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Sri Lankan journalists fear situation may worsen after polls

Forced to flee their country a decade ago to escape allegedly state-sponsored killer squads, Sri Lankan journalists living in exile doubt they'll be able to return home soon or see justice served to their tormentors — whose alleged ringleader could come to power in this weekend's presidential election.

Exiled journalists and media rights groups are expressing disappointment over the current government's failure in punishing those responsible for crimes committed against media members during President Mahinda Rajapaksa's tenure from 2005 to 2015.

And with Rajapaksa's younger brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa — the former defense chief suspected of being behind the attacks — favored to win Saturday's election, they do not believe the situation will change anytime soon.

In this Nov. 6, 2019 photo, a portrait of Sri Lankan journalist Keith Noyahr who left the country following an alleged attack by a group of government soldiers is seen pasted on the wall of a human rights activist's office in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Forced to flee their country a decade ago to escape allegedly state-sponsored killer squads, Sri Lankan journalists living in exile doubt they’ll be able to return home soon or see justice served to their tormentors _ whose alleged ringleader could come to power in this weekend’s presidential election. Exiled journalists and media rights groups are expressing disappointment over the current government’s failure in punishing the culprits responsible for crimes committed against media members. (AP PhotoEranga Jayawardena)

The current government led by President Maithripala Sirisena came to power in 2015 and promised to end impunity on crimes against journalists and media organizations. But more than four years later, police investigations still have not led to any convictions on media attacks.

"We are not satisfied with the measures taken by this government in probing the attacks on media," said Duminda Sampath, president of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association, the largest media organization in the country, adding that "none of the culprits accused of attacks on media have so far been exposed or punished."

During Mahinda Rajapaksa's time as president, several journalists were assassinated by unidentified killers, while others were abducted in mysterious white vans and tortured before being either killed or released. The abductions and killings took place during the final years of Sri Lanka's long civil war, which ended in 2009. While there are no proper records to show how many were abducted or killed, Sampath said around 60 journalists fled the country during this period out of fear for their lives.

In this Nov. 6, 2019 photo, Sri Lankan media rights activist Udaya Kalupathirana stands in his office looking at posters of Sri Lankan journalists who had been allegedly tortured by groups of government soldiers during the last stages of president Mahinda Rajapaksa's regime in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Forced to flee their country a decade ago to escape allegedly state-sponsored killer squads, Sri Lankan journalists living in exile doubt they’ll be able to return home soon or see justice served to their tormentors _ whose alleged ringleader could come to power in this weekend’s presidential election. Exiled journalists and media rights groups are expressing disappointment over the current government’s failure in punishing the culprits responsible for crimes committed against media members. (AP PhotoEranga Jayawardena)

The abductions of journalists and critics of the government in the white vans was a symbol of oppression during the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is credited with ending the quarter century-long civil war. The war ended with the military crushing the Tamil Tiger rebels, who were fighting for a separate homeland for the Indian Ocean island nation's ethnic Tamil majority.

Poddala Jayantha is one of the few journalists who survived after being abducted by a van squad. He was taken on June 1, 2009, just after the war's end, and was brutally tortured — his legs crushed, fingers broken and body burned — before being released.

Jayantha was hospitalized for 29 days. Even after being discharged, he could barely walk for six months.

FILE- In this Jan. 24, 2017 file photo, a Sri Lankan media rights activist signs a postcard addressed to president Maithripala Sirisena during a petition signing demanding that Sirisena appoint a presidential commission to investigate all abductions during the country's brutal, decades-long civil war, in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Forced to flee their country a decade ago to escape allegedly state-sponsored killer squads, Sri Lankan journalists living in exile doubt they’ll be able to return home soon or see justice served to their tormentors _ whose alleged ringleader could come to power in this weekend’s presidential election. Exiled journalists and media rights groups are expressing disappointment over the current government’s failure in punishing the culprits responsible for crimes committed against media members. (AP PhotoEranga Jayawardena, File)

At the time of his abduction, he was president of the Working Journalists Association, speaking against suppression of the media and organizing protests at a time when doing so was considered dangerous.

