Interview with Sandya Eknaligoda
Sandya is the wife of Prageeth Eknaligoda, a journalist and cartoonist who disappeared in Sri Lanka on 24 January 2010. Read story.
What do you remember about the day of Prageeth’s disappearance?
Prageeth left home between 10:00 and 10:30 in the morning. He said he was going to go to several places, including the Lanka E News offices, and in the afternoon he would participate in the “Bodhi Puja” organised at the Kelaniya Buddhist temple to obtain blessings for presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka.
Prageeth was first abducted on 28 August 2009. He was taken away with his hands tied and blindfolded in a white van near our house. He was released the next morning.
From that day on he started to receive threats, persecution and also phone tapping. That’s why we were always on the alert. If he wasn’t home at 21.00 – 21.30 I called him to find out if he was OK and what time he would be home.
The last time he disappeared I called him at 21:15. His phone was switched off. I kept calling all night long. The next day, in the morning, I learnt from one of his friends that he had left with a person (identity unknown) who had come from Dambulla in a van. (That unknown person is the spy sent by army intelligence to abduct him. He has testified before the magistrate about the incident)
What media was Prageeth working for?
From 2006 onwards, he worked mainly as a freelance journalist for the website “Lanka E News”. He drew cartoons and wrote articles on politics. He also contributed political columns to the newspapers “Siyarata” and “Kolamba” and the magazine “Vihiduma”.
It was suggested that one of the reasons for Prageeth’s disappearance could be an investigative piece on the alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians by Sri Lankan forces in the fight against Tamil separatists. Do you think this is possible?
Yes, you can read part of it in the article“Chemical weapons and ethnic warfare“. This article clearly mentions how the government reacted when the chemical weapons used by the LTTE were reported. The government panicked and made a statement claiming that no chemical weapons were used in Sri Lanka. And there is evidence that chemical weapons were used in Sri Lanka despite the government’s denial.
It is a fact that if some organisations or the government used chemical weapons in a war, it could only be a genocidal war.
Prageeth was in the process of researching and gathering information on this issue. With his disappearance, all this information was lost.
How did the media treat Prageeth’s disappearance at the time?
After her disappearance, some institutions and media helped to spread the news, but also the media was the weapon used by the government to discredit us and to charge us.
Have you heard anything more about Dematagoda Chaminda’s statement that he had led a team of thugs who threw Prageeth’s body into the sea?
Dematagoda Chamida’s statement came to light in early 2012. Although I have tried to include his testimony in the habeas corpus through my lawyer, the court rejected it. To date, no reliable information confirming his statement has been found.
Do you still believe that the government is directly responsible for his disappearance?
When asked by the media, I said that Mahinda Rajapaksa was responsible.
I still feel the same way.
The officers who were in charge of the investigation into Prageeth’s abduction were pro-Rajapaksians. Rajapaksa and his supporters portray the imprisoned officers as war heroes in the public eye, despite the fact that, in reality, these officers committed serious crimes under their orders.
It is clear that Mahinda Rajapaksa is the person responsible for my husband’s disappearance.
Why do you think the government wanted to silence Prageeth?
According to information uncovered by the Sri Lankan Criminal Investigation Department; the abductors took him to an army camp in Girithale, interrogated him about a booklet (dossier) on the Rajapakse family made by him, a CD of political ballads (?) and asked him about his relationship with General Sarath Fonseka, a candidate for the presidency. I think this is the reason for Prageeth’s abduction.
What is the attitude and position of the current government in the investigation into Prageeth’s disappearance, and is he receiving support from the government?
In January 2015, when the current president was elected and the government changed, the situation improved a little bit, that’s when the reports of the investigations into Prageeth’s disappearance were handed over to the CID (Criminal Investigation Department).
And they were even able to find the criminals, to bring them before an examining magistrate’s court and put them in prison.
During the previous government’s term of office, no investigation was carried out. They spent all their time and resources throwing mud at us (discrediting us) and trying to prove that Prageeth’s disappearance was a lie.
At the 2011 UN committee meeting, former Attorney General Mohan Peiris stated that he had learned from a trusted source that Prageeth had taken refuge in a foreign country, but when he was called to the trial courts after a whole series of boring arguments, all he said was that he could not remember the name of the officer who gave him that information and that only God knew where Prageeth was.
And in 2013, another representative of the Rajapakse regime, Minister Arundika Fernando made a statement in Parliament saying that he had seen Prageeth and that he was in France. In addition to this, other smear campaigns were conducted against Prageeth.
The best thing that has happened since the election of the new government was the announcement of the start of a serious investigation. I think that would be a great help, but in the meantime survival is a struggle. Although the current minister told the media that they will look after the welfare of our family, this has not yet happened.
Almost 7 years later, where is the investigation at? Are there any new leads?
Yes, it is almost seven years since Prageeth’s disappearance. He was abducted by Sri Lankan Army Intelligence officers, it was part of their plans. Some of these officers were lieutenants.
There is inadequate support and lack of coordination from the Sri Lankan army to move the investigations forward. And the officers in custody are still pretending not to remember anything and trying to hide information.
Despite this difficult situation, the CID has uncovered much new information.
What actions are you taking now?
I filed habeas corpus for Prageeth’s disappearance on 19 February 2010. All the actions I have taken since then have been within the legal mechanisms and I also participate in as many social actions as I can to raise awareness, with the sole aim of finding justice.
Most of the actions are social campaigns of common struggle for the victims, us, the victims of enforced disappearances and their families. I will continue to fight. At the moment Sri Lanka is in a very complex situation.
Although it is a bit of a tough question, are you confident of finding Prageeth?
Throughout these six years and seven months Prageeth has been my strength. All the sadness and difficulties I face I share with him. I believe that Prageeth has been with me all the time and that is why I have been able to overcome the problems that bad people have been causing.
I don’t know if I will be able to find his body, but what I am fighting for is truth and justice. Truth and justice for Prageeth, for me and for my children and for all the people who have been victims of enforced disappearances.
Is it hard to be a human rights activist in Sri Lanka? How have you experienced the transformation from “ordinary” citizen to activist?
Although I am an ordinary citizen, a housewife. My work forced me to deal directly with people. Between the ages of 18 and 20 I was involved in various social activities, so I don’t feel a big difference between being a human rights defender and an ordinary citizen.
The main problem is that this is all voluntary work. I am a mother, and I have to raise my children without any help. And I will do it any way I can, even if it forces me to sell packets of rice or do any other kind of work.
A book of Prageeth’s works has been published. Is it possible to buy Prageeth’s book online?
The books compiling his articles were published only in Sinhala language. The book containing his collection of vignettes was published in Sinhala, Tamil and English, but cannot be purchased online.
*Some expressions that do not alter the context are translated verbatim (or with the closest interpretation) and some ambiguous ones are removed because the answers have been translated twice, from two different languages, during the process.