How fear set in overnight in Sri Lanka

  • Published
Sandya Ekneligoda
Image caption,
Ms Ekneligoda has spent years seeking details of what happened to her husband (pictured right)

It took years for Sandya Ekneligoda to get a real investigation into the disappearance of her husband, a political cartoonist in Sri Lanka. But when a new president was elected by a large majority last November and a key officer investigating the case transferred, she realised things would change.

The BBC's Anbarasan Ethirajan reports from the other side of a political watershed.

About an hour into our conversation at her home outside Colombo, Sandya Ekneligoda glanced outside.

"By this time the police would have been informed that you were here talking to me," she said with a wry smile.

She thinks she is being watched, because she is a thorn in the side of Sri Lanka's new political order. It's certainly true that for a lot of people, the change of government meant things were about to change considerably.

A victory uncomfortable for some

Just weeks earlier, on 16 November 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had won a comfortable victory in the presidential election.

The new president is a man well-known to Sri Lankans. He served as defence secretary in his brother Mahinda Rajapaska's administration, overseeing the bloody end of the country's civil war between the army and Tamil separatist rebels a decade ago.

It is a war tainted by allegations of human rights abuses on both sides, extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances.

Ms Ekneligoda's husband was one of those who went missing.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The brothers, Mahinda and Gotabaya, now hold Sri Lanka's most powerful positions

Prageeth Ekneligoda was a cartoonist and trenchant critic of Mahinda Rajapaksa. One day in early 2010, many months after the end of the war, he left home never to return.

Six months earlier, he had been briefly kidnapped and interrogated by men in one of the white vans which would become synonymous with disappearances at the time. The journalist told his family that he knew who they were working for.

Many fear that the Rajapaksa brothers' return to power will re-open old wounds and rivalries, but most are afraid to speak out.

Ms Ekneligoda, however, has gone beyond the point of no return when it comes to keeping her counsel. She ensured the story of her husband's disappearance got global headlines.

By her account, a proper investigation into his disappearance only picked up momentum after 2015 when a new government took over following the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa. The case was handled by then director of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), Shani Abeysekara. It was to him she personally handed files and evidence pertaining to her husband's case.

Charges were finally brought against nine army intelligence officers last November - 11 days after the election that brought Gotabaya Rajapksa back to power.

The officers are thought to be part of a shadowy unit operating out of an army camp in Giritale in Sri Lanka's dry, dusty north-central province, 200km (125 miles) away from the capital. Investigators believe the cartoonist was taken to the camp.

Image caption,
The CID unit was overhauled almost overnight after the election victory

But then, despite the charges against the nine suspects, everything changed.

"Already the main accused have been released on bail. The police officers investigating the case have been transferred. The surveillance [on our family] has increased," said Ms Ekneligoda. The new government denies the surveillance allegations.

Even Mr Abeysekara was transferred within a week of the election, in what was a clear demotion.

"Now I do not have any hope of getting justice," said Ms Ekneligoda.

'Exonerating' old military friends

Estimates from various agencies say that about 20,000 Sri Lankans disappeared during the country's long conflict. That includes Tamils, rights activists, government critics and journalists, including people such as Mr Ekneligoda who operated well outside the war zone. These rough estimates are also thought to include around 5,000 soldiers.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The Rajapaksas swept back to power thanks to huge support in the Sinhala heartlands

But commissions set up by the government after the conflict to investigate alleged war crimes and enforced disappearances were dismissed by many as nothing more than attempts to deflect mounting international pressure.

In a BBC interview last year, Gotabaya Rajapaksa strongly denied any involvement in any alleged disappearances. The Rajapaksa administration has always vehemently denied accusations of rights abuses and war crimes, pointing to alleged abuses by the rebels instead.

Now firmly back in power, it also has short shift for what it sees as arbitrary accusations against military personnel.

This is something that strikes a chord with many in the country, who still feel they sent their sons off to a protracted and brutal conflict, only for them to be vilified.

One of the campaign pledges of Gotabaya Rajapaksa that resonated through the Sinhala heartlands in the lush south of the country was to release and rehabilitate all those soldiers facing what they call "framed allegations" of rights abuses.

The new administration has wasted no time in fulfilling its promise.

In January, a senior naval officer and 13 others, who had been charged with the abduction and disappearance of 11 youths in the Colombo area in 2008-2009, were all released on bail.

Weeks later, one of their number - Commodore DKP Dassanayake, the navy's spokesman during the final stages of the offensive against the Tamil Tiger rebels - was promoted to rear admiral.

He denies all the charges against him.

Media caption,

How the army finally crushed Tamil Tiger rebels after 25 years of bloody war

Meanwhile, a presidential commission - set up in the weeks after the recent election to determine whether government officials, both civil and military, had been victimised or discriminated against by the previous government - has recommended suspending the case altogether.

Sri Lanka's attorney general has stood his ground, saying the commission had no legal ground to issue such a directive and the case must continue.