Six months after his attack, he fled the country with his wife and daughter, as threats to his life increased. He now lives in New York.

Speaking with The Associated Press by a Facebook chat, Jayantha expressed disappointment over the authorities' failure to bring the people responsible for his attack to justice.

FILE- In this Jan. 15, 2009 file photo, activists and members of Sri Lankan civil societies light candles in front of a portrait of Sunday Leader newspaper editor Lasanthe Wickrematunge in a silent vigil condemning his killing, in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Forced to flee their country a decade ago to escape allegedly state-sponsored killer squads, Sri Lankan journalists living in exile doubt they’ll be able to return home soon or see justice served to their tormentors _ whose alleged ringleader could come to power in this weekend’s presidential election. Exiled journalists and media rights groups are expressing disappointment over the current government’s failure in punishing the culprits responsible for crimes committed against media members. (AP PhotoGemunu Amarasinghe, File)

"So far no significant progress has been made on my case. Police have only recorded statements from some people," he said.

Only a few high-profile cases are being heard in the courts, albeit at a slow pace, while investigations haven't even begun on dozens of others.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, considered the leading candidate in Saturday's election, served as the powerful defense secretary during the last few years of the civil war under his brother, and is considered a hero among Sri Lanka's ethnic majority Sinhalese for his role in ending the war. The bomb attacks on Sri Lankan churches and hotels last Easter Sunday that killed 269 people have only boosted his popularity, with many looking for a leader who will prioritize security.

In this Nov. 6, 2019 photo, self exiled Sri Lankan journalist and media rights activist Sunanda Deshapriya is seen on a mobile phone screen during a skype call in Colombo, Sri Lanka.Forced to flee their country a decade ago to escape allegedly state-sponsored killer squads, Sri Lankan journalists living in exile doubt they’ll be able to return home soon or see justice served to their tormentors _ whose alleged ringleader could come to power in this weekend’s presidential election. Exiled journalists and media rights groups are expressing disappointment over the current government’s failure in punishing the culprits responsible for crimes committed against media members. (AP PhotoEranga Jayawardena)

But in addition to allegedly being behind the attacks on journalists and government critics, Gotabaya Rajapaksa also has been accused of condoning rape, extrajudicial executions and abductions of civilians during his time as defense chief.

Rajapaksa's office did not respond to requests for comment from him, but he has repeatedly denied the allegations. His spokesman Sarath Amunugama said recently that "all sorts of allegations can be made. But there must be proof and judicial processes."

Sampath lamented comments made by Rajapaksa at his first election rally, when he said he will release all military personnel under detention if he comes to power. Dozens of soldiers have been arrested over some of the attacks on journalists, and a few are still being detained.

"Releasing them without a trial would lead to a collapse of the rule of law and the situation will be worsened," Sampath said.

Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said his group has heard from journalists who are frightened by a potential Rajapaksa presidency. "Just the prospect of his election has already had an impact on press freedom," he said.

Jayantha, the journalist who survived an abduction, fears that investigations would come to a halt if Rajapaksa comes to power. "All the investigations on attacks on journalists will be doomed," he said.

Jayantha was hoping to return to Sri Lanka after his daughter's college graduation in New York in June and restart his journalism career in his home country.

But if Rajapaksa comes to power, he said, "I don't think I would be able to come to Sri Lanka again."

"My family will not allow me to come here. Even if I come, I don't think I could perform my role as a journalist, especially in a society where my attackers are still at large," he said.

Athula Vithanage, a Sri Lankan journalist who has lived in exile in Paris since 2009, also criticized the government's failure.

He said by phone that he had been planning to return to Sri Lanka after the change of government in 2015 but changed his mind because "nothing significant happened" to improve the safety of journalists or to investigate attacks on them.

Vithanage, who along with other exiled journalists runs a website that gives details on 44 media workers who were killed from 2004 to 2009, said if Rajapaksa becomes president, none of the exiled journalists will be able to return home.

"Whatever hope that we have in coming back will be shattered if he comes to power," he said.