Groundviews

Still Searching for the Truth: One woman’s relentless quest for justice

Will Sri Lanka’s report to the Committee Against Torture Review on 15 November give updates?

Sandya Ekneligoda is the wife of Prageeth, a Sri Lankan journalist, cartoonist and political analyst who has been missing since he left work on the evening of 24 January 2010. Since that fateful day Sandya has been relentless in her quest for justice. She keeps a spotlight on her husband’s disappearance campaigning in Sri Lanka as well as giving testimony at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. In 2015 she resorted to smashing coconuts outside the residence of the former President. This ritual – a form of cursing – was a courageous act of defiance against a state determined to bury the truth.

After the government of Maithripala Sirisena took power in January 2015 the family became more hopeful that things would change. On 23 March 2015, the Inspector General of Police (IGP) ordered the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to open a fresh investigation into Prageeth’s disappearance.  Nine suspects attached to the army intelligence camp in Giritale were arrested by the Criminal Investigation Department and remanded by the magistrate on 24th August 2015.  Despite the efforts of the Police, the case has dragged on with Sandya telling Amnesty International that she has now made more than 80 appearances in Court.

Part of the problem lies with the glacial pace of the criminal justice system in Sri Lanka. More seriously Sandya despairs of the deliberate obstruction from military intelligence to co-operate with requests from the Homagama Court to share critical evidence. In the meantime, the wives of the military suspects filed a Fundamental Rights petition that their prolonged detention was unlawful.

Women as fighters & breadwinners

I know that Sandya is a fighter. She has been prepared to campaign on the streets of Colombo and has kept a vigil in Court despite the absurd number of hearings. Since Prageeth went missing she has been the sole breadwinner for her children and forced to make tough choices. Travelling to Geneva earlier in the year to raise concerns before the Working Group on Enforced Disappearances she worried about her sons left behind in Sri Lanka.  Thoughts of their education and care were constantly on her mind.

On 30 August, the International Day of the Disappeared I heard Sandya In Colombo inspire other mothers to campaign for truth saying “our tears should be like thunder”. But the fear that the suspects in Prageeth’s case might be released had rattled her. On 13 October Maithripala Sirisena, the President, expressed concern that the military suspects in Prageeth’s case had been held for too long without charges. Sandya told me that she thought this was putting political pressure on the judiciary to release the suspects. ‘If the suspects are released my life will be at risk’.

On 24 October I accompanied Sandya to the Avissewella Courts to hear the outcome of the military wives’ petition. It wasn’t an easy journey– the heavy monsoon rains made Sandya’s bus trip much longer. The deliberations were prolonged in part due to the volume of cases before the Judge – 27 that day – not uncommon.  This means families have to wait around as case management and scheduling is not always clear. As rain beat down on the court roof I could feel Sandya’s tension rising – she was nervous that the suspects would be released. The Judge rejected the State Counsel’s request for a postponement in the case and said that there were already too many delays. He asked the lawyers to return to Court in the afternoon. Later that day he ordered the release of 2 suspects on bail. In fairness it is a complex issue. The suspects had have been held for 14 months and Amnesty International takes a clear position on prolonged detentions without charges by calling on states around the world to charge or release detainees. The Judge also imposed the maximum bail conditions on the suspects.

Sandya though was clearly disappointed by the result and raised her concerns for protection and need for independence of the judiciary with the media. But being a fighter she was already planning how to continue to campaign. ‘We have to fight for the truth….I want just a fragment, a small piece of bone so I can say a proper goodbye not silence’.

Women’s courage and perseverance

Sandya is not alone in her search. A large number of women from across the island have come forward to testify and call for justice. In their search for the missing they have used a range of tactics. Women have lodged complaints with the Police; the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC); with government agents and their members of Parliament. Families like Sandya’s search for the truth is long overdue.  It’s more than seven years since the end of the war in Sri Lanka but the promises of accountability still seem to be just that – promises.

To help turn a page on a dark past the Sri Lankan government has to make good on the commitments it made when it co-sponsored Resolution 30/1 at the Human Rights Council. Earlier in the year the state ratified the Convention on Disappearances and has now created legislation to establish an Office on the Missing Persons. But are these steps genuine efforts to determine the truth? So far no-one has been appointed to be the Chair of the Office on the Missing persons and families feel let down by lack of consultation in its development.

What Next – what will the government say at the Committee Against Torture Review in Geneva?

An opportunity to review progress in Prageeth’s case is coming up next week as  the Committee on Torture (CAT) meets in Geneva to review Sri Lanka on the 15th and 16thof November . Prageeth’s case is featured in the list of issues under consideration by CAT. Let’s hope the state now starts to deliver and gives a proper update on progress in Prageeth’s case.

Further  Information

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Editors note: Also read ‘Involuntary Disappearances – The North South Divide’ by Kusal Perera and ‘Maithripala Sirisena’s Victory: Winning the Hearts of Women’ by Amita Arudpragasam.