Prageeth Ekneligoda

DISAPPEARANCES IN SRI LANKA: 500 DAYS OF PROTESTS

First published in the Sunday Observer of 29th July 2018 http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2018/07/29/opinion/disappearances-sri-lanka-500-days-protests

Earlier this month female activists in the North and the East were subject to assault and other intimidation, which allegedly appears to be in relation to their work on disappearances, in courts and at the UN.

The Office of Missing Persons consultation meetings in Jaffna and Kilinochchi also met with fierce resistance by some families of the disappeared. July also saw the first significant solidarity protest in Colombo to mark 500 days of roadside protests by families of the disappeared in the North and the East.

Two weeks ago, I went to Jaffna Hospital to visit an activist I have known for many years. Her head was bandaged, left eye and cheek swollen and bruised. She had been attacked with an iron rod close to the Vaddukottai Police Station in the Jaffna district. The activist had been assisting families of the disappeared and lawyers in habeas corpus cases in Jaffna courts. According to documents filed in court and based on the magisterial inquiry, the military is allegedly implicated in the disappearances.

These disappearances had happened in 1996, when Jaffna was under Army control, under the Presidency of Chandrika Kumaratunga, who is now Chairperson of the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR). The activist was attacked three days after the last hearing of the case.

She had been warned by an unidentified person not to get involved in the case. Others involved in the case have also been subject to intimidation in the past few months.

Two days before, I had met a Tamil activist from the East, whose husband had been a victim of an enforced disappearance. Having had no response from Sri Lankan authorities, she had for the first time, gone to Geneva to seek help from the UN Human Rights Council.

There, an event she was speaking at was disrupted by group of persons she suspects to be linked to the military. After the disruption, she fainted while at the head-table, had to receive immediate medical treatment and was later hospitalised.

Her trauma continued when she returned. She told me that as she was looking for her baggage in the airport, she was questioned by some officials at the airport. After reaching home, she alleged that she was interrogated by people suspected to be from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) about meetings she had at the UN in Geneva.

A few days later, an iron rod was thrown at her, when she was on a bicycle with her son in her hometown.

The brutal attack on the Jaffna disappearance activist happened while the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) was holding consultations in the town. The next day, OMP held a similar meeting in Kilinochchi. From the Jaffna hospital, I went to the OMP meeting in Kilinochchi, arriving earlier than the scheduled 9.30 a.m. I found the small access road crowded with protesters, mostly Tamil mothers and wives of those disappeared. Some of them had been protesting for more than 500 days continually, had met the Sri Lankan President several times, and complained to various state institutions and Commissions of Inquiries.

Frustrated and fed up, they had no faith in new institutions. They politely and patiently explained this to the equally polite and patient Chairman of the OMP, who had come out to the street to talk to them. The protest leaders agreed with OMP Chair’s appeal not to obstruct families who wanted to attend the OMP meeting, but insisted on their right to communicate their message to families going for the meeting. I observed that some such attempts bordered on physical obstruction, though the road and gate was cleared for anyone to go to the OMP building.

Some families who were keen to go to the OMP meeting, argued with protesters, with one elderly lady telling a protest leader “you deal with your son’s disappearance the way you want, I will deal with disappearance of my son the way I want”.

While I share the frustrations of protesting families, I hope their leaders will find more respectful ways of engaging with families of disappeared who want to engage with the OMP.

In the end, only about 10 families attended the meeting with OMP. During the meeting, one family of the disappeared asked the OMP to deliver justice instead of having meeting-after-meeting. Another shared the belief that a 15 year old child taken away by the LTTE was still alive and another stressed the importance of livelihood assistance. The question of those who had disappeared after surrendering to the Army was also raised.

