Friday, April 13, 2012

Wife of missing Sri Lankan journalist speaks to WSWS

Photo courtesy:

By Panini Wijesiriwardane and Wasantha Rupasinghe | World Socialist Web Site

Sandhya Priyangani Ekneligoda, wife of disappeared Sri Lankan journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda, recently spoke to the World Socialist Web Site about her ongoing struggle to discover what happened to her husband, and the continuing harassment of the Sri Lankan authorities.

Prageeth Ekneligoda disappeared on 24 January 2010, after he went to report on Sri Lankan presidential election meetings. Police investigations have drawn the usual blanks and a habeas corpus case, originally filed by Sandhya Ekneligoda in February 2010, is only now being heard at the Colombo Magistrates Court.

Prageeth Ekneligoda supported former Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka, the main bourgeois rival of President Mahinda Rajapakse, during the 2010 presidential election. Fonseka was arbitrarily arrested immediately after the poll and imprisoned on various frame-up charges. Ekneligoda frequently criticised the Rajapakse administration—especially the president and his brothers—over injustice and corruption and is believed to have been disappeared because of these exposures.

Over the past two years, 50-year-old Sandhya Ekneligoda, the mother of two teenage boys, has written to numerous local and international human rights organisations, including the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC), seeking their help. She also sent letters to President Rajapakse and other state officials, who have ignored her appeals.

“After the disappearance of my husband,” Ekneligoda told the WSWS, “the government began telling lies in order to divert the sentiment of the masses. Former Attorney General Mohan Peiris told the UNHRC that Prageeth had sought refuge in a foreign country, so I wrote him a letter asking about my husband’s whereabouts. I never received a reply.”

Ekneligoda explained what happened after she participated in a side event at the recent UNHCR sessions in Geneva. The UNHRC adopted a US-sponsored resolution over Sri Lankan human rights abuses in its war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Sri Lankan government bitterly opposed the resolution, despite its very limited character.

Ekneligoda said: “With the help of international human rights organisations I went to Geneva to tell my story to the world. For the understanding of those in attendance, I tried to explain the anti-democratic and repressive environment that is increasingly developing in Sri Lanka. I thought this would help to make people aware of the roots of my husband’s disappearance.

“Speaking about the militarisation of the country, I explained how the military is occupying the north and east. I presented some pictures and described how the families who were displaced during the war are now living in tents, huts and damaged structures, while by contrast there are growing numbers of tourist hotels and war monuments.”

Ekneligoda told the WSWS that she was harassed by several members of the Sri Lankan delegation. UK Sinhala Association president Douglas Wickramarathne attempted to ridicule her, declaring: “How can you see yourself as a victim? You came here in a happy mood.”

Echoing the Rajapakse government, Wickramarathne and several other Sri Lankan delegates accused her, and others participating in the Geneva event, of being “traitors.” Sri Lanka’s state-owned press and television networks published their photographs while media minister Mervin Silva, who is infamous for threatening journalists, publicly branded several Sri Lankan reporters and human right activists in Geneva as “bastards.”

Silva told a Sri Lankan public meeting that “these people” were “betraying us in Geneva.” He named Sunanda Deshapriya, Nimalka Fernando and Poddala Jayantha, and boasted: “I’m the one who chased [journalist] Poddala Jayantha from Sri Lanka.” The media minister declared that he would not hesitate to “break the limbs” of the named journalists “if they set foot” on the island. Confident that his threats would be endorsed by Rajapakse, Silva said his ministerial position was granted by Rajapakse and “will remain unchanged while he is in power.”

Ekneligoda told the WSWS that Silva’s outburst was an “attempt to provoke the Sinhala racists against us. Our lives are in a grave danger. What’s the wrong I did? The only thing I’ve done is taken the path of democratic rights.”

Explaining the official response to her husband’s disappearance, she said: “On the night my husband failed to return home I went to Homagama police station to report it but they refused to open a case. The police finally accepted my complaint two weeks later.” When she later attempted to get a copy of her complaint, police officers told her they had lost the logbook in which it had been entered. In August 2011, the appeal courts decided to take up her February 2010 habeas corpus case and these proceedings are currently underway in the Magistrates Court (MC).

