Human rights lawyers have sued Sri Lankan presidential hopeful Gotabaya Rajapaksa in federal court in the Central District of California. Rajapaksa, who is a joint Sri Lankan-U.S. citizen, was served with process in the parking lot of a Trader Joe’s, of all places.
Plaintiff Roy Samthanam, who is a Canadian citizen, alleges that he was detained and tortured from 2007-2010 by the Terrorism Investigation Division of the Sri Lanka police. He tells his harrowing story of physical and mental torture here and in this video. He is represented by the International Truth & Justice Project, under the leadership of the indomitable Yasmin Sooka, and a private law firm. The U.N. Human Rights Committee, which evaluates states’ compliance with the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights, has already ordered Sri Lanka to pay him compensation. A separate case was apparently filed on behalf of the family of assassinated journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga. If Rajapaksa owns property in California, it could be attached for the purpose of satisfying any civil judgment against him.
Just Security has extensively covered the aftermath of the war in Sri Lanka, which is characterized by an entrenched impunity. In particular, we have offered a number of proposals for how the Department of Justice could prosecute Rajapaksa under the U.S. War Crimes Act, which has never been activated to date. That statute grants jurisdiction over war crimes committed by, or against, U.S. citizens. (See Ryan Goodman’s coverage here, here, here, here, here, and here).
There has been some discussion that Rajapaksa has given up his U.S. citizenship in order to run for higher office in Sri Lanka. This does not affect the viability of these civil cases because he was served with process while in the United States, and was—in any case—a U.S. citizen at the time he allegedly acted. The Torture Victim Protection Act (28 U.S.C. § 1350 note) is expressly extraterritorial, so does not raise the extraterritorial issues presented by the Alien Tort Claims Act.
IMAGE: Sri Lankan Defence Ministry Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa (C) rides in a jeep during a Victory Day parade rehearsal in Colombo on May 17, 2013. The parade celebrates the fourth anniversary of the military defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels in May 2009, ending a 37-year long separatist conflict. (Photo by Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images)