14 years after the enforced disappearance of journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda

14 years after the enforced disappearance of journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda
Sri Lankan journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda was last seen by his family and colleagues on 24 January 2010. (Photo: Ekneligoda family)

In 2016 I interviewed Sandya Ekneligoda by mail. Her husband, cartoonist and journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda, had been missing for six years.

Since then I have tried to follow the news(6 years - 10 years) related to the case through various media and Sandya's Twitter account.

I also tried to follow the judicial process in which, in principle, several military men were charged with Prageeth's abduction and disappearance. The attorney general charged Lieutenant Colonel Shammi Karunarathna, Prabodha Siriwardena and five others for the abduction of the cartoonist. In the end, the investigation by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) was not sufficient to solve the case.

A few days ago, CPJ published an interview with Sandya that reveals that, after almost three decades of searching, this tireless activist has not been able to obtain conclusive clues that would lead to the discovery of the culprits and justice. Even so, she has not given up.

Below is a translation of this interview with Sandya Ekneligoda by Sonali Dhawan, published on 26 January 2024 under CC Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International licence on the website of the Committee to Protect Journalists ( CPJ ).

14 years later, the wife of missing journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda is fighting for justice

"I don't know how long it will take, but I will get justice for my Prageeth," Sandya Ekneligoda, wife of the abducted Sri Lankan journalist and government critic, told CPJ via video call. It has been 14 years since Prageeth's disappearance.

Prageeth, then a 50-year-old cartoonist and columnist for the website Lanka e News, was last seen by his family and colleagues in the suburbs of Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, on 24 January 2010, two days before the election that gave a landslide victory to incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Dozens of journalists were killed, assaulted and intimidated during Rajapaksa's presidency from 2005 to 2015. The violence was often linked to media coverage of the 26-year civil war between the government and separatist Tamil Tiger rebels, which ended in 2009.

Mahinda Rajapaksa's brother, Gotabaya, was defence secretary at the time and has been accused of involvement in multiple attacks on journalists, including the disappearance of Prageeth and the 2009 murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has denied any involvement in these cases.

After the Rajapaksa was elected in 2015, an investigation by the police's Criminal Investigation Department found that a military intelligence unit abducted and most likely murdered Prageeth. Nine military officers were indicted on kidnapping and murder charges in November 2019, when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president.

A commission of enquiry set up by Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2020 issued a report recommending the acquittal of all the accused in Prageeth's case. A retired military officer and key witness, who earlier claimed to have interrogated Prageeth at an army camp after the journalist's disappearance, later changed his testimony when summoned before the commission.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa resigned in 2022 and Prageeth's case is the only ongoing trial involving serious crimes against journalists in Sri Lanka which, according to local analysts, have never resulted in a conviction.

With a portrait of Prageeth hanging on the wall of her home, Sandya Ekneligoda spoke to CPJ about the obstacles in seeking justice for her husband, her concern that the Rajapaksa are using their political connections to disrupt the prosecution of her husband's case, and her hopes for the future as Sri Lanka prepares for a presidential election later this year.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

could you describe the months leading up to your husband's disappearance?

Prageeth was first abducted on 27 August 2009 and released on the 28th. He told me that he was put in a white van. They tied him to a pole and interrogated him while there was a bright light over his head so that he could feel the unbearable heat. They refused to give him his diabetes and heart medication.

When he was released, he was asked to get out of the vehicle and sit down. He thought, "I'm going to get shot. This is going to be my last day. They told him, "Sit down until you don't hear the sound of the vehicle. Then you can take off your blindfold and walk".

Although Prageeth filed a complaint with the police, no action was taken. She received many anonymous calls. He took some security measures because he was being followed. He took different routes in the morning and evening. But Prageeth never stopped working.

what happened on 24 January 2010?

My two children and I saw Prageeth in the morning, before he left for his office. In the afternoon, we had to attend a bodhi puja (ceremony), so he wore our 15-year-old son's white shirt. When he was wearing it, he was very happy and said: "Our son has grown up". I can never forget what he said that day.

Every day I called him around 21:15. I tried to call him three or four times, but his mobile was switched off. I panicked. My heart was pounding and I was shaking. I knew something was wrong because of what had happened when he was kidnapped the previous time.

When I went to the police station, at first they didn't want to accept my report. The officer in charge told me: "Your husband might be at home. Why don't you go and look for him? Nowadays people are 'kidnapped' to become famous.

what was your journey to find Prageeth like?

I don't think any woman should have to go through what I went through. The first thing was the hate speech, even from politicians and ministers. They said I didn't cry, so it was "an act". The former attorney general went to the UN and said Prageeth lived in another country.

In 2015, when the CID started investigating, suddenly rumours circulated that Prageeth was a "terrorist". But multiple government agencies said he had no links to any terrorist organisation.

They started putting up posters in public places, saying I could go to Geneva (the UN office where Sandya has defended her husband) selling packets of rice. Sometimes they wouldn't let me sit in the tuk-tuks or on the buses. There were shops that would not allow me to buy goods.

When Prageeth disappeared, my eldest son was 15 years old and my youngest was 12 years old. Every time I made sure that my children came out of the trauma, another problem started all over again.

what would you like to see next in your fight for justice?

I will make sure that I get justice through the judicial system. But the panel of three judges has changed repeatedly. One judge was transferred, so one seat is vacant. Of the remaining two judges, one is a former brigadier and worked closely with the army. I have also asked the Chief Justice to change that judge.

are you concerned that the Rajapaksa may still try to interfere in the case?

Even though the Rajapaksa have lost power, that does not mean they have lost their connections with the government. None of them want the Rajapaksa family to be indicted in this case, so with those connections they will make sure that they drag out the proceedings to protect this family.

how would you like Prageeth to be remembered?

I want the world to remember Prageeth as someone who wrote about important issues and understood the responsibility of being a journalist. When others talk about my Prageeth, it means he is still alive in people's hearts;

CPJ's calls and WhatsApp messages to Gotabaya Rajapaksa's deputy, Sugeeshwara Bandara, and police spokesperson Nihal Thalduwa went unanswered. Defence Ministry spokesperson Nalin Herath also did not respond to CPJ's emailed request for comment.

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