(Excerpts From Political Column in the “Sunday Times”)
The first tweet, surprising enough, came from a power centre within the government. It said that Ahimsa, the daughter of slain editor Lasantha Wickremetunge had filed civil action in a Los Angeles Court against Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Opposition presidential hopeful and former Defence Secretary.
Lasantha’s brother Lal Wickremetunga, Sri Lanka’s Consul General in Australia, told the Sunday Times on the telephone from Sydney, “The family had waited for five years under the Rajapaksa government and another five years under the present one. They did not get justice. Therefore, they have gone before a US court.” The remarks were an about-turn from what he said just two weeks earlier.
Denying moves to file a case against his brother’s killing, he then told the Sunday Times (Café Spectator March 31): “Those reports are completely untrue. I have no plans to file any action in US courts. I am awaiting the outcome of what the Sri Lanka courts would do once those responsible are indicted.” Now he admits action indeed has been filed in US courts, albeit by “the family”. According to other well-informed sources, he played a key role in the ongoing exercise co-ordinating matters.
The brutal killing of Lasantha, Editor of the now defunct Sunday Leader, and one-time politician of sorts, took place on January 8, 2009. Since then, for the past ten years, investigations by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), have been mired in deep mystery and controversy. One of the main reasons is the pressure on those probing from different arms of the state, some of them very powerful. Talks on the probe had even extended to five-star hotels. Efforts are being made now to file indictments on some, after the national New Year. This again is on those widely described as being on the outer fringe or, as they say, where the buck has stopped. Thus, a case listing the accused, if as claimed including Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has not yet surfaced in courts. How then is he being allegedly accused of murder? The Sunday Times has learnt that substantial material involving his alleged involvement has been culled from reports filed by the CID in the Magistrate’s Courts in Colombo. Though these court reports are considered public documents, both the CID and the court staff, have been consistently protective and have not released them. This has come as a veil of secrecy not only in this case but many high-profile cases.
The US-based Premier Group International (PGI) said in a tweet that their “licensed process (summons) servers teamed up with Ideal Investigations, Inc. to surveil and serve papers” on Gotabaya Rajapaksa for two federal lawsuits filed in California. The PGI is a company dealing with investigations, threat assessment and risk management. It happened when Gotabaya, who was visiting the United States at the time was to drive to Nevada and chose to visit Trader Joe’s in Pasadena, California – a large food chain dealing with a variety including many vegetarian items. He is a strict vegetarian. There he was photographed as the process (summons) was served on him in a sealed brown envelope. The photograph shows him accepting a sealed brown envelope. Quite clearly, as admitted in the tweet, he had been under close surveillance and was unaware of it. In Colombo, Parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa denied such process (summons) was served.
And that surveillance did not end there. Soon, his return flight details from Los Angeles to Dubai (en route to Colombo) from the Tom Bradley International Airport, in Los Angeles at 1.40 p.m. on April 10 by Emirates flight EK 216 became known. As it so happened, the same power centre in Colombo together with a known coterie tweeted the details and caused some confusion for the former Defence Secretary. He had to cancel the flight. He left in another flight and arrived in Colombo on Friday. He was received by a group of MPs, former ministers, retired military officials and well-wishers at the Bandaranaike International airport. There was also a religious ceremony at the VIP Lounge where the Buddhist clergy chanted pirith. Also present were Muslim ulemas and Hindu priests.
Gota makes statement
In a brief statement he made to the crowds; Gotabaya Rajapaksa made a significant revelation – he has NOT handed in his papers yet for the renunciation of his US citizenship. He said he had gone to the US mostly to consult his lawyers over the renunciation of his US citizenship. He said he did this successfully. He said he would move towards this soon – a clear indication that the civil law suits have been filed in the US courts ahead of his handing in documents to end his US citizenship. Rajapaksa said it was unfortunate court action was being initiated ahead of a presidential election and emphasised that it was civil action. He made no reference to receiving the process (summons) directly but said he received them through Sri Lanka’s Consul General in Los Angeles. It became clear yesterday that the former Defence Secretary had a meeting with US Embassy officials on March 6 for a preliminary inquiry. It is now that he is expected to hand in documents including his US passport. That disclosure adds a new dimension to the issues revolving around.
The journey to Los Angeles to attend the wedding of a friend was not without some controversy. Members of the Rajapaksa family, top level leadership of the SLPP and those in the Opposition were livid that a controversial personality had accompanied him. He had taken part in all events including personal engagements. Top members of the family had warned Gotabaya Rajapaksa before departure that he should keep a safe distance from the person. Some were also unhappy about his timing to attend a wedding in Los Angeles given the evolving political situation in Sri Lanka. So much so, President Sirisena who planned a pilgrimage overseas called it off. Premier Wickremesinghe, who is known to take an overseas vacation during the National New Year season has also not done so.
Just after the court action by Ahimsa Wickremetunge was made public, the South Africa-based International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) said it had, in partnership with the international law firm Hausefeld Solicitors, filed a civil damage suit in California against the former Defence Secretary. Thus, both cases have been filed by the same law firm, an indication that they are linked. The ITJP is a South African NGO run by Yasmin Sooka, a transitional justice expert. She was earlier a member of a three-member UN panel that visited Sri Lanka at the end of the separatist war in 2009. That was to study and advise the United Nations’ then Secretary General Ban Ki-moon regarding “modalities, applicable standards and comparative experience relevant to the accountability process, having regard to alleged violations of international human rights law during the final stages” of the separatist war.
