Death threats against activists | Sunday Observer

Death threats against activists

“If I have a knife right now, I will stab that man to death.” A chilling outcry by a man, a week ago, at a funeral home which Prof. Chadraguptha Thenuwara also attended. The message drove home.

Prof. Thenuwara now understood that he has to fear the fanatics. In pledging their support for a presidential candidate, they are literally “ready to do anything” at any time, even against citizens who are simply exercising their democratic rights. ‘Blind followers’ Prof. Thenuwara calls them.

The death threats leveled against him and his close associate Gamini Viyangoda, started when the two questioned the validity of the dual-citizenship declaration of presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

After reading an article that appeared in a daily newspaper, pointing out the irregularities in Rajapaksa’s dual-citizenship application, Prof. Thenuwara and Viyangoda wrote two separate letters on August 6, to the acting Inspector General of Police, Chandana Wickremeratne, who first directed the matter to the Colombo Crimes Division and later the Criminal Investigation Department (CID).

Thereafter, on September 27, the duo went on to file an application at the Court of Appeal (CA) on the same grounds, after considering submissions made by the CID to a Magistrate’s Court. Their application to court was dismissed after it was taken-up by a divisional bench headed by CA President Justice Yasantha Kodagoda, on October 4. Rajapaksa, after submitting his nominations three days later, has started his campaign under the Sri Lanka Peoples Party (SLPP).

But the death threats against the civil activist duo only intensified. What started as accusations of being ‘traitors’ and ‘NGO karayo’ have now, after the verdict, transformed into fanatical calls for the ‘natural deaths’ of the two and even “slow deaths”.

Shortly after the verdict was made public Viyangoda received a phone call from the United States. “Dan Sathutuda?”, (‘are you satisfied now?’), the caller asked. When Viyangoda wanted to know who it was the man has used an obscenity, which the Sunday Observer must refrain from publishing, and said that he was “a Sri Lankan who loves his country and nation”. Viyangoda has disconnected the line.

One social media post Viyangoda especially found startling was made by recently resigned Deputy Leader of the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya, Madhumadhawa Aravinda. In a thinly veiled threat, he states, “There is another name like Viyangoda. That is known as Ekneligoda. We wish them both well.”

“We all know what happened to Eknaligoda,” Viyangoda said. Journalist Eknaligoda disappeared during the Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime. His wife Sandya Eknaligoda is still seeking justice and answers for his disappearance.

Meanwhile, Viyangoda’s Facebook page has taken its toll. A post published on October 5 has attracted many comments. Most of them littered with obscene language calling him a dog, a bastard, also reminding people of the much-feared ‘white van culture’, and they even dragged his innocent children into the issue.

“As citizens we have the right to question any candidate’s dual-citizenship,” Viyangoda said. They had the choice of staying silent and isolating themselves from the hullabaloo, or taking action. They chose the latter, and are reaping the nasty consequences.

On October 8, Prof. Thenuwara and Viyangoda lodged a formal complaint at the CID regarding the threats. This prompted a civil society groups and citizens who are concerned about the safety of the two, to write a letter urging authorities to take immediate action.

“These threats are meant to strike fear into the hearts of those who work for rights and justice in Sri Lanka,” the castigating letter signed by 165 persons and 21 organisations stated “Individuals working on these issues will make every effort to resist any such climate of intimidation and fear.” And went on to express concerns about what the future would hold as the incidents brought back memories of a time when activists, media and lawyers came under attack for daring to question the all powerful Rajapaksa regime.

The ‘National Movement for a Just Society’ Convener Prof. Sarath Wijesuriya said these incidents are a glimpse of a violent rule where citizens will be attacked if they dared question a Rajapaksa family member. This, he added, is the result of the culture of fear the Rajapaksa’s inculcated during their regime. He went on to say that even the lawyers, seen loudly cheering after the CA verdict was read out, while insulting the court, shows that there was no respect for the country’s legal system.

However, Spokesman for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, MP Keheliya Rambukwella retaliated saying that no one has control over what social media users say on their platforms. “No one can blame us directly for these threats,” he said and advised the victims to lodge complaints at relevant institutions.

He also said that candidate Rajapaksa had said on numerous occasions that the judiciary has made a decision and there was no need to threaten anyone. Rambukwella however, conveniently failed to mention when exactly these ‘numerous’ occasions were, but he said that he was present when these statements were made. It is not clear whether the message was conveyed to Rajapaksa’s supporters.

In the meantime Prof. Thenuwara is taking precautions to safeguard himself from harm. “These are direct death threats. They are problematic because they are harmful to society as a whole.

“This is not about death threats against us. We need to have freedom of speech. We have the right to go to courts to clarify anything. This is a fight between the light and darkness.”