Struggles ‘swept aside’ in Sri Lanka

Prospects of justice have paled for those affected by wartime disappearances

Updated - June 03, 2019 08:46 am IST

Published - June 02, 2019 10:28 pm IST - Colombo

Sandya Eknaligoda, wife of journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda. Photo: Amnesty International

Sandya Eknaligoda, wife of journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda. Photo: Amnesty International

The enormity of Sri Lanka’s Easter bombings was pretty clear by the end of day, April 21. At least 250 lives had been lost and the island was jolted into realising that its relative post-war peace was far from secure.

Over a month since, as Sri Lankans grapple with lingering fear and get used to heightened security all around, some worry that the attacks could have had an impact deeper than apparent.

For those pushing for accountability in cases of war-time disappearances and murders, the prospect of justice has further paled.

According to Sandya Eknaligoda, wife of dissident cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda who was forcibly disappeared about a decade ago, many struggles for justice have been “swept aside or marginalised” after the Easter Sunday bombings.

Imminent change

Pointing to an “imminent political change”, she said: “Gotabaya [former Defence Secretary] is planning to contest presidential elections . Some military personnel accused of crimes may want to hinder progress in those cases [linked to military] as they feel they can enjoy impunity. Rule of law and justice will be even more uncertain in future.”

The recent reinstatement of military intelligence officer Prabath Bulathwatte, accused of carrying out targeted attacks against high-profile journalists, has amplified apprehensions. Named as a key suspect, Mr. Bulathwatte, arrested in 2017, was out on bail before he was re-inducted into a team probing the Easter bombings.

The apparent impunity, activists fear, is not confined to war-era military officers linked to the high-profile cases. The presidential pardon for reactionary monk Gnanasara Thero, weeks after the Easter attacks, sparked similar concern.

Last summer, the controversial monk — accused of instigating anti-Muslim violence in the past — was convicted for contempt of court. He had stormed the courtroom and openly threatened Ms. Eknaligoda in January 2016, when a magistrate court was hearing a case of her disappeared husband.

In her view, the pardon is a “serious blow” to the judiciary and the administration of justice. “It is a rejection of rule of law and not what we expected when we advocated for ‘good governance’,” she said, referring to the central promise made by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, before their coalition rose to power, unseating Mahinda Rajapaksa from office in 2015. The other key promise was their pledge to probe high-profile murders and disappearances during the Rajapaksa regime.

On its part, the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) made “significant progress” in many of the cases, said a top official source familiar with the investigations. The “complete” file on the 2008 abduction of investigative journalist Keith Noyahr was submitted to the Attorney General’s department almost a year ago. More recently, the probe findings of the abduction of 11 youth in 2008-09 were handed over to the AG’s department.

‘No progress’

“So much [of evidence] came out in the investigation, but nothing progressed beyond a point,” said Ayesha Thajudeen, sister of rugby star Wasim Thajudeen whose body was found in his car in 2012, fully charred. The case drew much attention, especially since the probe pointed to Mr. Rajapaksa’s family members having had an alleged role in the murder — a charge they squarely denied.

Last week, the Colombo High Court issued issued summons on former Senior DIG Anura Senanayake linked to the case. Ms. Thajudeen said: “I don’t know what will come of it. The CID has worked very hard on this case. Our family went through a lot... dealing with our brother’s body being exhumed, for the sake of justice. They say justice delayed is justice denied,” adding that the current situation gave little hope. “Elections are due this year. Maybe leaders will yet again promise justice for my brother’s murder,” she said.

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