Sandya Eknaligoda: seeking justice in her own way

Sandya Eknaligoda

  • Sandya celebrates the 12th anniversary of Pregeeth’s disappearance with a spectacular new look
  • Shaves her head and wears black as her fight for justice for her cartoonist/writer husband continues
  • Says previous government could have done more to address missing persons issue, but acknowledging progress made during period
  • Deplores the lack of collective efforts to resolve the problem of missing persons
  • Vows to conduct Prageeth’s last rites only after his remains are returned to him

Text and image by

Chandani Kirinde

Sandya Eknaligoda is the public representative of thousands of Sri Lankan women who have had their loved ones taken from them in the most cruel way. She came into the limelight over a decade ago as the wife of cartoonist/writer Pregeeth Eknaligoda, who disappeared on January 24, 2010 and has remained a visible figure for the past 12 years speaking for herself and on behalf of families of missing persons.

She’s faced threats, been targeted by social media trolls, branded an LTTE supporter and a poster boy for non-governmental organizations (NGOs), but through it all, Sandya has remained resolute. Last month, as she marked the 12th anniversary of her husband’s disappearance, Sandya demonstrated her determination to draw attention to her plight and what she has done in her unconventional way by making a wish to the Hindu goddess Kali by shaving her head and exchanging the white Kandyan sari she has worn publicly since Prageeth’s disappearance for a black one.

“What are the options left to a woman engaged in a solitary struggle to obtain justice for her husband, victim of enforced disappearance? The options are limited. Kali is a powerful goddess and I choose to draw strength from her as I mark the 12th anniversary of Prageeth’s passing,” she said in an interview with the Daily FT.

Her search for divine intervention for the world’s problems has been frowned upon by some, and some have questioned the reasoning behind such actions, but Sandya is undeterred by her critics.

“I have turned to religion from time to time over the past 12 years because it is one of the few options I have left. I want to be one step ahead of those who try to undermine my research work justice for Prageeth and I am determined to be a constant thorn in the side of those in high political office and others connected to my husband’s disappearance. I know they fear my actions,” he said. she declared.

Prageeth Eknaligoda, who was 50 at the time of his disappearance, had sparked controversy during his lifetime due to his unrestrained cartoons depicting the apathy of the country’s leading politicians, clergy and judiciary in the face of social injustices . He was also an equally outspoken writer, challenging conventional ideas and tolerance for injustice in society. On the outside wall of their modest house in the suburbs of Colombo, Sandya has hung the framed copies of her cartoons, so that they are more visible and a constant reminder of the ills that afflict the country.

In addition to his work as a cartoonist and writer, Prageeth was dabbling in politics at the time of his disappearance. He had supported the campaign of the common opposition candidate for the 2010 presidential election, former army commander Sarath Fonseka and it was for a related religious ceremony that he left his home on that fateful day.

The details of that morning when he left the house they had shared for more than 15 years since their marriage are etched in his mind. “There was a bodhi pooja at Kelaniya temple to wrap up the election campaign and that morning Prageeth wanted to wear a white shirt. Since he couldn’t find any, I gave him the white shirt I had had for our eldest son. He put it on, joking with some pride that the boy had grown up and father and son could wear the same shirt. Being chronically afflicted with diabetes, Prageeth had to use insulin regularly. It was Sandya who injected him with the insulin before he left home that day, never to return.

Writing had been on the wall that there was an imminent threat to Prageeth’s life as he was abducted in November 2009, held for a few hours and dropped off at a bus stop near their home after being told by his captors that he had been recovered due to mistaken identity.

“Prageeth knew he was under surveillance after his 2009 abduction. He had heard from a close contact that his name was blacklisted and felt that exaggerated claims that he was anti-government or that he posed a threat to those in power were underway. passed on to the authorities and therefore feared that he would be harmed,” Sandya said.

His worst fears came true that day in late January when Prageeth failed to return home and his phone stopped ringing.

Between 2010 and 2015, Sandya had little information about what happened to Prageeth. She spoke to people who knew him to get as many details as possible about where he was last seen, filed a missing persons report with the police, but no response was forthcoming by the authorities. Undeterred, with her two young sons by her side, Sandya began her struggle with the support of human rights organizations and activists.

The first glimmer of hope appeared in 2015 with the change of government and for the first time those responsible for Prageeth’s disappearance were identified and legal action initiated.

“Until 2015, we had no answers. All we have heard are doctored stories disseminated for public consumption. People were told that Prageeth was hiding in France by some and was seen in Dubai by others. We were at least lucky to find answers due to the change of government, but more could have been done in the five years of the previous government to punish the culprits,” she said.

The failure to take concrete and prompt action to deal with cases such as Prageeth’s meant that what little progress had been made in the investigation began to be undone, with witnesses recanting their evidence and suspects released due to the lack of evidence over the past two years. year. This put Sandya back to square one in her efforts to seek justice for Prageeth.

His constant encounter with politicians and government authorities has opened his eyes to certain truths. “One thing I know for sure is that when it comes to political crimes, all political groups work together, they protect each other. Every citizen of this country who values ​​human rights must think about how to build a just society that abides by the law, because injustices can happen to anyone,” she said.

Another reality that has set in for Sandya is that in the absence of a commitment from the state to address the issue of missing persons, people have to fight their own battles unlike countries like Argentina. where collective action by citizens, largely women, has resulted in progress for those seeking justice for thousands of missing people.

“I feel that the mindset of many Sri Lankans is defeatist. A lot of people ask me, “Why do you want to bang your head on a rock?” thus questioning my sanity by speaking of powerful forces, but if I don’t do what I do, I will never get justice for Prageeth. Even those who are my biggest detractors can no longer wish me to leave because I have been consistent in my efforts.

Despite the adversities she has faced, Sandya continues to trust the country’s judiciary. “The judiciary is the last resort for all of us and I have faith in the system. What must be challenged by all citizens is the undue influence of the executive over the functioning of Justice.

Her goal is to see those responsible for her husband’s disappearance receive the maximum possible sentence under the law for the crimes they committed, but she is not advocating the death penalty for them. “I want their lies exposed, but I am opposed to the death penalty. No one should be sentenced to death for any crime. »

Now Sandaya and her sons have resigned themselves to the fact that Prageeth will never return alive, but she has refused to accept a death certificate in her husband’s name or perform the last rites according to Buddhist practice by offering pansakoola. . “What those who make people disappear should know is that their cowardly actions take away our right to perform the last rites of our loved ones. It’s the only way to conclude. I will only perform Prageeth’s last rites when they tell me where my husband’s remains are and return them to me.

Sandya draws the strength to continue her fight from her sons who were 15 and 12 at the time Prageeth has disappeared. “My eldest son taught me how to use a computer and how to use the internet after Prageeth disappeared. We work as a team and now, as young adult men, they continue to support me.

But she still finds her greatest strength in the memory of her husband. “I draw my strength from Prageeth. With my campaign, I keep it alive every day. He may not be there physically, but in my determination to seek justice from him, I keep him alive and will continue to do so until justice is served. Some may escape the long arms of the law, but eventually the law of nature catches up with everyone.

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