Sri Lanka’s former attorney general Mohan Peiris, who is now the senior legal adviser to the cabinet and who many Sri Lankans say is aiming to become the next Supreme Court Chief Justice, has made conflicting statements about missing journalist Prageeth Eknelygoda. The discrepancies do more than point up the government’s indifference to Eknelygoda’s fate and the mental anguish of his wife and two sons. Peiris’s statements highlight the disregard with which the government views international opinion.
Eknelygoda has been missing since being abducted on the evening of January 24, 2010 after he left his home to work at the Lanka eNews offices, shortly before the presidential elections that kept President Mahinda Rajapaksa in power for another six-year term. (More recently, Lanka eNews has been shut down after an arson attack on its office in January of this year and the arrest and harassment of its Sri Lanka-based staff. The site continues to be run out of England by its publisher, Sandaruwan Senadheera. Access in Sri Lanka to five other websites has been shut down by government order in recent weeks.)
In Geneva on November 8, in a prepared response to questions about Sri Lanka’s human rights record from the Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Peiris said, “An investigation into the abduction of Prageeth Eknelygoda is being conducted by the Homagama police and by the CCD [Colombo Crimes Division]. Investigation is being continued. So far no one has been arrested in this connection.” (See page 46 of that official document.)
But, according to the Asian Human Rights Commission, in a question and answer session after the presentation, Peiris said that, according to reliable information, Eknelygoda has taken refuge in a foreign country and that the campaign against his disappearance is a hoax. Peiris failed to provide detailed information about where Eknelygoda had fled, the AHRC correspondent said.
Well aware of Eknelygoda’s case, some diplomatic sources in Colombo say Peiris’s statements have caused concern, and a few missions have asked the police and the president’s office for clarification. Peiris’s statement that Eknelygoda “is living in a foreign country as a refugee — going against the official written response and without stating where or based on what sources — is just another smoke screen, I’m afraid,” one diplomatic source told CPJ.
When CPJ asked Sandhya Eknelygoda about Peiris’s claims, she was incredulous. In remarks translated from Sinhala by a family friend, she told CPJ:
If my husband is hiding as was mentioned by Peiris he would never have stayed without contacting me. He loves our children and would not put us through such pain. Mohan Peiris says he knows where my husband is. I want him brought to me if his claims are true.
For almost two years, the family has been asking the Sri Lankan government for any information about Prageeth, who was a columnist and cartoonist. Not one government official has given them any information, and despite Peiris’s claims that the case remains under investigation, other than to set new court dates there has been no movement in the case.
In March, CPJ and four other groups sent a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asking to have the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and UNESCO, which oversees press freedom, to look into the case of Eknelygoda’s, but there has been no apparent movement from within the UN. Sandhya Eknelygoda’s personal appeal to the president’s wife, Shiranthi Rajapaksa, has also gone unanswered.
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Another note, not unrelated: The report on human rights abuses in the aftermath of the decades-long conflict with Tamil secessionists prepared by the government’s Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) will be presented to Rajapaksa around November 22. The report will then be tabled in Parliament, but will probably not be taken up for discussion or acted on until next year. The national budget will be presented on November 21 and the ensuing debate will carry on through December, after which Parliament will recess. The timing of the tabling means its official release will be delayed for two months, though details are sure to start leaking as soon as Parliament gets the report.
The government organized the LLRC in the hopes of heading off an international investigation into the brutal conflict, despite calls from the U.N. for an international role in dealing with the aftermath. (It is worth noting that international media coverage of the eight-member commission was prohibited.) The government’s international diplomatic offensive has already begun.
Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Palitha Kohona, told the U.N. last week of the LLRC’s interim recommendations. Many of them have already been implemented by the government, Kohona said.
A March 2011 report by a panel of experts appointed by Secretary-General Ban called the LLRC “deeply flawed.” It recommended that the government should end practices that limit freedom of movement and freedom of expression “or otherwise contribute to a climate of fear.”
Amid a steady crackdown on any media critical of the government, that climate of fear not only continues for Sandhya Eknelygoda and the couple’s two teenage sons, but has been exacerbated by Mohan Peiris’ remarks at the hearings in Geneva, and his facile response to the questions that followed.
UPDATE: The duration of Rajapaksa’s term has been corrected in the second paragraph.