“On March 26, when the case was taken to the MC, I was questioned by the Deputy Solicitor General Shavendra Fernando who represented the state,” Ekneligoda said. “He asked more questions about my visit to Geneva. My counsel pointed out that this had nothing to do with the case, but he kept asking me why I went to Geneva, who sponsored me, how much money I was getting per day, and so on.”

Ekneligoda told the WSWS that even after explaining the purpose of her Geneva visit—to raise concerns about her missing husband—the state counsel accused her of lobbying against the government and the country. “It was a direct violation of my democratic rights,” she added.

Prageeth Ekneligoda’s disappearance is part of broader assault on democratic rights that has intensified under the Rajapakse government. The police-state laws developed during the civil war remain in place. The denunciation of government opponents as “unpatriotic” takes places as “disappearances” by pro-government death squads continue.

Various Sri Lankan human rights organisations claim that appeals to the US and other international powers can protect basic rights. This is an illusion. The US sponsored the recent UNHRC resolution not to defend democratic rights but as a means for exerting pressure on the Rajapakse government to distance itself from China.

In the past ten years, 17 journalists and other media workers have been killed and around 50 journalists have fled Sri Lanka in fear of their lives.


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Friday, April 13, 2012

The Gap walks a tightrope in Sri Lanka

by Sonya Hubbard | Footnoted

As The Gap’s (GPS) shareholders reflect on how to cast their votes between now and the May 15 annual meeting, they’ve got a doozy of a proposal to sort out that one of our eagle-eyed researchers, B.B. Murti, spotted in the company’s April 3 proxy. It’s Proposal No. 4, submitted by Stephen M. Jaeger and Yasodha Natkunam, who own 125 shares of stock through their family trust.

Jaeger and Natkunam think that the Gap should not engage in trade with Sri Lanka until it ceases violating human rights. The country, called Ceylon until 1972 and now officially known as the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, is a tiny teardrop-shaped island in the Indian Ocean, slightly bigger than the state of West Virginia, close to the southeast corner of India.

The human rights violations Jaeger and Natkunam refer to are real and brutal, stemming from the war that lasted almost three decades between the government and the separatist group known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or the “Tamil Tigers”). Jaeger and Natkunam focus on the crimes committed by the Sri Lankan government; however, this March, 2011 report published by the United Nations (an executive summary is available here, if you prefer) makes it clear that both sides are guilty of unspeakably horrific conduct.

The proponents argue that The Gap should heed the recommendation of the U. S. Senate’s Appropriations Committee, which they say “has proposed that international institutions vote against any loan, agreement or other financial support (except humanitarian aid) for Sri Lanka unless it complies with standards set by international law.” One of The Gap’s major suppliers, Brandix, is located there and may soon expand its operations. (According to the 2011 proxy, unnamed shareholders submitted a similar proposal last year, although they missed the filing deadline and the resolution was not voted on.)

Jaeger and Natkunam submitted the resolution because:“We are concerned that a reputable company such as Gap Inc, which is one of the largest garment manufacturers in Sri Lanka, will appear to endorse the crimes perpetrated by the Government of Sri Lanka, if it continues its trade with that country. We believe that this claim is not merely theoretical since Gap Inc is providing Sri Lanka with the foreign exchange that keeps its massive military viable.”

Needless to say, The Gap’s board doesn’t see things the same way as Jaeger and Natkunam do. The board says that it shares the proponents’ concern for “the protection of human rights and is committed to advancing the rights of garment workers around the world.” Nevertheless, it urges shareholders to vote against the resolution.

