By Gillian Maloney
Who is Prageeth Eknaligoda?
A cartoonist, journalist, political analyst and most significantly a husband and a father. Another journalist whose rights were taken away from. Another citizen enlisted in the list of missing persons deprived of their liberty in Sri Lanka. In 1994 Prageeth joined Lake House, a government-owned leading newspaper establishment, as a cartoonist. Inspired by democratic practices and ideas, his cartoons were focused on democracy in jeopardy in Sri Lanka. Prageeth Eknaligoda actively participated in the presidential campaign of common opposition candidate Sarath Fonseka while working as a freelance journalist for a pro-opposition website lankanews.com. He was brave to the extent subsequently being released on the following day of being kidnapped by a group of unidentified individuals in a white van in the year of 2009, didn’t stop him from publishing his torturous experience in detail to the public.
In subsequent to this, on the 24th January 2019, a Kali Puja was held remembering the disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda opposite the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo against Former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and the Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the suspected prime movers of the disappearance. The Kali Puja was held by Sandya Eknaligoda and the two sons of the missing journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, joined by several others. The banner stated “Venerating Kali Goddess opposite the Presidential Secretariat on the 24th January 2019, concluding 9 years of Prageeth Eknaligoda taken away from us by the Mahinda-Gotabhaya Rajapaksa alliance”.
Where is he now?
The answer to this question is yet to be learnt, for Prageeth went missing on January 24th 2010, apparently 9 years ago while he was leaving the premises of Lanka E-news, a Sri Lankan news website based in Homagama, where he worked for. Prageeth’s wife was detained by the police for several hours when she was trying to make a complaint regarding his disappearance. Family members of Eknaligoda had stated their belief that Prageeth has been abducted by the pro-government supporters because he was investigating the alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians by the Sri Lankan army in the fight against the Tamil Terrorists.
Two government officials have stated that he has fled overseas to which no evidence has been provided. The investigations are under the wings of the Colombo Crimes Division. The CCD had begun operations to arrest the suspects responsible for the disappearance of journalist Eknaligoda. Three special police units were combining the Batticaloa and Polonnaruwa areas in a bid to find the abductors. A senior official at police headquarters stated that “order from above had prevented the authorities from taking the suspects into custody. We were asked to wait till the elections were over. Now we have the freedom to carry out the investigations and the story will be out soon.” Now this was a statement made on the 10th May 2010, 9 years ago.
In the year of 2015 and early 2016, police arrested 13 persons, including 9 military intelligence officers, in connection with Eknaligoda’s disappearance followed by the granting of bail to all 13 suspects by a court in the month of November, after holding them for almost one year without indictment. In 2016 the CID cleared Eknaligoda of any links to the LTTE or criminal gangs, a claim popularly used by Sinhala nationalists to justify his disappearance.
On December 30, 2018 it was reported that the CID was to seek the advice of the AG to file legal action against military intelligence officers that stand accused in the abduction and disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda. Sources at the Polce Headquaters have told The Sunday Morning newspaper that ongoing investigations had concluded that Eknaligoda was last in Army custody before he went missing. Army assistance was required to take the investigations furthers to which Army Spokesman Brigadier Sumith Atapattu insisted that the Army had been assisting the investigations, also stating that If murder charges were filed against any officer without evidence then the military would use its legal division to protect those officers.
What was the Government’s response?
At a meeting of United Nations Convention Against Torture in Geneva, Sri Lanka’s then Attorney General Mohan Peiris dismissed charges claimed by Sandya Ekneligoda against the government. Like every other government official or politically enhanced individuals probably affected by dementia, when questioned by the court, Peiris affirmed that he does not remember who the source of his information regarding the claim that Prageeth was living abroad. And apparently “only god knows” the whereabouts of Ekneligoda.
Freedom of the press in Sri Lanka
Freedom of the press in Sri Lanka is guaranteed by Article 14(1)(a) of the Constitution of Sri Lanka which gives every citizen “the freedom of speech and expression including publication”. Sri Lanka is ranked 131 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Border’s Press Freedom Index for 2018. Although the constitution guarantees free speech it places significant limits on the exercise of this right. During the civil war many journalists were killed, assaulted or disappeared. 25 journalists were killed between 1999 and 2011.
History of Disappearances in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has been facing a 26-year-long armed conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. This conflict ended in 2009 and was characterized by the killing of civilians, and enforced disappearances. Enforced disappearances have been used to subdue political dissent and counter terrorist’s activities, both during and after the armed conflict. So far the Commission of Inquiry has received 23,586 complaints inclusive of approximately 5,000 complaints from families of security forces personals. President Sirisena signed the gazette on the OMP in July 2017 and assigned the office to the Minister of National Integration and Reconciliation Mr.A.H.M. Fowzie where it will essentially be under his control as the Cabinet Minister of Reconciliation.
