5000 days later, Sandya is still awaiting justice
Pix by Pradeep Pathirana
A cartoon of a politician removing the eyes off the common man caught the attention of the writer amidst many other black and white cartoons mounted on the walls of veteran cartoonist and journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda’s house. For October 4, 2023 it has been 5000 days since he had been reported missing. His spouse, Sandya Ekneligoda, like any other loved one of a person who had been subjected to an enforced disappearance had been demanding justice since day one. From protest marches and campaigns to solo protests, Mrs. Ekneligoda continues her struggle to find her beloved husband. This time, their home has been transformed into an exhibition of sorts; his computer, floppy disks, pens and pencils lay idle in an enclosed container and a collection of Prageeth’s most satirical cartoons have been mounted on the walls, for visitors to admire.
A long quest for justice
For families of persons subjected to enforced disappearances, justice has been like a feather in the wind, a feather that is blown away by changing political winds over successive regimes. Since January 24, 2010, the day Prageeth was reported missing, Mrs. Ekneligoda had been openly accusing the Rajapaksa family for the abduction. Having languished in police stations and local courts, Sandya’s quest for justice landed her at The Hague Tribunal as well. But in 2022, she took a different approach, abandoning her white saree which was worn as a sign of mourning, shaving her head and seeking divine intervention.
When Gotabaya Rajapaksa assumed duties as President in 2019, Sandya delivered a missive containing a traditional ‘vas kaviya’ – a poem titled ‘Naga Sandeshaya’ wishing for the destruction of enemies at the Modara Sri Maha Badra Kali Amman Kovil on January 24, 2022. The missive appeared to have written by Goddess Paththini to Goddess Kali calling for the destruction of the Rajapaksa’s and those who were responsible for Prageeth’s abduction. Coincidentally or otherwise, several months later, a massive people’s protest was staged against the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime demanding him to resign as people battled with multiple crises.
Justice denied ?
Justice through judicial means have failed Sandya on numerous occasions. Suspects who were arrested in connection to the case have already been bailed out. Apart from the appreciations, Sandya and her two sons have been threatened on numerous occasions as well. “The biggest threat I received back in 2010 was that people claimed that I didn’t cry,” said Mrs. Ekneligoda in an interview with the Daily Mirror. “Then in 2012 people blamed me for wearing a smile because they were of the view that I should be weeping since my husband is missing. I have heard a media minister claiming that he has no evidence to determine that Prageeth is a journalist. Then a senior Attorney General at the time claimed that he saw Prageeth during an overseas tour. But when he was summoned to courts he says he doesn’t have sufficient evidence to prove his claim and that ‘God only knows where Prageeth is’. Another minister at the time claimed that he had seen Prageeth in France. But things took a drastic turn after 2015 where the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) was appointed to probe the incident. Eventually Prageeth was labelled as an LTTE sympathizer and that he plotted against the Rajapaksa’s and the entire investigation process became a mess. I continued to face humiliation. Things escalated to a point where some even made remarks to the effect that they would kill my sons and would give me their flesh.”
Speaking about the cases filed Mrs. Ekneligoda claims that the judicial process has been hindered due to various political interventions. “When the case was heard in May this year, neither the judge nor the representative of the Attorney General’s Department or the usual CID officer were present. The judge was asking me to look for the prosecution party. I was appalled because my lawyer too was absent. Based on my experiences, the court officials usually ring the officials who should be appearing for the case and remind them to be present. But nothing of that sort happened that day and I was shocked.”
Sandya observes that things haven’t changed even though the Rajapaksas have been ousted. “Witnesses continue to be pressured”
She had already written to the Chief Justice requesting an explanation as to why a judge who has connections to the military was appointed to hear the case. “But I still haven’t heard from him. The Attorney General’s Department claims that the judge’s service has been terminated. As such a new judge is now hearing the case,” she said while adding that if the government has been accused of a criminal case, the least they could do is to turn up at a court proceeding and present their evidence as it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that justice is served to victims.
In Sri Lanka, most criminals evade crimes as a result of impunity and therefore justice is a rocky road ahead. “A case is handed over to the trial-at-bar to complete proceedings as soon as possible,” she explained. “There was a senior panel of judges when the case was first heard and I had a lot of hopes. But today, none of these judges are hearing the case as they have either resigned or have been transferred to higher courts. Had they remained, the verdict would have already been delivered a long time ago.”
However, Sandya observes that things haven’t changed even though the Rajapaksas have been ousted.“Witnesses continue to be pressured. But at the time Prageeth went missing, the incumbent President Ranil Wickremesinghe was the Opposition Leader. The following day he even called me and said that he would help me find Prageeth. So he still has a chance to serve justice to Prageeth.”
At the time Prageeth went missing, the incumbent President Ranil Wickremesinghe was the Opposition Leader. The following day he even called me and said that he would help me find Prageeth. So he still has a chance to serve justice to Prageeth”
Down memory lane
At the backyard of the Ekneligoda abode, a long white cloth provides the backdrop for numerous postcards and letters that Sandya had received in appreciation of her struggle from far and wide. A young Kohomba tree adds more emotion to the entire narrative. According to Sandya, Prageeth used to have his meals in the backyard and he would throw away the leftovers to a particular corner of the backyard. These leftovers would eventually become meals to several dogs in the neighbourhood. Today, a Kohomba tree which Sandya claims had grown naturally indicates the place where the leftovers of Prageeth’s meals were once thrown.