The ITJP case is in respect of Roy Samathanam, now a Canadian national. He was arrested in Colombo in January 2007 and allegedly detained and tortured for three years without access to lawyers. A former Colombo-based BBC correspondent Frances Harrison is also involved in this initiative as a media contact from London.
The case of Marie Colvin
Interesting enough, the two cases are being handled by Scott Gilmore, an international human rights lawyer in Washington DC. He has represented survivors of torture and war crimes from around the world, including the family of ISIS hostage James Foley and Haitian victims of Baby Doc Duvalier. In January 2019, Mr Gilmore won a $303.6 million lawsuit against the Syrian Assad Regime for the killing of (London) Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin. She died covering the Syrian war. It transpired later that Syrian Intelligence had identified her location by intercepting calls on a satellite phone. They were accused of precision bombing that killed her. However, the payment of compensation was more symbolic and the Assad regime in Syria rejected the court order.
Colvin, a well-known war correspondent, a US citizen, flew into Colombo from London in April 2001 to cover the separatist war. Since I was reporting to the Sunday Times (UK) then, I met her for a lengthy chat at the Galle Face Hotel just the night before she left in the morning for the war-torn north. Over the years, she had become a personal friend. She entered the area through Mannar entry/exit point and spent several days in Jaffna. She was returning through the forward defended localities ahead of Vavuniya when an Army team ambushed her and her Tiger (LTTE) guerrilla escorts. In a firefight, Colvin lost her left eye. The guerrillas left her almost for dead at the FDL and fled. She was eventually treated at a Government hospital in the North Central province of Sri Lanka. The Sunday Times (London) arranged for an air ambulance to fly her back to the UK, but Sri Lankan doctors later gave her the okay to fly in a commercial aircraft. South Asia Correspondent Jon Swain flew in to escort her to London. She later flew to the US for further treatment. Foreign Editor Sean Ryan once described her satellite phone bills as one of the costliest items for the newspaper. Colvin’s encounters, both in Sri Lanka and Syria have now been made into a Hollywood movie.
The law suits against Gotabaya Rajapaksa are clearly intended to delay, if not scuttle, the US government from renouncing his citizenship. The move has been like releasing a nest full of hornets within the SLPP and has led to serious concern. In some ways, it is similar to what a group called Sikhs for Justice filed in New York courts against Congress leader Sonia Gandhi in December 2014. She was accused of “shielding party leaders involved in violence against Sikhs in India in November 1984” following the assassination of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. However, in June 2014 – more than six months after – a US Federal Court dismissed the lawsuit “for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim.”
What is significant here is the time taken – a period of six months. In Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s case, too, he would have to obtain US certification that he has renounced his citizenship much ahead of six months – the time by which presidential election is now due. Some SLPP leaders learnt from onetime UNP turned SLFP minister Milinda Moragoda, a close ally of the former Defence Secretary, that it took him only some ten days to renounce his US citizenship. It is now that they are becoming conscious that Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s case is a lot different. Questions are now being asked why he could not have applied to renounce his citizenship much earlier despite being advised to do so. Therefore, the suspense, not to mention fears, are growing and so is the propaganda pitch against the former Defence Secretary.
UNP plot, says Allahapperuma
Others in the Rajapaksa camp have, however, spoken out. “This is only part of a vicious campaign by the United National Party (UNP) against the plan to field Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the next presidential candidate,” Dullas Allahapperuma, now a frontliner in the SLPP, told a news conference last Tuesday. He claimed that after the Wickremetunge killing, eight Intelligence officers were kept in custody for around two years. The aim was to implicate Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe had said that the former Army Commander was involved as reports in the Parliament Hansard would reveal.
Alahapperuma claimed there were parallels to events that unfolded in 1982. President J.R. Jayewardene had planned the presidential election campaign after depriving former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, of her civic rights. Jayewardene’s nephew Wickremesinghe was trying to use the same tactics. From last Tuesday, he said, there was only 179 days left for the announcement of the presidential election. The last date on which such an election could be held is December 7 this year. Thus, the final date for calling for nominations will be October 21. A formal announcement would have to come on October 5. At the same news conference, National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa said the purpose behind action before US courts was to create issues over renunciation of the former Defence Secretary’s US citizenship. “The cases have been filed after the documents had been handed over. There will be no implications over it as a result of the court action. Lawyers who studied the matter have advised so,” he added. The SLPP’s nominal leader, G.L. Peiris, argued that there was “no basis for a case” since the incidents referred to had taken place ten years ago.
President Maithripala Sirisena-led Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is, however, still wary over Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidature at the presidential election. Its General Secretary, Dayasiri Jayasekera, who has taken a hawkish stand against the SLPP in recent times, declared, “I don’t know whether Gotabaya Rajapaksa is named as the SLPP candidate. We respect that family’s decision. However, we believe that the SLPP has not taken such a decision.” Those remarks only mean that like President Sirisena, General Secretary Jayasekera also wants to believe there is still hope. That is for prospects of Sirisena becoming the joint candidate for both the SLFP and the SLPP. However, even in the unlikely event of Gotabaya Rajapaksa not contesting, the prospects are zero for Sirisena being backed by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).