The harassment of Ms. Sandya Ekneligoda by the government’s supporters in Geneva and by the Attorney General’s department, for joining the UN Human Rights Council
Mrs. Sandya Ekneligoda was one of the speakers during a side event held on 19th March 2012 during the 19th sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The side event was titled “Rule of Law and human rights violations in Sri Lanka: Perspectives from women, minorities and families of disappeared”. She was invited to share her perspectives as the wife of a disappeared journalist / cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda and as woman human rights defender who had been engaging with various Sri Lankan legal institutions and government officials as well as international bodies to search for her husband while also advocating more broadly for democratization in Sri Lanka and on the plight and aspirations of families of disappeared.
During the side event, Mr. Douglas Wickramaratne, a well known supporter of the Sri Lankan government delegation in Geneva for a number of years, attempted to intimidate Mrs. Ekneligoda by saying that “you are coming to Geneva with a smiling face, you are not a victim”. Immediately after the event, another group of men had come to her, identified themselves as Sri Lankan Muslims and said “We are sad about what happened to your husband, but you should not betray the country, even though we are Muslims, we have come here to defend the country” They also accused Mrs. Ekneligoda of being manipulated by the money of various organizations. Ms. Farah Mihlar, another women human rights defender who was a speaker at the same panel, was also harassed by members of the Sri Lankan Government delegation.
A day after returning from Geneva, Mrs. Ekneligoda attended the hearing at the Homagama Magistrate’s Courts (Colombo district) on 26th March 2012. The hearing was an inquiry in connection with Mrs. Ekneligoda’s plea to the High Court to summon Mr. Mohan Peiris, Advisor to the Cabinet of Ministers and former Attorney General, to courts to give evidence in relation to a statement had made in Geneva on 9th November 2011 to the UN Committee against Torture that Mrs. Ekneligoda’s husband had not disappeared, but was living abroad.
During the court hearing on 26th March, Mr. Shavindra Fernando, Deputy Solicitor General, appearing for the Attorney General’s department appeared to harass and intimidate Mrs. Ekneligoda by questioning her at length on matters related to her participation in the 19th session of the UN Human Rights Council. Mrs. Ekneligoda asserted that she although she will respond to these questions she felt that these were not relevant to the question at hand – summoning Mr. Peiris to give testimony to courts.
When Mr. Fernando questioned Mrs. Ekneligoda about what she expected from the courts, she emphasized that her aim was to find her disappeared husband or at least his bod. Mr. Fernando then asked whether she trusts the judiciary, she answered ‘yes’ to which he asked ‘Then why did you take this matter up internationally? Mrs. Ekneligoda was asked why she complained about her husband’s disappearance to the UN and she responded that this was her right and that the UN’s Working Group on Disappearances is mandated by member states of the UN to receive such complaints.
Mr. Fernando asked who invited and paid for expenses of the visit to Geneva and whether she received any money. The defense objected saying the questions did not pertain to the objective of the case, to which Mr. Fernando replied “I am entitled to ask any question to find out whether international organizations and NGO’s are provoking something against the state”. Mrs. Ekneligoda responded that she had been invited overseas several times by various organizations, such as the Cartoonist’s Rights International Network, IMADR and this time by a coalition of German NGOs. She also explained that all her expenses, including travel costs, accommodation, meals were covered by the hosts and that she was provided per-diem for expenses on days the hosts didn’t provide meals. She was also asked whether she spoke at a side event and she answered that she had. Mr. Fernando also asked her whether she was aware that the government of the Unites States of America had tabled a resolution on Sri Lanka which was to be voted on few days after the side event and Mrs. Ekneligoda responded that she was indeed aware of this, as this had been reported extensively in various media in Sri Lanka before she left Sri Lanka for Geneva.
This questioning took most of the time, close to an hour, while there was very little said in terms of getting Mr. Peiris to testify in courts about his statement that the disappeared journalist was in a foreign country. Mr. Fernando tried his best to prevent Mr. Peiris being summoned to courts by saying that the certified copy of the transcript of Mr. Peiris’s statement provided by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights couldn’t be taken as a true copy and that it was not proper to summon Mr. Peiris, as he (Mr. Peiris) had made that statement about the disappeared journalists whereabouts as an official representative of the Government.
During the early stage of the questioning by Mr. Fernando, Mrs. Ekneligoda said that it was around 9.30 pm on that fatal day that she suspected that her husband might have been abducted and that since it was late in the night she could not go to the police station to make a complaint and that it was only the next morning at about 10 am that she was able to find someone to accompany her to the Police. When asked why she did not go then and there to the police station, she said there was nobody to go with her at that time of the night. Mr. Fernando then asked her why she didn’t take her elder son who he said must be 18 years old. She corrected him by saying that when this incident happened he was only 16 years old. This line of questioning showed a lack of appreciation of the fact that this mother must have been fearful of taking an underage child for company and rushing to the police station at 10 pm in the night, just after her husband’s disappearance.
The line of questioning appeared to be aimed at establishing that it was wrong for a family of a disappeared person to complaint to the UN and attend sessions of the UN Human Rights Council and to show that Mrs. Ekneligoda was getting money from foreign organizations and betraying the country. The line of questioning was also thoroughly unsympathetic towards a woman who was already in great anguish after the husband's disappearance, especially after she repeatedly told court that her children were traumatized by this shattering experience.