22 September, 2018

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Disappearance Of Ekneligoda And The Chemical Weapons Saga

By Uvindu  Kurukulasuriya– 

Uvindu Kurukulasuriya

A leaked US diplomatic cable says both the ICRC and the Indian High Commissioner had reported that their medical teams treating wounded have come across no evidence of chemical weapons or phosphorous use in Sri Lanka. The cable had originated from the US Ambassador Robert O. Blake on April 10, 2009. This is a serious challenge to the theory that Ekneligoda was abducted because of his investigation regarding the use of chemical weapons by the government in the last stages of the war.

Three months ago this writer wrote an in-depth article analysing all the existing theories related to Prageeth’s abduction and came up with a new theory. One can read it googling, “Was Prageeth abducted for his journalism or for mailing human ash?

The Prageeth Ekneligoda disappearance has caused alarm and distress as much as it has been the subject of intense controversy. Many theories have been put forward regarding his abduction. Was his abduction a result of his journalism or of something else? Was he really a journalist or a poser?

September 16 was to mark exactly 600 days since Ekneligoda, said to be a cartoonist of the Lanka e news website disappeared after being abducted.  All this time no progress has been made in the investigation into his disappearance, and his family has no recourse to justice or comfort. They do not know whether to hope or to grieve.

US Ambassador Robert O. Blake

The BBC recently quoted the UN’s Working Group on Disappearances saying it has been waiting more than four years for the government to respond to its request to visit Sri Lanka. There are some 5,653 unsolved cases over two decades which the group has looked into but the disappearances have not stopped. Certainly the phenomenon is part of the landscape of absolute impunity now enjoyed by the Rajapaksa regime.

Gordon Weiss recently released his book The Cage, The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers. He was the UN Spokesperson in Sri Lanka during the last 3 years of the war.

In his book he says “On the twenty – second day , a freelance Sinhalese journalist, Prageeth Ekneligoda, is abducted from his home by men in a white van, tied to metal bar and terrorised, but later released. A week later, armed men stop a car carrying the news director of the TNL television station, Namal Perera, and savagely beat him and a friend in an attempt to abduct him.” (Page 151 Chapter 7-The struggle for truth)

That said, in the quoted paragraph above Gordon Weiss has either got his facts wrong or has, for reasons best known to him, deliberately exaggerated the issue.

Firstly, neither Prageeth Ekneligoda nor Namal Perera were working journalists at the time these incidents took place. There is no justification to exaggerate or colour a situation or issue. Such practices even with the best of intentions will only discredit a story rather than help.

Secondly, Prageeth Ekneligoda was abducted a long time after the Namal incident. Ekneligoda was abducted for the first time on August 27, 2009 whereas Namal Perera was attacked on June 30, 2008. Thus not only did Weiss get the chronology of the events wrong but the timing as well. It was not a gap of a week as Weiss claims but of a year between the two incidents. Weiss claims to quote a monthly e- bulletin by the Free Media Movement (FMM). I was both the Convener of the FMM and a Director of the Sri Lanka Press Institute where Namal was working during the relevant period. But I am unaware  of the existence of such a monthly report. Thirdly, the question that has to be raised is that while Namal Perera’s incident was related to journalism was it was so in Prageeth’s case too.

It is proper to quote here what Lanka e news of whose news website Prageeth was said to be a journalist and cartoonist published about his first abduction. Ekneliyagoda was for a while attached to the ‘Lanka e news’ and had written several articles. He was a cartoonist also”.

Nonetheless, since Ekneligoda’s second abduction he has been missing 600 days and there have now been at least four theories posited on this disappearance.

First theory – Victor Ivan

The first theory came from Ravaya editor Victor Ivan in his article titled, ‘Is it only politics that is uncivilised?’ published in the Ravaya newspaper on February 28, 2010.

Ivan alleged that Prageeth had been in the business of writing unsubstantiated scurrilous articles for websites and had been instrumental in penning a scurrilous article on the sex life of a certain minister of the government.  Ivan’s view was that if a journalist chooses to publish unsubstantiated stories and slander as news and as a result he/she is subjected to physical violence by an aggrieved party(s), that could not be construed as suppression of media freedom.