For people like Sandya Ekneligoda, the direction of travel is clear; she and other critics allege the government is simply out to exonerate its old allies no matter what they are accused of.

Dismantling a 'hostile' department?

But it was the radical and immediate reorganisation of Sri Lanka's CID that surprised many, including former police officers.

The unit carries some independence within the police department, recruiting highly-skilled detectives to look into murders, commercial fraud and high-profile crimes. Most of the officers had served in the department for a long time, allowing them to specialise.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The Rajapaksa administration dismisses what it calls arbitrary accusations against the military

It was a department that had begun to make a name for itself for being unafraid to target big names.

But within days of the election, Nishantha De Silva - one of Mr Abeysekara's deputies - had fled to Switzerland fearing for his safety. The government was furious and promptly barred more than 700 other CID officers from leaving the country without permission.

Then in January Mr Abeysekara was suspended from his post after a purported leaked telephone conversation between him and a former minister reportedly discussing a politically sensitive murder case which took place during the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency in 2011.

The government has accused the CID of running a politically motivated operation allied to the UNP party, now in opposition, and that others will take their place.

"Some may have been biased towards some investigation," Chandra Fernando, a former inspector general of police and adviser to Mahinda Rajapaksa, told the BBC. "Those people cannot be kept [in their posts] for a long period."

But a look at the cases the CID was investigating gives a sense of what's at stake for the new government.

Mr Abeysekara and Mr De Silva had investigated many cases that made headlines worldwide, including the killing of newspaper editor, Lasantha Wickremetunge, who was shot and stabbed to death on his way to work in one of the busiest roads in Colombo in 2009 by unidentified men.

A fierce critic of the Rajapaksas, he also wrote about alleged corruption in defence deals at the time.

That case was reopened in 2015 - the same year as Mr Ekneligoda's case - resulting in the arrests of several army intelligence officers. In 2016, it took a darker turn when local media reported that a retired intelligence officer had taken his own life after leaving a note saying he was responsible and the others were innocent.

Another case pertained to the beating and abduction of the assistant editor of The Nation newspaper, Keith Noyahr. Several army personnel, including a major general, were arrested after the CID started investigating the assault when a new government took over from Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015. That case is still pending in the courts.

Many in the media say they are also now feeling the chill.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The mood amongst media outlets in Sri Lanka is one of "self-censorship"

"The mood is one of self-censorship. Everybody is holding back," said Gihan Nicolas, who works for Newshub, a website which criticised the Rajapaksas in the run-up to the election.

Its office was raided by police soon after Gotabaya Rajapaksa came to power.

A spokesman for Mr Rajapaksa's administration said he was "not aware" of any government involvement in the raid. He also rejected suggestions that high-profile cases against the brothers might not now receive proper legal scrutiny.

"We will never interfere with the judiciary. The judiciary will take the case on its own. We have no intention of interfering in any of the legal matters," the spokesman, Keheliya Rambukwella, told the BBC.

What of the missing?

But what about the others who are still waiting to hear about loved ones? Not the editors and the cartoonists, who could give voice to their concerns, but the mothers and wives in the north where the worst of the war violence took place.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Tamil families say they have not heard anything from their relatives after they surrendered to the army.

Image caption,
Thousands of people remain missing in Sri Lanka

Kandasamy Ponnamma, an elderly Tamil woman from the northern town of Kilinochchi - far away from political appointments and military rehabilitation - is still waiting for answers, as are many others like her.

"After they surrendered, I saw my son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren being taken away in a bus by the Sri Lankan troops. I still don't know where they are and what happened to them," Ms Ponnamma said.

They had placed their hopes in the Office of Missing Persons, finally set up in 2018 after years of international pressure. But it had only just begun its work - and now, following the election, its future looks highly uncertain.

Image caption,
Kandasamy Ponnamma's family were taken away by troops and she never saw them again

"Some of the local rights groups working with the OMP have come already under pressure. Military intelligence personnel have visited their offices and questioned them about their finances and funding," said an activist, who did not want to be identified.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa rejects allegations that those who surrendered to the army at the end of the war were killed in cold blood. But the messaging is confused - as evidenced when he told UN officials in January that most of the missing were actually dead.

After a wave of anger and outrage officials back-tracked, saying that most of the missing civilians had actually been forcibly recruited by Tamil rebels.

But it is not a question that will go away for the government - whether it is the disappearance and murder of journalists, the abduction of young men, or the fate of thousands of Tamils caught up in the fighting as the war ended. There are still many thousands of relatives waiting for answers.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who has won praise for bringing political stability after years of infighting during the last administration, wants the country to turn a new chapter and focus on development and security.

But activists point out that it will be difficult to look towards the future without genuinely addressing the ghosts of the past.

Meanwhile, as the case against the men involved in her husband's alleged disappearance continues, Sandya Ekneligoda, who can only assume her husband is no longer alive, must carry on waiting and asking.