A notable feature in the abductions is the use of white vans without number plates. Victims of abductions were largely Sri Lankan Tamils living in Jaffna and Colombo, where white van abductions was an everyday incident in Jaffna. In 2007, several Tamil youths Nirmalanandan Mayuran (9), Mathilamani Ajantha (24), and Vignashweran Krishanthan (16) were abducted by unidentified persons in a white van. Meanwhile, Thangathurai Thayaparan (28) was abducted and tortured then left dead in a ditch and later admitted to hospital. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother and former Defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is accused of being the “architect of white van abductions”, to which Gotabhaya retaliated that White vans only abduct “criminals”.
Subramaniam Ramachandran a Sri Lankan Tamil journalist for the Tamil newspapers Yarl Thinakural and Valampuri has been missing since he was arrested by some individuals in Vadamarachchi, north of Jaffna datelined 15 February 2007. Eyewitness claimed that he was held in a Sri Lankan Army camp. Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders accused the Sri Lankan Army involvement in the journalists disappearance. Ramachandran had written an article about illegal sand trafficking which included the license numbers of the vehicles involved and the businessman’s connections with certain officers.
Under the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance Act, No. 5 of 2018
(1) Any person who, being a public officer or acting in an official capacity, or any person acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State –
(a) arrests, detains, wrongfully confines, abducts, kidnaps, or in any other form deprives any other person of such person’s liberty; and
(b) (i) refuses to acknowledge such arrest, detention, wrongful confinement, abduction, kidnapping, or deprivation of liberty; or
(ii) conceals the fate of such other person; or
(iii) fails or refuses to disclose or is unable without valid excuse to disclose the subsequent or present whereabouts of such other person, shall be guilty of the offence of enforced disappearance, and shall after conviction after trial on indictment by the High Court, be punished with imprisonment for a term not exceeding twenty years, and also be liable to pay a fine not exceeding one million rupees and shall further be liable to pay compensation not less than five hundred thousand rupees to a victim.
(2) Any person who –
(a) wrongfully confines, abducts, kidnaps or in any other form deprives any other person of such person’s liberty; and
(i) refuses to acknowledge such wrongful confinement, abduction, kidnapping, or deprivation of liberty; or
(ii) conceals the fate of such other person; or (iii) fails or refuses to disclose or is unable without valid excuse to disclose the subsequent or present whereabouts of such other person, shall be guilty of an offence under this Act, and shall after conviction after trial on indictment by the High Court, be punished with imprisonment for a term not exceeding twenty years, and also be liable to pay a fine not exceeding one million rupees and shall further be liable to pay compensation not less than five hundred thousand rupees to a victim.
(3) A superior who –
(a) knows, or consciously disregards information which clearly indicated, that subordinates under the effective authority and control of such superior were committing or about to commit an offence under subsection (1);
(b) exercises effective responsibility for and control over activities which were concerned with the offence of enforced disappearance; and
(c) fails to take all necessary and reasonable measures within his power to prevent or repress the commission of an offence under sub section (1) or to submit the matter to a law enforcement authority for investigation and prosecution, shall be guilty of the offence of enforced disappearance, and shall after conviction after trial on indictment by the High Court, be punished with imprisonment for a term not exceeding twenty years, and also be liable to pay a fine not exceeding one million rupees and shall further be liable to pay compensation not less than five hundred thousand rupees to a victim.
Recommendations to the Government of Sri Lanka
- Implement the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance into national law.
- Ensure the full investigation of enforced disappearances regardless of victims’ ethnicity, religion, or other status.
- Fulfil the promises laid out in Resolution 30/1.
- Investigate the cases of attacks, threats, intimidation, and harassment of journalists, human rights defenders, and families of the disappeared.
- Ensure that the Right to Information Act can be used to facilitate the discovery of the fate the disappeared.
- Acknowledge and adopt the recommendations made by the Consultation Task Force.
- Repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act and ensure the replacement legislation complies with international standards.
- Operationalize and ensure the independence of the Office of Missing Persons, providing it with sufficient funding and resources to fulfil its mandate.
- Allow for the memorialization of those killed in the war, regardless of their allegiance.
- Devise a transitional justice process by which the country will address the reformation of the justice system and the security sector, establish an independent truth seeking mechanism and design a comprehensive reparations scheme.
- Adopt the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court, the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the Protocols additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949.