I certainly do not agree with Victor Ivan’s conclusion on this matter. But the said article in question allegedly penned by Prageeth, appeared sans a by-line on December 8, 2009. Editor Lanka e news Sandaruwan Senadheera denied the claim that Prageeth wrote it.

Victor’s spin was obviously to effectively shift it to the narrow personal confines of an irate and humiliated government minister whose sexual promiscuity and erotic secrets had been revealed. But Victor Ivan’s theory does not explain why Prageeth was abducted the first time on August 27, 2009, because at that time there was no alleged scurrilous attack in any article published by Prageeth.

Second theory – C.A. Chandraprema

The second theory came from the political correspondent of The Island newspaper, C. A.  Chandraprema published on May 7 and 8, 2010. He wrote two articles under the title The Prageeth Ekneligoda affair.

According to Chandraprema, the disappearance or abduction of Prageeth Ekneligoda was an elaborate fraud carried out by Prageeths’ wife Sandhya and some others in the Fonseka election campaign.

Chandraprema says “By staging the disappearance of Prageeth in the last 48 hours before the day of the election, the objective was to bring the government into disrepute by making them go into an election with the abduction of a ‘journalist’ in the headlines. By the time the public would get to know that Prageeth was no journalist, the election would be over and Fonseka would be in power. Now things have gone wrong and Prageeth cannot come out. So there are attempts to build up a false case to the effect that he was wanted by the government.”

Prgeeth Eknaligod

Certainly, like Chandraprema this writer too in the first flush of hearing the news did not find the second abduction on January 24, 2010 a credible one. This writer had his misgivings and thought it may have been “an election campaign gimmick”. It is almost impossible to believe since Prageeth was suffering from poor health conditions, but for the sake of truth and justice this writer has to leave that open at this point.

This writer called a friend in the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) and asked if there was any reason for this. He could not enlighten me either. Relentless in my pursuit to find out the reason for the abduction two months later this writer contacted the CID friend once again. This time he had more to tell me. It was not much but it provided me with a vital clue. He said it had to do with identifying Prageeth’s handwriting rather than dissecting the content of his writing.

Third theory – Sandaruwan Senadheera

This piece of information contrasted sharply with the position of the Lanka e news editor Sandaruwan Senadheera who said it was to do with Prageeth’s journalistic act. After he fled to the USA, Sandaruwan insisted the abduction related to an investigation Prageeth was conducting regarding the use of chemical weapons by the government in the last stages of the war.  On May 12, 2010, Sandaruwan wrote an article titled “Why Prageeth Ekneligoda went missing” to Lanka e news which says it was due to this investigation.

A leaked US diplomatic cable says both ICRC and the Indian High Commissioner had reported that their medical teams treating wounded had come across no evidence of chemical weapons or phosphorous use. The cable was written by US Ambassador Robert O. Blake on April 10. Here this writer quotes it in full; Ambassador forwarded reports from Tamil groups that the GSL has used chemical weapons in fighting to Foreign Secretary Kohona urging the GSL to respond publicly. In a private reply, Kohona categorically denied that the GSL had ever acquired chemical weapons and reported that the government has requested an investigation from the Office for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons into charges of chemical weapons used by the LTTE. (note: any investigation would  cover both sides.) Additionally, both ICRC and the Indian Ambassador have reported that their medical teams treating wounded had come across no evidence of CW or phosphorous use.- Blake. Read the full cable here; http://wikileaks.org/cable/2009/04/09COLOMBO 413.html

There is today a great upheaval within the army, among the rank and file, and especially among the top brass. Many jostle to have the spotlight on them as the heroes who defeated the Tamil Tigers. The implosion within the army however started with the move by the former Army Commander, General Sarath Fonseka to enter politics in mid-2009. Fonseka was tried for several offences in three courts martial, and many army officers and rank and file were falling over their boots selling and passing on war crimes evidence and video footage. And yet nothing has so far come up relating to chemical weapons usage. This alone does not disprove the theory that chemical weapons were used but let us just say the jury is still out.

Fourth Theory – Kelly Senanayake

In Victor Ivan’s article he stated that the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) had in their possession a scurrilous paper (kalapaththarayak) purportedly written by Prageeth.

