Sri Lankan journalist forced out of country after house attack and death threats

Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema is associate editor of Sunday Leader, which has history of antagonising government

Asia Correspondent

A senior journalist at a Sri Lankan newspaper with a history of antagonising the government has been forced to leave the country following death threats and an attack on her home.

Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema, an associate editor of the Sunday Leader, left Sri Lanka earlier this week for an undisclosed country following an attack on her home last month when she was held at knife-point by armed men.

Police said they believed the incident was a simple break-in, but Ms Abeywickrema said she thought the five men were trying to find documents related to her work. Since the attack, she said she had received death threats and that she and her family had been forced to live in hiding, constantly moving from house to house.

"I was compelled to leave the country due to the continuous threats, the break-in at my residence on August 24 and the situation afterward," she told The Independent by email. "However, we will be returning home in a few months. The family and I are taking a break to deal with the trauma."

Sri Lanka has a miserable reputation for press freedom. Amnesty International has calculated that at least 14 journalists or media workers have been killed since President Mahinda Rajapaksa came to power in 2005. Dozens more have left the country.

The Sunday Leader, which has had a reputation for reports sometimes critical of the government, has suffered particular hardship. In January 2009, its then editor-in-chief Lasantha Wickrematunge, was murdered on his way to work. Before his death he had penned an essay saying that if he was killed the government would have been responsible. His killers have still not been traced.

Meanwhile, in February one of the Sunday Leader's reporters was shot in his bedroom at a time when he was investigating an investment scheme that had gone sour. The reporter subsequently recovered.

Last year, the new owner of the Sunday Leader, fired the then editor Frederica Jansz, who had received threats from a number of people, including a brother of the president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Ms Jansz left Sri Lanka after the threats persisted.

According to the AFP, when Ms Abeywickrema home was raided, the military admitted that two of the men involved were former soldiers, though it insisted the security forces were not behind the crime.

Police, who said it was a simple burglary, shot dead one of the men involved and the authorities promised a full investigation. No-one from the Sri Lankan government could be contacted on Thursday.

Ms Abeywickrema has been critical of the government in her political commentary and recently set up a trade union for journalists. After the raid on her home, she told local media she believed those behind the incident were people with "an axe to grind".

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