'I will not rest until I find Prageeth' - Sandya Ekneligoda

Journalist, cartoonist and political activist Prageeth Ekneligoda was abducted on the 24th of January 2010, a day before Sri Lanka’s presidential election. The subsequent police investigation has made no progress for almost two and half years and no information has yet surfaced about his disappearance. Prageeth’s wife Sandya Ekneligoda has been fighting relentlessly to find him since day one. In a country where abductions and disappearances have become a daily occurrence, Sandya has become a courageous beacon in the struggle for justice.

“On 24 January 2010 he was not home even by 9.30.p.m. I called his mobile phone and could not get through as it was continuously disconnected. I panicked fearing that he is in trouble” she recalled in an interview with the JDS.  “I found out in the morning that Prageeth has called a friend around 8.30pm the day before. That is the final concrete information received about Prageeth."

The following excerpts are from the interview with Sandya Ekneligoda:

JDS : In a period of over more than two years of toil in search of Prageeth, what is the response you received from state institutions appointed for meting out justice?

From the very first day following Prageeth’s disappearance I had to face mental torture and insults. When I visited the police station on the next day, the Officer in Charge refused to accept my complaint. He levelled assorted allegations that I am lying, Prageeth could be in hiding, we are making up that Prageeth has been disappeared and that he cannot accept the complaint as the said incident did not take place in his area. I had to argue with them with all my might. That is how I was able to persuade them to accept my complaint. However, I was compelled to make another complaint in the police station in the area where he was supposed to be travelling for the last time.
Next, I went to the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission to lodge a complaint. What they told me was that they cannot accept the complaint as there is no place to make a complaint about disappearances. I had to have a lengthy argument in order to file my complaint. I have gone to every possible place to appeal for Prageeth. In front of the parliament I distributed an appeal to parliamentarians calling them to find Prageeth. I wrote to both President Mahinda Rajapaksa and First Lady Shiranthi Rajapaksa. Ministers including the media minister were notified. Nevertheless, I have received no response so far from any of them as to what happened to Prageeth.

In the meantime, Former Attorney General Mohan Peiris representing the Sri Lankan government at the Geneva UN Committee against Torture in November 2011, told that Prageeth has not disappeared and that he has got political asylum in another country. I tried my best to inquire about the information Mr.Peiris has and to find out the country where Prageeth is. I wrote to the president. The only response I got from the presidential secretariat was to say that my letter was received. I continuously endeavoured to bring Mr Mohan Peiris to courts in order to get the facts revealed. At the end, the Solicitor General who works for the Attorney General instructed to provide evidence on Mr Peiris’ statement according to the evidence ordinance.

JDS : Apart from the legal obstacles, there were reports that you were threatened and verbally abused while you were attending the recent Geneva human rights council sessions....,

Yes. I attended a fringe meeting parallel to the United Nations Human Rights Commission sessions in Geneva to talk about disappearances in Sri Lanka. I did not talk about Prageeth only, but on behalf of all those who have been disappeared in the country. As soon as I finished talking Douglas Wickramaratne, a government supporter and the President of the Sinhala Association in the UK behaved in a manner that gave me so much mental stress. Douglas Wickramaratne, in public told that I am not a victim as I don’t cry, but smile. Anther person who introduced himself as a Sri Lankan Muslim, said, “even though we are Muslims, we have come here on behalf of the country. We know what happened to your husband. But now you are betraying the nation”.

When I went to courts following the Geneva meeting, I was not asked about the disappearance of Prageeth. It was an interrogation about my Geneva journey. The questions were like: How did I go? Who gave me money? What did I tell, And so on.

JDS: In an environment where the institutions for justice are highly politicised, there could be instances where this type of discouragement occurs. What type of response did you receive from the political authorities in your struggle to find Prageeth?

Most of the mental torture was brought about by the political authority. From the moment Prageeth disappeared, government ministers went public saying that Prageeth is not a journalist and that he doesn’t have the media accreditation identification issued by the information department. They claimed that I am lying and that Prageeth is not disappeared. The only reason they provided was that I don’t cry and that it is because I am telling a lie.

It is the same with the police as well as the Human Rights Commission. They were prepared to discourage me and mentally depress me. Police and the Human Rights Commission represent the political authority. Here is a good example. The solicitor general is appearing on behalf of the attorney generals department. In my presence at the Homagama courts, this solicitor general told a group of lawyers that the head of the human rights commission Priyantha Perera is a pal of Mohan Peiris. What they are hinting at is that there is no point in pursuing the statement by Mohan Peiris at the UNCaT. Their aim is to covertly frighten me and to trypersuadingme that my struggle is in vain so that I will be discouraged.

JDS: You belong to the majority Sinhala community. All the institutions that you say harassed you work in Sinhala. However, most of those who were abducted in Sri Lanka are Tamils who hardly speak Sinhala language. What is your feeling about their experience?

If this is the way that I was treated after being a Sinhalese, it can be assumed how innocent people speak only in Tamil are treated. These people are afraid to go to police or the Human Rights Commission even to lodge a complaint that their husband or child has been abducted. Even if they go, what these institutions do is to threaten them, intimidate them and send them back by torturing them mentally. I have experienced this first hand. I have seen how they behave with regard to these innocent people who only speak Tamil.

JDS: Our society is one where many have been affected by such crimes. However, it is very rare that we meet citizens who fight against it incessantly. You are carrying out your struggle relentlessly for over two years, and taking every effort to find justice on behalf of your husband. Where do you get this courage from?

I have a clear aim. That is I need to get Prageeth back. Until that day I have to keep the memory Prageeth’s disappearance alive. I would like to say one thing to family members who are victims of disappearances. If your husband or son has disappeared, that woman has only two paths left. One is to suffer your whole life by showing that you have given up the search due to the fear of possible consequences. The other is to leave aside all your fears and go forth in search of your loved one. Those who choose the second path are a minority. However, we do have such a minority among us. I am prepared to come anywhere or do any thing for them. In this struggle, there are two factors that empower me. One is my goal. The other is, that I came so far with diverse groups. If one lets me down, I go to another and work with them. It is a journey with immense hardships. I will follow that path amidst all difficulties to reach my goal.

JDS: When it became two years since Prageeth’s disappearance you took your battle to a new stage and opened up a new front. Why do you think it’s important in trying to organize Sinhala and Tamil women together?

In a society like Sri Lanka that has a cultural diversity, I believe that the best way forward to against disappearances is to convey the sorrow of mothers to mothers themselves. I believe that mothers and women should rally to alter the terrifying situation that prevails in Sri Lanka. I am planning to take this movement forward by telling the sorrow of mothers to other mothers who are devotees of different religions at their places of worship. This will enable me to organise both Tamil and Sinhala women against disappearances in the country. Especially, I believe that this will help me to convince the south about the  sorrow of those in the north who are tormented by the disappearances to the south. I will endeavour to make the younger generation aware that forcible disappearance is a heinous crime and to encourage them to speak against such atrocities.

JDS: What is your message to those affected by the disappearance of their loved ones, who are either fighting for justice or silently bearing that injustice due to fear?

Isn’t your son or husband who was made to disappear, part of your life? So, why lose part of my life forever due to fear or for any other reason? What I am doing is to go in search of the part of the life taken away from me. I call upon every mother and every woman to do what is necessary regardless of the consequences.  We should get together and move forward. Let’s find the other half of our life that has been forcibly taken away. Let’s put an end to all types of disappearances on our land. That is my message.

Photo courtesy: vikalpa



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.