500 days of day and night protests

From the Kilinochchi OMP meeting, I went to Vavuniya, to spend some time with families of the disappeared who have been protesting day and night at a roadside tent for more than 500 days. They shared difficulties of sustaining such a long protest. Anger and disappointment with the Government, Tamil politicians, media, activists and society in general was visible. I again felt weakening health conditions and resolve of some protesters and a few days after my visit, I heard about the death of the eighth protestor who had died during the 500 days. It was also sad to see escalating tensions between protesting families with activists, politicians and even non-protesting families of the disappeared, inevitable given their hostile, inhospitable, frustrating and traumatic experiences.

Although the families must finally decide about how to protest, it would be insensitive to encourage continued protests in the context of authorities, media and society at large that are not sympathetic to their plight. Elderly and physically and emotionally frail mothers and fathers who are protesting are vulnerable to harsh conditions. I had always hoped protesters will consider forms of continuing protests less harmful to themselves, so, I was relieved to hear last week that some of the protesters had decided to change strategy.

Challenges facing families and the OMP

In my conversations with families of disappeared, food, education, healthcare, housing and livelihoods have emerged as major challenges to families of the disappeared – and especially to those protesting for 500 days. Once, when I arrived at a protest site late morning, the protesters had not had any breakfast. Families at one protest site told me that they get five lunch packets from a local trader and share them.

The latest attacks on Tamil women disappearance activists in North and East comes after the vicious hate campaign including death threats against the brave and determined Sandya Ekneligoda, a Sinhalese from a Colombo suburb and wife of a disappeared journalist. Such attacks may deter activism and increase anger, frustration and suspicion against the judiciary or institutions such as the OMP, and radicalise families and others.

Families of the disappeared confront the OMP with the legacy of broken promises by successive Governments and the failures of past Commissions to provide redress. To their mind, there is no compelling reason to trust that the OMP will deliver. Families who have been deceived and dismissed repeatedly even by the current ruling administration will not be convinced by technical answers about how the OMP is different to other mechanisms.

Discussions between protestors and the OMP Chair and Members in Kilinochchi and their memo to the Office indicate they were open to engage conditionally with the mechanism and should be taken seriously. After five months of operation, the OMP does not appear to have started tracing the disappeared and missing. The challenge for the OMP is to deliver on actions and in months, rather than years.

Solidarity

This note would not be complete without mention of the 30-hour overnight protest vigil in Colombo to show support and solidarity towards the 500 days continuing protests by Tamil families of the disappeared in the North and the East. It was a first such solidarity action in Colombo and a personal initiative of a small group of committed young activists. It was heartening to have few Sinhalese and Muslim families of the disappeared from around Colombo such as Sandya Ekneligoda, Mauri Jayasena and Sithi join us. Some people walking by and the occasional trishaw and motorcycle stopped and asked for details. Both drivers of the two trishaws I got in chatted with me about it. Others in vehicles, including Army officers, opened their windows and accepted our information leaflet.

As they wait for answers from the Government and institutions such as the OMP and judiciary about their loved ones, families of the disappeared deserve more coverage by mainstream Sinhalese and English media. And they need continued solidarity from Sri Lankan society and internationally. The struggle of the families must become a struggle of all Sri Lankans.

(The writer is a human rights activist)

Advertisements

Freedom of Expression on the decline in Sri Lanka

First published on 3rd May 2018 at http://groundviews.org/2018/05/03/freedom-of-expression-on-the-decline-in-sri-lanka/

The last twelve months, since World Press Freedom day 2017, has not been a good year for freedom of expression in Sri Lanka. The war ravaged North bore the brunt of repression, while there were also several incidents in other parts of the country. Victims included journalists, lawyers, activists, artists and in particular those speaking out and advocating on issues such as of women’s rights, gender and sexuality. A website that had published content critical of the President was blocked, following an intervention from the Presidential Secretariat. With very few exceptions, impunity reigned for past violations of free expression, including most serious ones such as killings and disappearances of journalists and media workers and arson attacks on media institutions. At an event organized by the Free Media Movement (FMM) on the eve of World Press Freedom day, all the speakers and several participants acknowledged the lack of movement in structural reforms to the media in Sri Lanka in the last year.

