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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Sandya Ekneligoda’s decade long fight for justice: Ekneligoda Forum and web site launched in Colombo

ON the 11th year of Prageeth Ekneligoda abduction and disappearance Sandaya Ekneligoda launched a new initiative launching Ekneligoda Forum and https://ekneligodaforum.org/.

Ekneligoda Forum is a collective that strives to ensure justice to Prageeth Ekneligoda and for every Sri Lankan who have been victimized by the heinous crime of enforced disappearance. As collective we are dedicated to archive Prageeth’s work and make them accessible to the general public, as well as the archive the struggle for truth and justice for Prageeth and similar struggles of the victims of enforced disappearance in Sri Lanka. 

the initiative is a joint endeavor by Sandaya, Sanjaya, and Harith Ekneligoda.

Prageeth Eknaligoda, journalist, cartoonist and political activist, disappeared on 24 January 2010, somewhere between 8.30 and 9.30 pm on his way to a meeting with an acquaintance unknown to his friends or family. On the day of his disappearance, Prageeth had left home in the morning and had not returned home by 9.30pm.

Following an earlier abduction, if Prageeth was not home by that time, Sandya his wife had made it a habit to call him, to check whether he has left his office or not and how near or far from home he was. On the night of the 24th, Sandya called him every half an hour throughout the night to both his mobile numbers to only keep hearing the pre-recorded message that his phone was switched off.

The next morning, she went to the local police station in Homagama. The senior inspector was initially reluctant to record her complaint and told her that he needs to speak with the Officer in Charge. When the Officer in Charge entered the room, he first made a joke of Sandya’s complaint, saying that her husband must be at home, and that she should go home, adding that “people get abducted to become popular”. Sandya refuted him, saying: “my husband Prageeth Eknaligoda need not get lost to become popular. He did not write to become popular but because of a sense of social responsibility.” The Homagama police eventually took down her (Complaint No. CIB 385/177), but then told her that she ought to have gone to the police station in Koswatte in the first place, as the incident appeared to have occurred there, and that she had wasted their time and cost them a fax as they were now compelled to fax her statement to the Koswatte police. Sandya then went to the Koswatte police, where she was treated with more sympathy by police constables. Yet neither police took an active interest to conduct an inquiry into the case in the days and weeks following her complaint.

On 19th February, she and her two sons filed a habeas corpus application in the Court of Appeal, citing the Deputy Inspector General of the Criminal Investigation Department, the Officer in Charge of the Homagama police, the Inspector General of the Police, the Attorney General and Prageeth Eknaligoda as respondents.2 The Court of Appeal referred to the matter for investigation to the Magistrate’s Court of Homagama (AR 3170/11). Sandya has since dedicated her life to pursue truth and justice for the disappearance of her husband.

From 2010 to 2015 this case hardly made any progress in the Magistrate Court. In fact, every effort was made to undermine the case and cast doubt on the credibility of both Prageeth and Sandya. By 2011, a number of political leaders of the Rajapaksa regime as well as bureaucrats began to claim that Prageeth Ekneligoda was alive and well in a foreign country. In November 2011, Mohan Peiris, the country’s Attorney General and legal advisor to the President and Cabinet of Ministers, in an official question and answer session before the United Nation’s Committee on Torture (CAT), told the CAT Committee that “Mr. Ekneligoda has taken refuge in a foreign country,” and that the campaign to secure the cartoonist’s release was a farce. On 5th June 2013, Arundika Fernando, a member of parliament from the United People’s Freedom Alliance, also told parliament Ekneligoda was living in France.

Despite the widespread criticism in the print and electronic media and a statement made by Sandya that the allegation that Prageeth was living in France was “baseless,” Arundika Fernando. M.P. told the press that he stands by his claim that “journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda is living in France and that it is the complete truth”. Following these statements, Sandya moved the court to summon the public officials claiming to know the whereabouts of Prageeth to share this evidence in court. It took Sandya eight months to summon Mohan Peiris to court. When she first pressed the court, the state counsel objected stating that there was no evidence that such a statement was made. Sandya then produced in court a webcast of the statement made by the AG in Geneva. The state counsel again objected stating video evidence was not admissible in court. Sandya then submitted a written transcript certified by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The state then challenged the validity of the transcript stating that it could not be taken as a true copy and that it was not proper to summon Mr. Mohan Peiris, as he had made the statement about the disappeared journalist’s whereabouts as an official representative of the Government. Junior Counsel for the complainant then moved the court to call a UN representative, to ascertain the validity of the document, if it was not admissible.

These objections were overruled by the Homagama Magistrate. On 17th May, the court ruled that Peiris can be summoned as a witness. The state counsel appearing for the AG challenged the ruling as illegal in the Court of Appeal arguing that Peiris was acting in his capacity as a senior legal advisor to the Cabinet and that what is said on “government orders” and communications where “public interest would suffer” should not be disclosed. It was further argued that Peiris should not be harassed for carrying out government instructions. The Court of Appeal ruled that the Homagama magistrate court was acting on their behalf to hear this case and had the freedom to summon Peiris. The court stated, “Only the President was immune to legal proceedings and may not answer summons by a court of law”. The judge stated that Peiris’s testimony should not be “pre-empted” and clarified that being summoned cannot be regarded as harassment.4 It was 5 June 2012, by the time Mohan Peiris gave his evidence before the Homagama Magistrate’s Court.5 Under cross examination in court, Peiris admitted that he made the statement that investigations are not over and that the Attorney General’s Department had received information and intelligence to the effect that Ekneligoda was living abroad and that if this information is confirmed by their investigations, they will decide whether to file a case. The lawyers for the petitioner, then asked whether Peiris can remember the representative of the AG’s Department or intelligence officer who informed him of such evidence. Peiris responded to the question saying: “No”, and that his “knowledge on this is total hearsay”, adding “I heard them. Only God know the truth of them”.

