The sight of a white van still haunts Poddala Jayantha, a Sri Lankan journalist exiled in the U.S.
Eight years after he was abducted in his home country, he says he saw only a pair of hands pulling him inside the vehicle where he was tortured for hours. He had broken bones in both his legs, fingers smashed, body burnt, beard and hair cut and stuffed inside his mouth. A group of tricycle taxi drivers found him dumped by the side of a deserted road and took him to a hospital.
The decades-long civil war has ended, but the suspects in Jayantha’s ordeal are still at large. On a visit back to Sri Lanka, Jayantha is now pressing his case for justice but it’s far from clear he’ll be getting it anytime soon.
Jayantha, 52, was the president of the Working Journalists’ Association of Sri Lanka, the largest media organization in the country, and spoke against suppression of the media and organized protests at a time when doing so was considered dangerous. Government forces were closing in on Tamil Tiger rebels who sought to carve out their own state for minority Tamils; advocating accountability, transparency and human rights meant taking a personal risk.
Jayantha doesn’t know who snatched him. But he said he had angered Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, one of the most powerful officials in his brother’s administration with the title of secretary to the minister of defense, by arguing against Rajapaksa’s criticism of the media. Jayantha said he was openly warned of dire consequences of challenging such a formidable figure.
Rajapaksa has been implicated in most other cases where journalists had been targeted, but has repeatedly denied any role in violence against the media.
There are no clear statistics available on the number of journalists targeted during the war, in which at least 100,000 people were killed and another 20,000 are missing. Scores of media workers were killed both in the war-torn north and the rest of the country allegedly by military, pro-government groups or Tamil Tiger rebels.
According to a March report by the International Truth and Justice Project — an evidence-gathering organization administered by a South Africa-based nonprofit foundation — the abuse continued beyond the civil war through 2016, well after the country elected a new president who promised accountability for past injustices.
The report is based on testimony from 46 Sri Lankan Tamils who fled to Britain or Switzerland and were once held at Sri Lanka’s security forces’ headquarters. Some victims said they were abducted in a “white van” and held for months or even years without due process; kept in cells so small they could not lie down; beaten, raped or tortured by means of having barbed wire inserted into their anal cavities. The military’s chief aim, they said, was to learn of any ongoing rebel activity as well as the location of hidden weapons caches, according to the report.
Police investigations have not led to any convictions more than two years after hard-line President Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated by a moderate, Maithripala Sirisena. Only a few high profile cases are being heard in courts at a slow pace while investigations haven’t even begun in dozens of others, mainly those relating to Tamil journalists who were killed or persecuted in the country’s north and east.
A court this past week released on bail six soldiers accused of abducting and torturing journalist Keith Noyahr a few months before Jayantha was seized. Both were victims of the “white van” cases. Noyahr has fled to Australia.
Sirisena’s government is being criticized for being reluctant to pursue suspects, nearly all of them military or paramilitary personnel who are held in high esteem by many Sri Lankans for their role in defeating the Tamil Tigers.
After the change of government, Jayantha said he wrote to the police and a reparations committee appointed by the president, but to no avail. Sirisena himself has publicly spoken against arresting soldiers suspected of crimes.
“It is a joke to say that the war heroes will not be punished. When you make such statements, what message do you give to the investigating bodies?” Jayantha said in an interview with The Associated Press.
“The army must be cleaned up by punishing the small section that was involved in these crimes,” he said.
In Jayantha’s hometown of Mirihana, a police officer asked him to provide the plate number of the white van used in his abduction, which Jayantha said he had no way of seeing.
Last Tuesday, Jayantha visited the Criminal Investigations Department asking it to take over the investigation from the local police. Days later, the police chief referred Jayantha’s case to the CID, which questioned the journalist at length over two days and recorded his statement.
The case now being handled by the CID however doesn’t guarantee a speedy resolution. Courts have not been able to move other cases quickly enough because the military has not been cooperating by providing data and records, media activists say.
Jayantha said that any white van he sees gives him “a continuous mental agony,” and that he sometime feels death would have been better than living with the trauma. He said that the steel plates used to mend his broken bones are a reminder of his pain that shoots up more often in the U.S., where the cold weather makes it worse.
Lasantha Ruhunuge, the current president of the Working Journalists’ Association of Sri Lanka, said the government’s attempt so far has been to compensate the victimized journalists and avoid prosecution of the alleged offenders.
“We are frustrated. We have been calling for a presidential commission of inquiry for two years,” Ruhunuge said. “As long as the wrongdoers are roaming free in the society, you can’t give guarantees for democracy and media freedom in the country.”
Soon after the attack, the then U.S ambassador visited Jayantha in the hospital and offered to arrange for him to live in America. Jayantha at first declined, but changed his mind after a few months when he began receiving threats because he was beginning to speak of his ordeal. He is now a green-card holder.
In New York, his daughter, who left Sri Lanka as a 12-year-old, has entered college to study engineering, he said, adding that he plans to work again in Sri Lanka after she graduates.