(New York) – Sri Lankan authorities should challenge a parliamentarian’s claim as to the whereabouts of a political cartoonist who was forcibly disappeared in 2010 and provide information on his fate. Sri Lankan lawmaker Arundika Fernando told Sri Lanka’s Parliament on June 5, 2013, that Prageeth Ekneligoda, a cartoonist and government critic who has not been seen since leaving work on January 24, 2010, is currently living in hiding in France.
“Solving the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda and that of thousands of other Sri Lankans over past decades should be a top priority of the Sri Lankan government and its investigative agencies,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “After years of no progress in Ekneligoda’s case, any clues about his fate should prompt an intensive investigation, not shrugs by senior government officials.”
The Sri Lankan government needs to take serious measures to end enforced disappearances, provide information to families on the fate or whereabouts of their relatives, and prosecute all those responsible, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nation’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has recorded 5,671 reported cases of disappearances in Sri Lanka during its 26-year-long civil war, a figure that does not include those unaccounted for during the end stages of the war in 2008-2009 or people “disappeared” since then.
Fernando, a member of parliament with the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party, did not elaborate on his claim in parliament. However, on June 7 he said that while in France he had been introduced to Ekneligoda by Manjula Wediwardana, a Sri Lankan journalist living in France. Wediwardana, speaking to the BBC Sinhala service after Fernando’s statement, denied that he did any such thing.
After Fernando’s statement in parliament, the minister for media and information, Keheliya Rambukwella, told journalists that Fernando’s parliamentary privilege prevented the intelligence agencies from investigating his allegations about Ekneligoda’s whereabouts. Rambukwella later conceded that police could question Fernando, but could not compel him to respond.
Eknaligoda was well-known for his cartoons critical of the administration of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Lanka-e-News, a news website published in English, Sinhala, and Tamil and generally considered to be aligned with the opposition Janatha Vimukthi Peramuṇa (JVP) party, published his work. The government has long claimed to be investigating his disappearance and that of thousands of other Sri Lankans during the armed conflict. Ekneligoda’s wife has accused the Sri Lankan authorities of foot-dragging in probing his disappearance and has spearheaded a campaign to prod them to seriously investigate his possible whereabouts.
The government’s own post-war Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission expressed alarm at the number of enforced disappearances and recommended the government to urgently investigate these claims. To date no discernable action has been taken. Reports from previous government commissions set up to inquire into disappearances have largely not been made public.
International law defines an enforced disappearance as the deprivation of a person’s liberty by state officials followed by a refusal to acknowledge the arrest or the fate or whereabouts of the person.
Fernando’s allegation echoes a similar unsubstantiated claim by a senior government official that Ekneligoda, rather than being the victim of an enforced disappearance, was living abroad. Sri Lanka’s current chief justice of the Supreme Court, Mohan Peiris, told the United Nations Committee Against Torture in November 2011, when he was attorney general, that he had received intelligence that Ekneligoda was living abroad. Peiris subsequently retracted this claim when testifying before the Magistrate’s court in Colombo in June 2012. During his court testimony, Peiris admitted that his allegation about Ekneligoda’s whereabouts had been based on unverified hearsay from a source he was unable to remember.
The Rajapaksa government has a long history of media harassment and attacks on journalists critical of the government, Human Rights Watch said. Publications − including electronic media − that oppose government policies have been subject to censorship, and some have been forced to close down. The leading Tamil opposition newspaper, Uthayan, has faced repeated physical attacks against its journalists and property.
“The Rajapaksa government’s disregard for the fate of Ekneligoda reflects its broader disregard for the fate of a free press in Sri Lanka,” Adams said.