Free Expression in 2017 – 2018 in the North

In March this year, the Army was reported to have detained and questioned Shanmugam Thavaseelan, a Tamil journalist reporting about Army’s alleged attempts to seize the land of a destroyed LTTE cemetery. When the journalist had refused to hand over his camera to be searched, he was interrogated by the Army who implied that his days were numbered and also subjected him to verbal abuse. The Army appeared to have acknowledged this during an inquiry by the Human Rights Commission, but there were no reports of even disciplinary action against the responsible officers. In December last year, a group of Tamil journalists doing research on Sinhalisation in the Tamil majority Mullaitivu area were reported to have been detained and questioned by Army and Police, their cameras and equipment seized and photos and videos deleted. The identity details and vehicle registration numbers were also recorded and were photographed by the soldiers.

Also in December, in two separate incidents, two Tamil journalists, Subramaniam Baskaran and Shanmuganathan Manoharan were reported to have been beaten. In July, another Tamil journalist, Uthayarasa Shalin was reported to have been stopped by two soldiers when he was travelling to Maruthankerny, to report on a protest by Tamil families of disappeared, and accused of writing lies. Also in July, Northern Tamil print and broadcast journalist T. Pratheepanwas reported to have received multiple summons by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to appear in Colombo to testify about broadcasting a press conference, and after informing his inability to travel to Colombo, he was interrogated for three hours about the press conference and was asked to produce footage. His statements, given in Tamil, were transcribed in Sinhala – a language he does not understand and he was pressured to sign this Sinhala document despite being unable to verify its contents. Tamil journalists in the North reported continued surveillance and intimidations.

In a bizarre incident, V. S. Sivakaran, the head of the Federation of Community Organisations in Mannar was reported to have been summoned to appear before the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) in Colombo, in relation to a letter he had written to President Sirisena, ahead of the latter’s plans to visit the opening of an allegedly illegally constructed Buddhist temple in the vicinity of the historic Thiruketheeswaram Hindu Temple in an area with no Buddhist residents. In his letter, Sivakaran is reported to have criticised the President for his planned participation in the event and that the President’s attendance at the opening ceremony would be marked with protests from aggrieved locals. Sivakaran had not issued any threat to the President’s person.

 Mariyasuresh Easwary, a Tamil woman whose husband had disappeared and has been vocal leader of a prolonged protest demanding truth and justice was assaulted in Mullaitivu. A rights activist was interrogated and beaten on his way home after speaking at an event. A memorial event to remember and grieve for Tamils killed in the war was stopped and organisers harassed and subjected to investigations. In November, two Tamil youths from the Vavuniya district in the Northern Province posted a photo on Facebook showing the Vavuniya District Secretariat office, the purpose of which appeared to be to draw attention to a poster of a tree planting campaign and a large tree behind the poster that looked as if it had been cut. They were questioned by the Vavuniya police, and made to sign an affidavit written in Sinhala, a language they don’t understand, and were told that they could lose their jobs and that they could not photograph Government offices nor critique their actions.

These incidents indicate a trend where the Army and Police seems determined to restrict reporting on matters considered to be sensitive such as disappearances, remembering war-dead, Sinhalisation, land, militarisation and anything critical of the government.

Freedom of Expression outside the North

While freedom of expression was under the greatest strain in the North, there were also several alarming incidents across the rest of the country from 2017 to 2018. Lakshan Dias, a human rights lawyer speaking about the rights violations of religious minorities on TV was threatened by the then Minister of Justice and was compelled to flee the country temporarily, and was subjected to lengthy interrogation on return. Sudesh Nandimal De Silva, an eyewitness and vocal campaigner seeking justice for prison massacre had his house shot at, and received death threats by phone. Human rights lawyer Senaka Perera who had filed a petition on behalf of Nandimal, also received death threats by phone. There were vicious threats online against them and others campaigning for justice. On October 6, Police Assistant Superintendent Roshan Daluwatte was recorded assaulting journalist Susantha Bandara Karunaratne while the latter was being taken into custody. The video of Karunaratne being held by two police officers while Daluwatte slapped him went viral online and was widely broadcast on television. The Human Rights Commission launched an investigation into the incident shortly after.

