Ekneligoda, a 50-year-old cartoonist and columnist for the news website Lanka e News was last seen by his family and colleagues in the suburbs of Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo on January 24, 2010, two days before the elections that gave incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa a sweeping victory, his wife Sandya Ekneligoda told CPJ. The journalist’s family has been repeatedly subjected to harassment and threats over their efforts to locate him.
Ekneligoda – whose publication had supported 2010 opposition presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka – reported on the Sri Lankan military’s alleged use of chemical weapons against Tamil civilians during the 26-year civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) insurgent group, which ended in 2009. The journalist was also working on a book, “Pawul Gaha” (Family Tree), regarding alleged nepotism and corruption in the Rajapaksa administration.
Five months earlier, on August 27, 2009, Ekneligoda had been abducted in a white van – a vehicle type known to be used by Sri Lankan intelligence agencies and security forces. He was released the next day and told his wife that his abductors had tied him to a pole under the “unbearable heat” of a bright light while they interrogated him. They had also refused to give him his diabetes and heart medication.
He subsequently received numerous anonymous calls and was subjected to physical surveillance before being abducted again on January 24, 2010, Sandya told CPJ.
Police initially refused to register a missing person’s complaint filed by Sandya the following day, she told CPJ. In February 2010, Sandya filed a habeas corpus petition seeking a judicial order for police to produce the journalist in court. However, police repeatedly requested postponements to allow more time for investigation and did not produce substantial findings in court.
In November 2011, Sri Lanka’s former attorney general told the U.N. Committee Against Torture in Geneva that Ekneligoda was alive and living overseas.
Following the election of President Maithripala Sirisena in 2015, the investigation into Ekneligoda’s disappearance was transferred to the police Criminal Investigation Department (CID), which found that a military intelligence unit abducted and likely killed Ekneligoda. When the journalist went missing, the defense ministry was headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Two military intelligence officials subsequently testified in court that they saw Ekneligoda at Giritale Army Camp following his disappearance.
CID investigators reported that the military refused to provide documentation detailing ownership of cell phones, vehicle movements, and leave registers that could be vital evidence in the probe.
In August 2015, two former LTTE cadres were arrested in relation to the case and released months later after they became state witnesses, Sandya told CPJ. Later in August 2015, 11 military intelligence personnel were arrested on kidnapping and murder charges but all had been released on bail by late 2016.
In September 2018, two military officials were arrested in relation to both of Ekneligoda’s abductions but released on bail shortly thereafter, Sandya said.
On November 27, 2019, days after Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president and appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister, nine military officials were served indictments on kidnapping and murder charges in relation to Ekneligoda’s January 2010 abduction. The trial has seen numerous obstacles, including changes in judges, repeated delays in hearings, and changes in witness statements. The CID officer leading the investigation into Ekneligoda’s disappearance fled the country after reportedly receiving death threats and the CID director overseeing the probe was arrested and retired following his release on bail.
Separately, the trial of seven suspects accused of involvement in Ekneligoda’s August 2009 abduction began in December 2019, but has not seen substantive progress, Sandya told CPJ.
CPJ called and messaged Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s aide Sugeeshwara Bandara and police spokesperson Nihal Thalduwa for comment in early 2024, but did not receive any replies. Ministry of Defense spokesperson Nalin Herath did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment sent via email in early 2024.