For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
As Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa launches a domestic media campaign against U.N. allegations of war crimes since the May 2009 ceasefire, the plight of Sandhya Eknelygoda continues.
Sandhya Eknelygoda, here with her sons, is still seeking information her missing husband Prageeth. (CPJ)
Sandhya is the wife of Prageeth Eknelygoda, a journalist for news site Lanka eNews, who disappeared on January 24, 2010, two days before the general elections that overwhelmingly gave Rajapaksa another five-year term in office.
We’ve written a lot about the Eknelygoda case, and the fact that Sandhya and the couple’s two teenage sons, Sanjay and Harith, have received no word from any government official about the fate of Prageeth. As far as they can tell, there has been no substantive investigation into his disappearance.
On April 28, around the time of the 500-day anniversary of her husband’s disappearance, Sandhya wrote to the president’s wife, Shiranthi Rajapaksa. The letter had relatively good timing: In April of this year, an investigation by a United Nations-mandated, three-member panel found “credible” the allegations that the government had seriously violated international law, including war crimes, in the final days of the war. The report said as many as 40,000 civilians could have died in the final days of the fierce fighting. Rajapaksa has dismissed the charges, saying there had been a policy of “zero casualties.”
The first lady’s Facebook page helpfully points out that she is a professional in the field of child psychology and pre-school education. Sri Lankan papers regularly report on her good works. She started the Siriliya Saviya Foundation to empower war widows and the poor. And yet she has not yet extended to her philanthropy to answer Sandhya’s urgent queries. Sandhya is still waiting for a response to her letter which has been translated into English for the first time for CPJ by a colleague in Columbo. Here is the letter:
April 28, 2011
Honourable First Lady, Shiranthi Rajapaksa
Honourable First Lady,
I am Sandhya Eknaligoda, wife of Prageeth Eknaligoda, journalist and cartoonist who disappeared on January 24, 2010, because he used his pen and paint brush to fight for democracy and freedom of expression.
It is now close to 500 days since Prageeth’s involuntary disappearance.
Though we have not met, I believe you would have heard of me and my plight. I sought an appointment with you in February and again in March 2010. Anoma Fonseka (wife of the former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka) who I met on February 19, 2010, told me you were a very kind person and suggested that contact you personally and arrange a meeting. She also gave me your mobile phone number. Happily, I tried contacting you, only to have an unnamed individual answer the phone and transfer my call to several other lines. Subsequently I endeavoured to contact you through various people known to you, including your secretary, church officials and several friends in the media. Unfortunately, my two sons and I never got a response from you.
In March 2010, I met the editor of Ravaya, Mr. Victor Ivan, who asked me why I did not try to stop my husband Prageeth, from the kind of work he did. I wondered and continue to wonder whether I am at fault for not trying to stop him from fighting for democracy and freedom of expression.
I know for certain you are the best person to answer the question. That is because your husband is Mahinda Rajapaksa, the current President of Sri Lanka. During 1988/89 period, your husband was in the forefront, along with human rights activists, vehemently protesting the brutal murders and disappearance of many young men and women, carried out by the then government, in its bid to end the southern uprising. He compiled information about the youth who were abducted or involuntarily disappeared and personally submitted them to the Human Rights Commission, and lodged numerous complaints with the United Nations about the large scale violations of human rights in Sri Lanka.
He championed the cause of the victims of human rights violations and succeeded in garnering the attention of the United Nations and the International Community to the abysmal human rights situation in Sri Lanka. Further, he lent his unstinting support to parents, wives and children of those who involuntarily disappeared, ‘Parents and Children Society’ and numerous other organisations. With them, he smashed coconuts at the Kali Amma temple, recited vas kavi, ground pepper at the Seenigama Devalaya and prayed to the Kataragama Gods, invoking divine retribution against the wrongdoers.
He and his group of campaigners were threatened by then President Ranasinghe Premadasa and the government. Many were brutally assaulted. Then as today, the armed forces and the police, carrying out the orders of the government killed civil society activists and media personnel and forced the disappearance of many. I wonder, were you not concerned about the activities of your husband and fearful of his safety? Did you make any attempts to stop him?