In general, foreign journalists found access and the working environment  in Sri Lanka favourable, but in March 2018, a week after the attacks on Muslims by mobs identifying as Buddhists, heavily armed Army and Navy personnel tried to stop an Al Jazeera crew with government accreditation, from filming by the roadside. One soldier warned that they don’t like the situation ongoing in the area being known overseas and another stated that they had been ordered not to allow filming in the area, though this was later denied by the Director General of the Government Information Department.

Free Expression online

In March this year, the government restricted access to several social media platforms for several days in the aftermath of attacks against Muslims by mobs identifying themselves as Buddhists in the Kandy district. Right To Information (RTI) requests by the editor of the citizen journalism website Groundviews revealed that the website Lanka E News was blocked, after a letter from the Presidential Secretariat to the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission noting that the website has been publishing false articles about the President and family members and asking the TRC’s Director General to “take suitable action”. Earlier on, Groundviews had managed to obtain a list of 13 websites that had been blocked from 2015onwards by the TRC, with at least in four instances, the order coming directly from the Presidential Secretariat, who via the Media Ministry had made applications to block specific websites, often on the grounds of providing incorrect or false information about the President.

 Reprisals for expressing opinions and advocating on women’s rights, gender and sexuality

In April this year, a performance in Colombo titled “Cardinal Sin”, by Grassrooted Trust, looking at proposed reforms to abortion law was barred by the government’s censorship arm, the Public Performance Board. The performance was part of an annual event called “V day”, the 2018 version of which was called “PatriANarchy” focusing on how patriarchal values continue to inflict violence in Sri Lanka.

The Muslim Personal Law Reforms Action Group (MPLRAG) , which have expressed strong positions against discriminatory and oppressive elements of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) have often come under attack in social media, with accusations ranging from them being a group operating in secret, being Israeli agents, not looking like Muslim women etc. Those expressing opinions and advocating in favor of equal rights for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender persons also faced vicious attacks on social media. Women’s dresses, ranging from abaya to bikini also drew criticism on social media. In April this year, the English language “Daily Mirror” newspaper used words such as “nag”, “nitpick”, bemoan”, “lamenting” to describe women who went to courts against discriminatory laws.

Impunity

In August 2017, Nadesapillai Vithyatharan, who was abducted in 2009, tortured and subsequently dumped on the roadside while he was editing the Colombo based “Sudar Oli” paper during the war had asked a senior Sri Lankan journalist Sunanda Deshapriya, ‘Why is this Government not investigating my abduction? Is it because I am not a Wickrematunge or Ekneligoda?’ The then Secretary to Defense had told an Australian TV, “Vithyatharan is a terrorist, so we arrested him”, and Vithyatharan identified two policemen who came to abduct him by name as Ranganathan and Wijerathana. But still, there is no arrests and none of these three have been even questioned to the best of our knowledge.

Tamil journalist Subramaniam Ramachandran disappeared in February 2007 after being seen at an Army checkpoint.

Another Tamil journalist Subramaniyam Sugirtharajan was killed in January 2006 after he had published photos indicating 5 youth killed in Trincomalee in 2006 were by shooting and not due to grenade injuries as narrated by the Special Task Force (STF) of the Police. The Uthayan newspaper office have been subjected to arson attacks and it’s journalists and media workers killed, disappeared, assaulted and threatened numerous times during and after the war, but no one has been arrested, prosecuted or convicted.

In contrast, there has been some progress on three few high profile journalists cases in Colombo. In relation to the killing of Sunday Leader newspaper’s editor Lasantha Wickramatunga and the abduction and torture of Deputy Editor of the Nation newspaper Keith Noyahr, a senior Police Officer an Army Officers were arrested this year.

