“It’s one of the worst crimes in the world” — wife of “disappeared” journalist

By the Cogroup Writers

On Jan. 24, 2010, Prageeth Eknaligoda, a Sri Lankan journalist, went missing shortly after leaving work. Two days earlier, he had published an article critical of then President Rajapaksa. Local residents reported having seen a white van without numbered plates close to his house around the time of his disappearance.

Sri Lanka has experienced as many as 100,000 enforced disappearances in the past 30 years of internal conflict in the country. Virtually none of the disappeared has been accounted for, nor have those responsible been brought to justice. Sandya Eknaligoda, Prageeth’s wife, has been a key figure in raising the profile of these grievous crimes. Last year, the State Department recognized her as an “International Woman of Courage”.

August 30 is observed as the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. In this blog post, we’ll join Sandya in highlighting the crime of enforced disappearance in several countries around the world and provide ways you can take action for the disappeared and their families. You can start by taking action for Prageeth here.

Although enforced disappearance is a crime under international law, the U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has recorded thousands of disappearances in over 100 countries in recent decades. Enforced disappearances were once used largely by military dictatorships, but now they happen in many internal conflicts, particularly when governments are trying to suppress political opposition.

Although Nepal’s 10-year civil war ended in 2006, the fate of at least 1,400 people who were forcibly disappeared during the conflict is still unknown. Families of the disappeared and human rights organizations have waged a long campaign to press the government to complete investigations and bring perpetrators to justice, but to date there has been little progress. The government recently drafted a new bill on transitional justice; however, Amnesty International sees shortcomings in the draft bill that would permit immunity for some perpetrators. The international community still needs to push the Nepal government to provide justice and accountability for the families of the disappeared, who have worked for years to obtain truth and justice. Nepal’s victims should not be forgotten, and victims’ families deserve justice and reparations.

In Bangladesh, enforced disappearances are routinely carried out by security forces, mainly targeting members of the political opposition. Some of the disappeared have been subsequently found dead. In a statement to the authorities in February 2017, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances said that the number of enforced disappearances in Bangladesh had risen considerably in recent years.

Human rights defenders in Pakistan continue to be subjected to enforced disappearances, although some reappear. Raza Khan, a Lahore-based peace activist, was subjected to an enforced disappearance in December of last year. Zeenat Shahzadi, the first female journalist to be forcibly disappeared, was found near the Afghanistan border in October 2017, 26 months after she went missing in Lahore. She disappeared again a month later; her whereabouts remained unknown as of the end of last year. In the last quarter of 2017, dozens of Sindhi and Baloch human rights defenders were subjected to enforced disappearances by Pakistani security forces.

The security services of the Russian Federation have been complicit in or turned a blind eye to enforced disappearances. In Chechnya, regional government forces acted with impunity in 2017 as they abducted, secretly detained, tortured or killed over 100 men accused of being gay in an act referred to by many as a “purge.” A year and a half later, no investigation has been launched and the Chechen government continues to deny the event ever took place. More broadly, the transfer of prisoners frequently occurs under conditions that are cruel and inhuman, and information about the whereabouts or well-being of many of those detained is not made available to family members or their lawyers. As prisoners are moved from one detention facility to another, they essentially go missing for a period of time.

You can join the international community in calling on the Russian authorities to fulfill their obligations in accordance with international human rights by launching an immediate and substantive investigation into the disappearances and killings of accused gay Chechens.

In Belarus, September 16 will mark the 19th anniversary of the enforced disappearance of prominent Belarusian opposition politician Viktar Hanchar and his business associate Anatol Krasouski. Both men disappeared the same day of a broadcast on state television in which President Lukashenka ordered the chiefs of his security services to crack down on “opposition scum.” Hanchar was a Deputy Chairman of the dissolved Belarusian parliament. Shortly before his disappearance, he telephoned his wife to inform her that he was on his way home. Broken glass and blood were discovered later at the site where relatives and friends of the men believe the vehicle in which the two were traveling may have been stopped. A high-profile antigovernment politician, Hanchar was considered an active fundraiser for the opposition.

Despite the fact that the Belarusian KGB had both men under constant surveillance, the official investigation announced that the case could not be solved. The Belarusian authorities have so far ignored international pressure, including a UN General Assembly resolution, to investigate the enforced disappearances.