Fortunately for you, although your husband compiled information of the killings and victims of human rights violations and worked on behalf of the victims, he did not involuntarily disappear.
I don’t think Sri Lankans have forgotten how President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s life on this earth came to a sudden and violent end. I remember, on that day too, people served Kavum and Kiribath in several parts of the country. I clearly recall, many also lit crackers, rejoicing in his death. There is a lesson to be learnt here… the curse of the victims cannot be washed out, even with several pots of milk….
There was a war in recent times too. It was brutal in intent and action. And hundreds of thousands in the North became victims. It indiscriminately killed innocent children, the aged, young men and women, and the sick. Journalists and civil society activist, who exposed state brutality, also became victims of the war.
Today, as it was then, the police, armed forces and armed gangs carrying out the orders of high government officials, have killed and abducted journalists and civil society activists, attacked media organisations and journalists and set fire to media offices. Among those killed or forced to disappear, is my husband Prageeth Eknaligoda, who was taken away on 24 January 2010.
Prageeth wrote about how the war had impacted the common man, turning them into innocent victims. He wrote about government corruption and thuggery based on what he saw and information he had gathered. He firmly believed this was his responsibility as a journalist.
Yet, Prageeth never wished ill on anyone. He didn’t smash coconuts and invoke divine vengeance on those who were against him. He did not wish ill even on the perpetrators who abducted him on 27 August, 2009, blindfolded him, handcuffed him and kept him in a torture chamber overnight, depriving him of his much needed medication he carried in his pocket. Prageeth sacrificed much to fulfil his responsibility towards the long suffering public. Yet, people who didn’t believe in dissent took Prageeth away from me and smashed the joy out of my two children’s lives. Today, they have fearful nightmares instead of pleasant dreams when they go to sleep. They see wicked beasts and evil creatures that snatched their father away. My older son was forced to do his GCE O/L exams without the blessings of his father.
If your husband had been forced to disappear because he championed the cause of victims of state brutality and human rights violations, wouldn’t you have felt the pain I am feeling now? If your sons had been in the same situation as my sons, wouldn’t you have hurt for your sons the same way I do now? Wouldn’t you have a never-ending pain in your heart, if your sons, who should be brightening your world with joy and laughter, cry in the darkness, like mine do? My second son has been severely psychologically affected by the disappearance of his father and requires medical treatment. Perchance, your youngest son too could have suffered the same fate, couldn’t he?
Killing an unarmed person is an inhuman act. Those who suffer the consequence of these acts are the children. I read a letter written by the son of Lasantha Wickramatunga, who was killed because of his journalistic work. Did you read that letter? Making a person disappear is an extremely inhuman act. It is because his wife and children will continue to suffer everyday of their lives. It is especially traumatic for the children, whose entire future is affected. I pray no child suffers this fate.
I too go to the temple, hold religious ceremonies on behalf of Prageeth and smash coconuts invoking the curse of Goddess Kali on those who are responsible for his fate. I tell my woes to the gods and plead for answers. I know, like me, many mothers and wives invoke divine assistance and divine vengeance. Honourable First Lady, will not the gods respond to our tears and tales of woe one day?
I have written to many ministers, members of parliament and other leaders, pleading them to help me find my husband, the father of my two children. In the interest of my children’s wellbeing, I am also beseeching you to help me find Prageeth. I seek your assistance to restore the lost brightness to our lives and the security of me and my children. I am confident you will not forsake me in this time of great distress.
I have a framed portrait of the mother of compassion and kindness, the Nobel laureate Mother Teresa on my writing table. The image gives me hope as I imagine her feeding the suffering children in the overcrowded and polluted city of Kolkata. I plead with her to come and help my children and all other children who are victims in Sri Lanka. Would I ever have an opportunity to meet someone like her on this earth?
There are wives who face the wrath of the nation because of the tyrannical acts of their husbands. Similarly, there are wife who in helping their husbands reform into just rulers, have received the blessing of the nation. Honourable First Lady, I pray that you would help bring justice and humanity to women like me who have lost their husbands and become a worthy mother of this nation.
May God bless you.