The Homagama Magistrates court, on the request of Sandya and her lawyers, summoned Arundika Fernando to court on 16th July 2013 and 21 August 2013 after the judge overruled objection to the request that it was in violation of the Minister’s parliamentary privileges. In court, Mr. Fernando admitted he had never seen Prageeth Ekneligoda himself, but that he had made that statement on the trust he had placed on the word of a long lost school friend that he had met on a visit to France in Dec 2011/ Jan 2012.

It was at this stage of the court case that Presidential elections were called in November 2014. Sandya joined the campaign in favour of democracy and the rule of law. Following the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa and the election of Maithreepala Sirisena, the case took a completely different turn.

POST-2015:

Following the election of President Sirisena and the UNF government on a promise of ‘good governance’, the Ekneligoda case was handed over to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in March 2015. The habeas corpus case was “laid by” and investigation proceeded on the basis of the police complaint made by Sandya in 2010 ( B7417/10). Within a few months, the investigation made rapid progress. By October 2015, a total of 9 suspects including a number of military intelligence personnel attached to the 3rd Military Intelligence Corps (MIC) Camp located in Giritale were taken into custody initially under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, but subsequently brought under the country’s Penal Code on suspicion of abduction, conspiracy and murder. Two others, a Lt. Colonel and a Corporal was arrested in September 2018 bringing the number of suspects to eleven persons. Following the first arrests, the Homagama Magistrate granted leave to the CID to visit and photograph the Giritale MIC and to examine the books and documents maintained by the camp authorities. The Army Commander was directed to provide all necessary facilities to the CID and to detail Military Police officers to provide security for them.

According to evidence that was uncovered by the CID and presented before the Magistrate Court of Homagama, Ekneligoda was first detained in Colombo, then taken to the Giritale MIC Camp, and then detained again and interrogated for several days, before he was blindfolded and taken to a location in Akkairaipattu. These findings are based on the analysis of mobile phone details of Ekneligoda as well as some of the suspects. It has however failed to establish the facts of this case beyond this point and the exact fate of the journalist following his abduction. From around October, the investigation has focused on establishing the fate of Prageeth following his abduction and detention in the Giritale camp, the person or persons responsible for his disappearance and uncovering the identity of the “authority” that issued orders to “disappear” the journalist. In pursuit of this line of investigation the CID has called for various documents from the army as well as a number of other institutions. The requested documents include records of vehicular movements, details of official mobile phone numbers issued to the suspected military personnel, authorizations for travel for more than 20 kilometres from the camp, fuel logs and receipts, attendance and leave records, telephone numbers of visitors to the suspects when they were in remand, etc. Yet the response to these requests have been excrutiatingly slow, not forthcoming at all or providing false records. In relation to some requests, the CID has reported that it received false information intended to mislead the court. Since around January 2016, senior state counsel representing the AG’s department as well as the CID officers have submitted to court that the army as well a number of institutions are not “fully cooperating” in the investigation. The CID also reported that they were “seriously obstructed by Dialog” – one of the largest mobile service operators in the country who was asked to provide details of SIM cards related to this case.

It is however, the army that has posed the greatest obstacle to this case. In relation to some documents requested, they have taken the position that producing these in court may have a serious impact on national security and pose a threat to the lives of the officials concerned. In relation to other documents, they have stated that such information was not maintained by the army or no longer exist. In June 2016, the army publicly conceded that some relevant files have gone missing. A media communiqué issued on 21 June 2016, states that the Commander of the Army has appointed a separate Court of Inquiry (COI) to trace the missing documents related to the Prageeth Ekneligoda case, the findings of which will be intimated to the Courts and the CID.

The CID on a number of occasions during investigations expressed its frustration in relation to the lack of cooperation from the army in court. It has argued that some of the documents requested relate to basic operational data with no implications for national security particularly in the absence of war. It has requested the army to spell out and explain in writing to court how exactly these documents will impact on national security. The CID has also refused to accept the army’s claim that they do not possess basic operations data requested from them.

Sandya attended court on more than 200 days. This has also given rise to a number of other cases, particularly 4 fundament rights applications filed by the suspects. Sandya has been named as an intervening party in these four cases as well.

TRIAL-AT-BAR

Amidst these challenges, even though the investigation was not concluded, in 2019, the CID determined that there was sufficient evidence to file charges against the suspects. In November 2019, the Attorney General appointed a Special Trial-at-Bar which served indictments on nine army officials over the allegations of ‘kidnapping and conspiring to murder’ journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda during a time between January 25 to 27, 2010.

The Special Trial-at-Bar which comprises Judges Sampath Abeykoon, Sampath Wijeyratne and Gihan Kulatunga subsequently released the accused on previous bail conditions as the prosecution did not object on bail because the accused have not so far violated the previous bail conditions (during the magisterial inquiry by the HC). However, the Court imposed a travel ban on the accused and ordered them to surrender the passports to the court. Sandya has attended court on the following days in relation to this case:

  • 27 November 2019
  • 22 December 2019
  • 20 January 2020
  • 6th  February 2020
  • 13 February 2020
  • 20 February 2020
  • 16 March 2020
  • 19 March 2020
  • 24 March 2020
  • 2 April 2020
  • 10th June 2020
  • 2 September 2020.

(From the https://ekneligodaforum.org)

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