'I am happy as I kept Prageeth alive for the last three years'

Three years ago, on the 24th of January, journalist and political cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda went missing without a trace. His disappearance sent ripples across the human rights circles compelling many rights groups to raise concerns about his fate.

In November 2011, appearing before the United Nations Committee against Torture, legal advisor to the President Mahinda Rajapaksa and former Attorney General Mohan Peiris said : 'our current information is that Mr. Ekneligoda has taken refuge in a foreign country... It is something that we are reasonably certain of.' But six months later, when he was summoned before a Sri Lankan court to testify about the information he has on Prageeth Ekneligoda, he recant his statement to the UN : 'I don’t know if he is alive or dead, only god would know if the information that I received about him is true' he said.

Ironically, coinciding with the third anniversary of the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda, the former Attorney General Mohan Peiris has being appointed as the head the judiciary of the country, to replace the impeached chief justice Shirani Bandaranayake.

The JDS' Kithsiri Wijesinghe* spoke with Sandya Ekneligoda about her courageous and tireless campaign to trace her husband.

JDS: Three years have passed since Prageeth Ekneligoda disappeared. In retrospect, how do you see the past three years of your struggle to find him?

Sandya Ekneligoda: The path I took was a risky one in every sense. Despite my deep sadness of losing Prageeth and being unable to find him even after three years, I am happy that I am still able to continue the struggle with the help of many others. There were moments of  desperate emptiness, frustration and hopelessness during which I felt so depressed and isolated. But I had to stand firm as a mother to take care of my two kids who were grappling with a terrible reality about their missing father. I had to make sure that they continue their studies and all the other things any average kid would normally do. It's not an easy job, I should say. Nevertheless, I am relieved as I manage to keep Prageeth alive in spite of his physical absence. When one goes missing without any trace, I think the biggest challenge the living have to face is to fight to keep him or her alive, which is absolutely essential to carry on the struggle to find the missing person. If you let the rest of society to forget the missing person - which is quite a common tendency - you virtually bury the person. I did not let it happen and therefore I am happy. Even after three years, Prageeth is still a living person, whom we haven't been able to trace yet.

JDS: Prageeth's disappearance is just a drop in a sea of disappearances. Sri Lanka is considered as the country which has the second highest number of unresolved cases of disappearances registered with the United Nations Working Group on Disappearances. As a victim of a state policy which is based upon the belief that enforced disappearances is a method of effective governing, what does your experience show you?

SE: I totally agree with your characterization of the state. We live under a state which believes that disappearing people is a tool  that is essential to govern a country efficiently. This has been a deliberate state policy at least since the '80s.  If someone dares to challenge or to show some dissent towards the official line of thinking promoted by the ruling regime, he or she should take the risk of being abducted and then to vanish without any trace. If you are in the opposition you raise concerns about the missing people only until you are strong enough to become the government. Afterwards, the business goes as usual and the past perpetrators become the champions of human rights. It's a disgusting and vicious cycle which we all are compelled to stand and tolerate. When such a murderous cycle is at work, regardless of the fact which party rules, the policy of enforced disappearances becomes permanently institutionalized. The entire institutional system will be governed by the belief that perpetrating such atrocities is just a way of how things are normally done. Hence the police, courts, state human rights bodies, media etc. function as if such atrocities do not deserve any special attention. The police would simply ignore any such complaints while the courts and human rights bodies will deal with them as a routine job and the media would not even bother to report or pursue such stories. When a society reaches such a state, it becomes morally defunct. That is what we have become.

As you said, Prageeth is just one human being among hundreds and thousands. For example, Darmaratnam Sivaram was abducted and then murdered. No body got punished. And then Lasantha Wickramatunge was brutally murdered. The assassins are still at large. Many don't care unless the murdered or the missing person is closely related to them. Some even go to the extent of insulting the missing person and the surviving families with all sort of vicious accusations, which I have personally experienced. So, it is an uphill battle, I would say. But if the victims give up, that is the end of the story and that is exactly why I won't give up.

JDS: Thousand of people have been reported missing in the Tamil areas during and in the aftermath of the war. There are people who are trying to trace their missing ones despite being isolated, threatened and discouraged by the state. How do you engage with the relatives and family members of the Tamil missing persons?

SE: The current regime does not know the fundamental meaning of what democracy is. They are not afraid or ashamed to violate every democratic norm and principle as they seem to be confident that they can get away with it. Just look at the plight of the widowed women in the north-east and the way the government still treat them. Some of them have been herded into garment factories while a sizable amount have been forced into find a living as sex workers. Moreover, we know how they even forcibly recruited young women into the military, as it has been revealed by a collective of women's groups in the area. Wives do not know whether their husbands are alive and mothers are kept in dark about the plight of their sons and daughters. Here I am not talking about the war time. We have to keep in mind that all these atrocities are committed in a so called  'post war context'.

In my case, at least there are some people in the south who would continue to help me even after three years. But the fate of the women in north & east is not the same. There, everyone is a victim and every one of them carries the burden of the plight of their son, daughter, husband, wife etc. It's a society of survivors of genocidal massacres. Everything they had, from pots and pans to the lives of their loved ones, were made into dust. In such a society, no matter how desperately you want to help someone else you cannot,  as you have your own burden to carry. Therefore you cannot compare the magnitude of the misery even though the pain we feel is the same as human beings.

Prageeth had a principled position on the collective fate of the Tamil people and I do share the same. A majority of people in the south did not and still do not care about the plight of the Tamils or Muslims. The majoritarian racist politics in the country has turned them numb and insensitive to the plight of the others. It is deeply saddening when you consider the fact that these people themselves have suffered at the hands of the state at least two times in the past. The government has a reason why they should promote chauvinism and religious fanaticism, because only that ensures their political survival. But we, the ordinary Sinhalese would not gain anything out of it, except more misery.

JDS: Following the latest government - judicial tussle, the former Attorney General Mohan Peiris has been appointed as the Chief Justice by President Rajapaksa. But Mohan Peiris is a person who went before the United Nations Committee against Torture and told that Prageeth is living abroad. But later he contradicted his own statement when he was summoned to appear in court as a respondent to the habeas corpus application filed by you. What do you think would happen to the ongoing court case when the same person has now being made the head of the judiciary of the country?

SE: Nothing will happen - Nothing at all! How can someone find a single reason to have faith in the legal system when things get degenerated into such an appalling state? The police was never impartial right from the beginning. The only hope I had was the possibility of going to court of law to seek justice. But now everything has changed. How can I have faith in a system where the accused can judge their own crimes? I don't see any reason why I should stick to the myth that justice will be done.

I desperately hanged onto the last thread I had which was the judiciary, despite the fact of knowing that I might even lose that hope as well. But you need some hope to live and fight and I wanted to find Prageeth somehow. By appointing a person who is politically and morally corrupt to head the entire judicial system, that last thread has been destroyed. Now I live in fear - more than before. I don't care what happens to me. But I have two children to take care of and their safety and well being is the most important thing for me. They give me all the reasons to live.

It is a weird country where the perpetrators can become judges and hangman can sit on the jury. So, I have absolutely no hope about any justice at all.

Kithisiri Wijesinghe worked as a journalist attached to several Sinhala language weekly newspapers and periodicals  including Ravaya, Mawbima and Diyesa journal. In March 2008 - while working for the news website Outreachsl.com  - he was arrested by the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) along with senior journalist J.S.Tissainayagam, and detained. He now lives in exile in Europe. | Photo courtesy: vikalpa.org

© JDS

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