rajapaksa smiled as the Minister was paying a compliment to his brother. At least someone was paying one of his brother's a compliment.

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