Photo courtesy of Sri Lanka Brief
On October 4 it is 5,000 days since disappearance of cartoonist, journalist and human rights defender Prageeth Ekneligoda. It is also nearly 5,000 days since I first met his wife Sandya Ekneligoda in the initial days of her struggle to search for Prageeth and to hold those responsible accountable.
As far as I know, not a single person has been convicted for serious crimes against journalists in Sri Lanka including killings and enforced disappearances. Only two cases have reached the prosecution stage. In one of them, media reported that the Attorney General had instructed the courts not to continue the case against the suspects in 2021. The only case that is continuing is that of Prageeth with several army personnel being arrested and indictments being filed against the nine accused. Most of the case’s progress was made under the Maithripala Sirisena government but the return to power of the Rajapaksa family in November 2019 presented new obstacles with the Rajapaksa government pledging not to prosecute “war heroes”.
A top investigator on the case went into exile and the chief overseeing the investigations was arrested and detained before being released on bail by a higher court and going into retirement. Although a trial at bar was appointed to hear Prageeth’s case, judges have changed and there are long delays in court hearings. Witnesses changed their testimony after the return to power of Rajapaksas’ and defied court orders to testify before a government appointed Commission of Inquiry.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe used Prageeth’s name to highlight state of media freedom and impunity as an opposition politician and called for information about the progress on investigations when was prime minister from 2015 to 2019. But now under his presidency there are signs the prosecution’s commitment to ensure justice is weakening. Even the minimum progress is largely due to Sandya’s efforts and she continues to fight to keep the alive the search for truth and justice in the courts, on the streets, in the media and internationally.
Something unique about Sandya’s struggle has been her ability to think of new initiatives throughout these 5,000 days while also not giving up some efforts she initiated on day Prageeth disappeared and afterwards such as police complaints and court cases. Last week, during the international book fair in Colombo, she stood on the roadside outside the BMICH and sold two books thatwere collections of articles by Prageeth. In the few hours I stood with her selling the books, many known and unknown people, young and old, including a Buddhist monk, bought the books, asked details, expressed support to her, some expressing anger about disappearance of Prageeth and impunity. Some passed by when we approached but returned to ask, “Is this the journalist Prageeth who disappeared?” and bought books. One family who bought one of the books and returned to buy the other book. A street vendor said he had no money that day and asked whether Sandya would return the next day.
In these 5,000 days, Sandya has won many hearts and admirers in Sri Lanka and beyond. And today, to mark 5,000 days, she is opening up the private space of her house where she, Prageeth and their two sons have lived for many years. Her house is a familiar space – a place where me and a colleague rushed to in the middle of night when we feared for Sandya’s life, where we examined thousands of pages of court proceedings over several days and where many visitors come to meet Sandya. But today, I’m sure she will surprise us with something new, something creative and powerful.
In a bleak, almost hopeless context of impunity for tens of thousands who had disappeared and serious crimes against journalists, Sandya has been an icon of defiance, resistance and hope for truth and justice. She has braved death threats to her and children, intimidation and discrediting to pursue truth and justice. Hostile posters appeared in public places against her and there have been online vilifications. In 2012 she was subjected to harsh questioning in courts by a Deputy Solicitor General at the Attorney General’s Department, implying her search for truth and justice for her husband was bringing the country into disrepute. When Mr. Mohan Peiris, the head of the government’s delegation to the UN Committee Against Torture, claimed that Prageeth was living abroad Sandya wrote to the Committee to make further inquiries and, in Sri Lanka, persisted in getting Mr. Peiris to testify in court. She has been in court more than 100 times, often alone, despite the hostility of suspects and accused from Army intelligence and their supporters. When she was threatened inside the court premises by Buddhist monk Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara leader of the Bodu Bala Sena, she complained to the police and later resisted attempts to “settle” the case through mediation. The magistrate at that time also complained about the monk’s behaviour in courts on that day and the monk was convicted for both cases. The former president pardoned the monk but Sandya has challenged that pardon in courts.
As a mother and a wife, Sandya wrote to President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s wife appealing for the first lady’s interventions to help find Prageeth. She stood outside the parliament with her teenage son and distributed appeals to parliamentarians. They went to the Galle Literary Festival and distributed appeals to the writers and others gathered there. She took the initiative in organizing numerous protests, vigils and religious rituals in Colombo. When it became obvious that Army was not cooperating with the investigators, the Attorney General’s Department and the courts, Sandya asked the Army Commander for help. She met diplomats, UN officials, international organizations and foreign journalists to generate international support to seek truth and justice. She worked with Prageeth’s friends and concerned people to publish books with his articles and cartoons. She supported Tamil families of disappeared in their struggles, joining them in protests in the North and talking about their struggles in her own work. This year, she took her street protests to Eastern town of Akkaraipattu, the place investigators revealed Prageeth had been taken. And with all of this, she also struggled to bring up her sons, now young adults, trying to fill the void of the disappeared father. In October 2020, a local journalist estimated she had travelled 411,220 kilometers searching for justice.
In 2017 Sandya was selected as one of the Women of Courage by the US government and in 2022 she was chosen as one of BBC’s 100 most influential women. But to me and many others, her courage and determination goes beyond these international honors and recognition. In the 5,000 days, I have spent a significant amount of time with Sandya, often on the streets at vigils andprotests, religious events and in her house in Colombo but also in North with Tamil families of disappeared as well as in court, at seminars and meetings. We have been together at the UN and with diplomats and foreign journalists. Sometimes I interpreted for her. This long association with Sandya has been very challenging – her energy, proactive and regular initiatives, courage anddetermination is difficult to keep up with. But it’s also been one of the most rewarding and inspiring experiences for me as an activist.