But after some arrests and revealing of significant information to courts, the case of Prageeth Ekneligoda disappearance seems to be stagnating since about 2016 when all the suspects were released on bail, the last of which was just after a public statement of the President criticising the detention of Army intelligence personnel. Both the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and State Counsel leading the case on behalf of the Attorney General’s (AG) department, had repeatedly told courts of the Army providing false information, denying possession of evidence, delaying production of evidence and misleading investigations and courts. They had also reported a lack of cooperation and obstructions towards investigations from the Army, and intimidation towards witnesses. A key witness, who had seen and questioned Ekneligoda in the Giritale camp on 25th January 2015, has complained to the Police about a conspiracy to harm his life from the Giritale camp.

Significantly, more than three years after the new government came into power, there have been no prosecutions even in these cases, in May 2008, January 2009 and January 2010 respectively.

Conclusion

In the annual World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reports without Borders (RSF), Sri Lanka still languishes in the “bad” or “red” category (Above very bad, but below Good, Fairly Good, Problematic), placed 131 out of 180. The RSF index indicates that Sri Lanka’s situation on press freedom has improved in relation to other countries by ten notches in the last year, but it should not be misunderstood or misinterpreted as indicating an improvement of the situation of press freedom in Sri Lanka since 2017.

Although there has been no killings or disappearances of journalists, media workers or arson attacks on media institutions during this period, the many threats to Freedom of Expression in last 12 months such as those mentioned above, and impunity for past violations, makes it clear that Freedom of Expression was on the decline in Sri Lanka in 2017-2018.

Ekneligoda, Sugirtharajan and 24th January

First published at https://groundviews.org/2018/01/24/ekneligoda-sugirtharajan-and-24th-january/ on 24th January 2018

For several years, the Free Media Movement (FMM) of Sri Lanka and free expression advocates have dubbed January as “Black January”. This was in the context of a large number of journalists killed, disappeared, assaulted, as well as attacks on media institutions – all in January.

24th is one such black day in January. The Trincomalee based Tamil journalist Subramaniyam Sugirtharajan was shot dead on 24th January 2006. The Colombo based Sinhalese cartoonist and journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda disappeared on 24th January 2010.

The almost forgotten journalist killing: Subramaniyam Sugirtharajan

Sugirtharajan, popularly known as SSR, was a part-time provincial journalist working for the Tamil language daily Sudar Oli. He was a father of two children. He had been staying a few kilometers from the office of the Eastern Province Governor. A journalist and close friend of SSR, took me to the spot SSR was shot. It was approximately less than 100 meters from the Governor’s office and about 200 meters from his own house. Another journalistic colleague and friend of SSR told me that before the killing, SSR had been feeling insecure and wanted to find a safer house in a different location. A house had been identified, but he was killed before he could actually move. Everyone I spoke to mentioned that the nearest reason for his killing would have been the photos he took of 5 youth murdered on the beach of Trincomalee on 2ndJanuary 2006, popularly known now as the “Trinco 5 case”. Another friend of SSR, also known to me, told me that on the morning of 3rd January 2006, SSR had told him that he wanted to get photos of the five youth killed, whose bodies were at the mortuary. Our mutual friend had dropped SSR, armed with a camera, at the hospital. According to him, the military was not allowing anyone, even the families of the youth, access to the mortuary to see the bodies. But SSR had persisted. And finally, the photos he took were published on “Sudar Oli” newspaper on 4th January 2006. They had shown clear gunshot wounds, thus, disputing the version that the youth had not been shot dead. Reporters sans frontières (RSF) had noted that SSR had also detailed the abuses committed by Tamil paramilitary groups including the EPDP in the Trincomalee region, the day before his murder.

