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Trial starts against leading opposition newspaper

(IPI/IFEX) - VIENNA, 20 October 2010 - One of two trials against leading Sri Lankan newspaper, The Sunday Leader, continued in Colombo yesterday, 19 October 2010, with Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa – who is the brother of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa – seeking one billion Sri Lankan rupees (LKR) (approx. 6.5 million Euros) in damages for articles published in 2008.

Rajapaksa sued the newspaper after a series of articles were published in 2008 highlighting the outcome of investigations carried out by the newspaper showing irregularities in the purchase, by the Sri Lankan government, of arms and aircraft. In another court case he is seeking a further LKR 1 billion because of the publication of his photograph which he deemed to be defamatory. The newspaper is also facing a contempt of court case following the publication of another image of the Defence Secretary, which Rajapaksa considered to be in violation of an agreement with The Sunday Leader.

The leading opposition newspaper has come under constant attack from the Sri Lankan government. Besides the numerous legal cases facing the newspaper, its former editor in chief, Lasantha Wickrematunge, was murdered in January 2009. His brother Lal Wickrematunge is Chairman of Leader Publications, which owns the Sunday Leader, and is also the Managing Director of the paper.

One of the articles over which Rajapaksa is suing the newspaper described the purchase, in 2006, of four MIG aircraft from Ukraine, which had been rejected by the then tender evaluation committee headed by the now Commander of the Air Force a few years earlier. In 2006, however, the government bought the same four aircraft for 40 per cent more on the basis that they had been overhauled. The deal was said to be between the Ukrainian and the Sri Lankan governments.

In the article, The Sunday Leader did not specify who had benefited from this purchase; however it carried a picture of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who is also the finance officer of the Defence Ministry. After Lasantha's murder, the legal case has been prosecuted against The Sunday Leader, and its Managing Director, Lal Wickrematunge.

In another article, Lasantha drew the attention of the Defence Secretary to the fact that the new National Identity Cards were faulty in that the security features were inadequate. This article also carried a picture of the Defence Secretary, which he felt was defamatory, and so he filed another case against the newspaper, again seeking LKR 1 billion.

Following these events, The Sunday Leader was given a restraining order asking the newspaper to stop defaming the Defence Secretary.

After Lasantha's murder, the group of lawyers originally defending The Sunday Leader said they did not want to appear for the newspaper anymore. The new lawyers, who appeared in court to defend The Sunday Leader after Lasantha's death, excused themselves from court on the first date, on which the Defence Secretary was in court, together with the Commander of the Air Force and all high ranking Army and Military officers. A third group of lawyers, who accepted to defend The Sunday Leader in the contempt of court case on 9 July 2010, were featured the next day in the lead story on the official website of the Ministry of Defence, Public Security, Law & Order as "Traitors in Black Coats" ("Traitors in Black Coats Flocked Together?" was the title of the article on the website.) The website also carried the lawyers' pictures.

When the International Bar Association and the local Association issued statements condemning the article and requesting that it be removed from the site, the Military's website continued to carry the story.

The defamation case was adjourned until 8 December. The contempt of court case will begin next week on Friday 29 October.

"Despite the pressures and threats faced by the newspaper, The Sunday Leader remains today a vocal opposition newspaper in Sri Lanka. It plays an important role in holding the government to account," said Anthony Mills, International Press Institute Press Freedom Manager.

"The survival of non-governmental media outlets, such as The Sunday Leader, is instrumental to Sri Lanka's democratization and peace process. Similarly, Sri Lankan institutions' ability to act in full respect of the rule of law and international democratic principles is a necessary element to the success of the peace process."

Former editor Lasantha Wickrematunge was declared an IPI World Press Freedom Hero in February 2010 to mark the 60th Anniversary of IPI. Lal Wickrematunge collected the award during the IPI World Congress in Vienna on behalf of his late brother.

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