The Gap’s directors acknowledge that the allegations of abuse committed by the Sri Lankan government are serious, but it adds that “apparel production in the country benefits its citizens.” Apparel production provides employment and helps to improve the stability and economy in Sri Lanka, the company says, and it “only contract[s] with factories that employ workers regardless of ethnic background”, working to ensure that all workers aren’t discriminated against and have fair working conditions. The proxy adds that The Gap requires contracted garment factories to abide by its “Code of Vendor Conduct” and in 2010 created a “Human Rights Policy.”

The Gap has supported a number of social programs in Sri Lanka; but since 2009 its focus has been to provide “life skills and enhanced technical skills education to [about 550] female garment workers to help them advance in the workplace and in their personal lives.” The program, known as Personal Advancement and Career Enhancement, or “P.A.C.E.”, received recognition by former president Bill Clinton as an effective way to equip poor women with the skills they need to improve their lives and those of their families. The proxy adds that The Gap plans to expand the program to other facilities in Sri Lanka later this year.

There’s no easy answer to this resolution as we see it. If the U.N.’s report is accurate, the Sri Lankan government is still unwilling to account for its past behavior, which included shelling hospitals, murder, torture, causing critics to “disappear,” depriving people of humanitarian aid, and much, much more. On the other hand, punishing the government has huge repercussions on the people, too. There is evidence from many sources that when women have access to education and employment opportunities, the standard of living improves not just for themselves and their families, but also for their communities and nations.

It may be one short line on the proxy card, but this resolution could have a big impact, regardless of which side wins.

© Footnoted

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Friday, April 13, 2012

Sri Lanka: The disappeared

Banyan | The Economist

Dimuthu Attygala was abducted on April 6th. A leader of the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), a small Sri Lankan opposition group, she had attacked the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa on its grim human-rights record. Four days later she stumbled into a press conference held by the party, dishevelled and with a disturbing story to tell. Burly men with weapons, who drove a white van, had grabbed her from a suburb of Colombo, the capital. She had since been kept blindfolded, manacled and shackled. She was also gagged, except when being grilled about her about political work, the party and its members.

Elsewhere in the city, another FSP leader went missing. Early on April 7th a colleague found Premakumar Gunaratnam gone from his home amid signs of struggle. He was also freed after a few days, but “not out of the kindness of his abductors’ hearts”, says a party member. He (and presumably Ms Attygalle) got away because he has Australian citizenship and his wife had alerted authorities in Canberra. Robyn Mudie, Australia’s high commissioner in Colombo, then asked Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa—the widely-feared brother of the president—to help find the missing Australian. As pressure grew, Mr Gunaratnam was dumped on a roadside, then deported.

Their fates might have been worse. Two others from the group, who were snatched in December, remain missing. A terrifying spate of abductions (as reported by The Economist) of critics of the government continues unchecked. It is “mindboggling how brazen and frequent” the disappearances have become, says a rights activist who dares not be named. Groundviews, a citizen journalism website, counts 29 abductions reported by local media in February and March. It tallies 56 abductions in the past six months. These have taken place even as Sri Lanka fought a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council that called for it to “credibly investigate widespread allegations of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances”. The resolution passed with a clear majority on March 22nd.

No one has offered proof of a government role in the abductions, but circumstantial evidence suggests it. The high number of cases, use of weapons, the daring of the perpetrators and police inaction all point to a degree of official direction. Nor is it clear who else could possibly wish to kidnap human-rights activists. The main opposition United National Party says that country’s image as is being tarnished as the government lets abductions go on.

Others are more direct. The Lawyers for Democracy, another activist group, says it is reasonable to infer that the defence authorities, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s men, were involved in these abductions. Another case suggests so. Last month Sagara Senaratne, a politician and businessman, was snatched at a busy roundabout by men in a white van. Mr Senaratne, from the ruling party, is the brother-in-law of a minister. His friends told the authorities and he was released. He says that intervention by the president, the defence secretary and his in-law saved his life. But rights groups naturally ask how such powerful men knew whom to contact to get him free. And precisely how, too, did Gotabaya Rajapaksa help with the Australian request to find Mr Gunaratnam? Such mysteries go unanswered—and worries grow about Sri Lankan democracy.

© The Economist

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