One journalist friend of SSR in Trincomalee spoke to me at length about his association with SSR and aftermath of his killings. He said he had spontaneously rushed to the spot of his killing when he heard the news, but later, was too scared to go to the hospital to see the body or even for the funeral. Two days later, he had got a letter, from group called “Force destroying the Enemy”. The letter had accused him of canvassing for Vanni Tigers, that 3 such persons had been identified, verdict had been delivered and implemented on one person (Sugirtharajan) and that he should count his days, as he was going to be the 2nd.

Disappearance of a journalist: Prageeth Ekneligoda

Like SSR, Prageeth Ekneligoda had also attracted the wrath of persons he had critiqued and exposed through his writings and cartoons. Prageeth also is a father of two boys. Reports by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to the Courts indicate that Ekneligoda was abducted from Rajagiriya in the Colombo district by Army Intelligence personnel, and taken to Giritale Army Intelligence camp, where he had been questioned about a book related to family of then President Rajapakse. According to CID investigation reports to courts, the abductors had moved from Akkaraipattu to Giritale from 25th until the 27th afternoon, without proper records of their movements and that of vehicles. Both the CID and State Counsel leading the case on behalf of the Attorney General’s (AG) department, had repeatedly told courts of the Army providing false information, denying possession of evidence, delaying production of evidence and misleading investigations and courts. They had also reported a lack of cooperation and obstructions towards investigations from the Army, and intimidation towards witnesses. A key witness, who had seen and questioned Ekneligoda in the Giritale camp on 25th January 2015, has complained to the Police about a conspiracy to harm his life from the Giritale camp.

Hostile posters had appeared on public places against Ekneligoda’s wife, Sandya Ekneligoda, the central figure in the campaign for truth and justice in Ekneligoda’s disappearance. She has faithfully gone to courts more than hundred times, often alone, despite the hostility of suspects who were from Military Intelligence, that had been arrested and subsequently released on bail. The suspect’s supporters had also been hostile to Sandya, and she was compelled to complain to the Police about intimidation from one of these, Galaboda Ethhe Gnanasara Thero, leader of the Bodu Bala Sena. A separate case is progressing in relation to this, after Sandya had insisted on justice through the judicial process instead of “settling” the matter through a mediation board.

Free expression today

I feel this write-up will not be complete without briefly looking at free expression in Sri Lanka today. I will try doing this through some incidents that made strong impressions on me in 2017. In and around Colombo, the house of a vocal campaigner against a prison massacre was shot at, a human rights lawyer got death threats from an unknown caller, another rights lawyer was threatened by the then Minister of Justice for speaking out against violence against religious minorities and a trade union leader was abducted amidst months long worker’s protest. In the former war ravaged North, a protesting wife of a disappeared man was assaulted, a memorial for war dead was stopped and organizers harassed and subjected to investigations, youth were questioned and threatened by Police for posting photos of a government office and journalists were summoned for questioning, stopped from engaging in investigative journalism and reporting issues such as disappearances and militarization etc. Websites have been blocked arbitrarily. There are many more I can add to the list. Clearly, although no journalist was killed or disappeared in Sri Lanka in 2017, it was still a bad year for free expression and fundamental freedom.

Prospects for justice for Ekneligoda, Sugitharajan and other victims

The courageous, determined and sustained campaign of 8 years by Sandya, significant national and international media attention and investigations by the CID appears to have brought out some truths about the disappearance of Ekneligoda in 2015-2016. But progress appears to have stalled, or even moved backwards last year, primarily due to lack of cooperation from the Army and key suspects being released on bail a few weeks after President publicly questioned their detention. Compared to Ekneligoda, there has been very little national and international interest about Sugirtharajan, murdered four years before Ekneligoda disappeared. Not surprisingly, there is no progress in investigations and no arrests.

It is twelve years since Sugirtharajan was killed. Eight years after Ekneligoda disappeared. And three years since a government that had a mandate of “good governance” came into power, promising accountability for past violations, such as against Sugirtharajan and Ekneligoda. But right now, for both of them, as well as numerous other freedom of expression violations, including in Black January, prospects for truth and justice through prosecutions and convictions appear bleak and a distant dream.