Justice for Prageeth

Thursday, 27 January 2022 00:44 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

It has been 12 long years since journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda was subjected to enforced disappearance a few days before the 2010 presidential election. His wife Sandya, two sons, loved ones and fellow media colleagues have been seeking justice for him ever since. The Sri Lankan judiciary, Government and law enforcement authorities have not only failed miserably in this quest for justice but have been actual barriers in the path. Yet somehow, perhaps largely due to the tenacity of the missing journalist’s wife, Sandya Eknaligoda, this case has been set apart from so many others because it has actually proceeded to trial.

Prageeth Eknaligoda was reported missing on 24 January, 2010, just days prior to the presidential polls that year. Later investigations conducted by the CID had revealed that he had been abducted by a military intelligence unit of the Sri Lanka Army and held at the Giritale military camp. There has been interference in the investigation into the journalist’s disappearance at every level. For years, the military blocked the CID investigations into the crime, and since the election of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the trial into Prageeth Eknaligoda’s abduction, with nine intelligence officials accused of the conspiracy to disappear and kill the journalist, has been subject to endless delays, and many witnesses have recanted confessions made before magistrates. Military intelligence personnel and their commanding officers accused of the crime were exonerated by a presidential commission of inquiry mandated to investigate political victimisation. Police detectives charged with investigating the crime, and the officers of the Attorney General’s department who prosecuted the case have faced reprisals – some were forced to leave the country.

None of this reflects well for current President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who was Defence Secretary in charge of the military and the police at the time of Eknaligoda’s disappearance. Only last week, the President proclaimed in Parliament that no human rights violations have occurred during his watch. The Eknaligoda disappearance is among the many human rights violations that occurred during the 2005-2014 era. Whatever the outcome of judicial processes, the court of public opinion is already clouded about those who should be held accountable. It is therefore very much in the President’s own interest to ensure a swift and fair trial into the Prageeth Eknaligoda disappearance.

The enforced disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda is one of nearly 100,000 similar statistics of Sri Lankan citizens who have been either extra-judicially executed or subjected to enforced disappearance by their own State. Three presidential commissions of inquiry established in the 1990s recorded over 46,000 enforced disappearances during the late 1980s. At least 10,000 youth are estimated to have been either extra-judicially killed or disappeared in 1971 during the first JVP insurrection. A Presidential Commission of Inquiry established by President Mahinda Rajapaksa recorded over 23,000 enforced disappearances in the Northern and Eastern provinces. The fact that Sri Lanka has a culture of impunity concerning such crimes is an understatement. This is a pathetic record for any country, let alone one claiming to be a functional democracy.

Few disappearance cases in Sri Lanka have ever commanded the kind of international attention that the Eknaligoda abduction did. Sandya Eknaligoda’s campaign for justice has kept the spotlight on the crime against the journalist and the thousands of others like him who remain disappeared without a trace in Sri Lanka. The tireless efforts of SSP Shani Abeysekera’s CID ensured the Eknaligoda abduction case went to trial and several senior military men indicted in the High Court for the crime. But it is a glaring indictment on the culture of impunity in Sri Lanka that no great hope is held out that justice will finally be delivered against the perpetrators.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, like her predecessors before her, have called the Eknaligoda disappearance an “emblematic case” for impunity in Sri Lanka. It is emblematic of the failure of the country’s criminal justice system, of the endless pain and struggle of families of the missing, and the tortuous, continuous nature of the crime of enforced disappearance that has been the cruelest legacy of Sri Lanka’s long civil war and two youth insurrections over the past 40 years. It is incumbent upon every citizen to be invested in justice for Prageeth Eknaligoda; if there is no hope for justice in his case, there is no hope at all for tens of thousands of families just like his own who still seek answers. Sandya’s struggle for justice is emblematic of the struggle for the soul of a country that has for too long tolerated crimes against its own people.