Meanwhile this writer had heard that another friend of Prageeth’s, Kelly Senanayake, – owner of Navamaga Printers was questioned by the CID and the CID had in fact taken a handwriting sample from him. Kelly confirmed he had in fact been summoned to the fourth floor of the CID and questioned about the said document on either January 8 or 9, 2010. He had been asked if he had penned the document in question. Kelly had denied writing the same at which point the CID had taken some samples of his handwriting.

In fact the document was one Prageeth had written to support Fonseka’s election campaign. In that document he focusses on 23 persons in the government including President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The document was typeset and Prageeth checked the proofs as well. Moreover, his handwriting was also visible in some sections of the document. Then some people started to believe his abduction was related to this scurrilous paper. But this still did not explain why Prageeth was abducted the first time. For then there was no such document and the Fonseka election campaign had yet to kick off. Moreover, the Presidential election itself was yet to be announced.

Human ash

Based on my own research, I would therefore like to pose another theory. It relates not to Prageeth the journalist or cartoonist but to Prageeth the man. I had been reliably informed by one of my sources that Prageeth had been posting human ash in small envelopes to President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Mahinda Rajapakse

Prageeth discussed this issue with his closest friends and one of them spread it among his own network.

It was Ravindra Chandralal who spread Prageeth’s idea. Chandralal left Sri Lanka after Prageeth went missing. This writer contacted Chandralal last May and he confirmed that Prageeth had indeed discussed with him the subject of sending human ash to the President. But he insisted he did not know whether Prageeth actually did it or not. When this writer asked Chandralal whether he had repeated this to anyone else he said he might have told this to some others.

Certainly given what we know now, if such a thing were done then the idea had to come from Prageeth. In Sri Lanka, the power of spirits and human ash is deeply believed in. Steeped in mysticism and the spirit world as most Sri Lankans are, with politicians rarely stepping out on a morning without consulting their astrologer, the perceived power in such a gesture is phenomenal. In fact, many people resort to sending human ash when they feel oppressed or when there is widespread suppression.

Be that as it may, one morning the President’s Media Director Chandrapala Liyanage had chanced to open an envelope which contained human ash and having been scared out of his wits by this, had screamed loudly.

Prageeth who had got to know of Liyanage’s reaction had laughed heartily finding the incident rather funny. The President’s Media Director Liyanage however did not see the joke. Terrified, he begged the President to give him another job. So the President sent him to the Sri Lankan embassy in Italy. This writer spoke to Chandrapala Liyanage last May who confirmed the incident took place and further said that two people were questioned regarding this issue.

It seems clear that Prageeth had been allegedly sending human ash to the Presidential Secretariat from where ever he used to travel to – Matale, Dambulla, Anuradapura, Trincomalee, Batticaloa, etc.

Himself a gifted artist, Prageeth would have done it using his talent to change his handwriting. Therefore, when he was abducted the first time in August 2009 it was most likely because he was allegedly sending human ash in envelopes to the Presidential Secretariat. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that his first time abductors had taken samples of his handwriting and had checked it and then released him. Prageeth is an excellent artist and is exceptional at his craft. He may have cleverly changed his handwriting so they could not recognise it. That is why they said he was the wrong man and let him go. That is perhaps why he did not tell anyone about it and did not want to talk about anything that happened during that night in captivity. It was to Prageeth’s advantage to cover up the issue from everybody. Even if people did not believe he was abducted he did not care. It was more important for him that the issue just disappeared. I recall what he said to me when I phoned him after the first abduction, “It looks as if you cannot write anything by pen.”

Prageeth’s abduction has nothing to do with his journalism

It is this writer’s considered opinion that Prageeth was not abducted because of his journalism.  Chandraprama reported, according to Bennet Rupasinghe its editor, he had been only an occasional contributor and not even a regular freelance contributor.

So far Bennet Rupasinghe the News Editor of Lanka  e news has not denied it. If anyone can produce any cartoon or article related to his abduction I am happy to withdraw my theory.  Those who portray him as a missing journalist are wrong but we must give them the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes, circumstances call for desperate measures, and to save the life of a fellow-human being, perhaps we can forgive the slight twist of facts. These persons may have done it to accelerate the finding process and apply maximum pressure on the government of Sri Lanka which is undoubtedly guilty of media suppression to the worst degree.

We need to know where Ekneligoda is, in spite of who he is, what he did/does for a living and who his friends are. We need to know where he is because he is a fellow-citizen.

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