While the Syrian government’s use of enforced disappearances to silence opposition and civil society dates back decades, it has become a common feature of repression during the conflict in Syria that began in 2011. Amnesty International estimates that tens of thousands of Syrians have been disappeared, many of whom we believe were actually extrajudicially executed. A recent twist is that the cash-starved Syrian government has used disappearances as a revenue raiser, forcing families to pay cash for information about their disappeared loved ones.

While political activists can be targeted, any civilian is at risk in Syria. In one such case, Aleppo medical doctor Mohamed Bachir Arab told friends on Nov. 2, 2011, that he was going out to meet up with a friend — the last time his friends and family heard from him. His family found out about his arrest through rumors on social media and his name being mentioned in an Al Jazeera report on arrests of Syrians. Until now, the government has not provided them with any information about his fate or whereabouts. Please act on Dr. Arab’s behalf here.

Gao Zhisheng is one of the most respected human rights lawyers in China, with the Ministry of Justice naming him “one of the nation’s top 10 lawyers” in 2001 for his pro bono work on public interest cases. In February 2006, Gao organized a hunger strike campaign to draw attention to the persecution of human rights activists in China. He was subsequently detained and charged with “inciting subversion of state power.” In December 2006, he was given a three-year suspended prison sentence, but after making public statements critical of the government and alleging that he had been tortured, he went missing, and his whereabouts were unknown for almost 20 months. In December 2011, state media announced that Gao had violated terms of his suspended sentence and was serving his three-year sentence in prison.

Gao was released from prison in 2014 and went to live with relatives in an isolated village under tight surveillance. Nonetheless, he has remained outspoken about human rights and continues to criticize the Communist Party. On August 13, 2017, his family reported that he had gone missing again. Local officials have given conflicting accounts of his location and current condition, and his family, friends and lawyers have had no contact with him. Given his previous treatment in detention, and without access to a lawyer, he is at high risk of torture or other ill-treatment. Please write to the Director of the Shaanxi Provincial Public Security Bureau to demand information about Gao’s whereabouts (although the stated deadline of this action has passed, please still write as no new information has come forth.)

James Balao was forcibly disappeared in the Philippines on September 17, 2008. That day, he set out from his home in Baguio City to visit his family in the town of La Trinidad, a 30-minute drive. He sent them a text message to say he was on his way, but never arrived. According to witnesses, James was last seen near his home being forced by armed men into a white van. One of the men who took him shouted at onlookers, and told them not to interfere because they were police officers. James is one of hundreds of Filipino activists who have been forcibly disappeared and have not yet been located. In 2016, the Philippines Supreme Court ordered the Philippine National Police to further investigate his disappearance, but no results came from the investigation. This September will be a decade since his disappearance. His family is still searching and waiting for his return.

Ali Al-Khdair, Taiseer Ramadhan, Nazem Abu ‘Ali, Shaker Saleh, Ismail Ayash and Mohammad Alqrum all disappeared while in custody in a Palestinian Authority (PA) detention center in Salfit (central Palestinian West Bank) on March 12, 2002. That day, their families received a call from the PA security forces informing them that the six men had escaped from the PA detention center where they had been detained and had fled towards Israel. They have not been seen or heard from since. So far, the Palestinian Authority has failed to give the families of the disappeared six men any further information, to launch any investigation or to bring anyone to justice in connection with their alleged torture and disappearance while in the custody of the Palestinian security forces. Please write to the Palestinian Authority calling on them to account for the six men and bring those responsible to justice. Please email Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah (diwan@pmo.gov.ps), Foreign Minister Riad al-Maliki (info@mofa.gov.ps) and Attorney General Ahmed Barak (info@prosecution.gov.ps/a.g@pgp.gov.ps).

The “Cogroup Writers” consist of the following country specialists for Amnesty International USA: Viachaslau Bortnik (Eurasia), Alicia Koutsoulieris (Israel/OPT/Palestine case coordinator), Nerve Macaspac (Philippines), Jim McDonald (Sri Lanka), Geoffrey Mock (Syria), Jon Poser (Russia) and Julia Todd (Nepal/Bhutan).