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Contours of the Lawsuit Filed by Murdered Sri Lankan Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge’s Daughter Ahimsa Against Ex-Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the California Central US District Court.

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(Excerpts from Press Releases and Fact Sheets Issued by the Centre for Justice and Accountability in San Francisco,USA About the Lawsuit filed in California against Former Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa by Ahimsa Wickrematunge the daughter of Sri Lankan Newspaper Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge who was assassinated in cold blood by masked assailants on motor cycles in broad daylight in a Colombo suburb on January 8th 2009)


The Center for Justice and Accountability
(CJA) has brought suit against the former Sri Lankan Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa for his alleged role in the extrajudicial killing of award-winning journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge and the widespread and systematic persecution of journalists perceived to be critical of the Rajapaksa government. The civil complaint, filed on April 4, 2019, was unsealed today (April 15)by a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. Rajapaksa is a dual national of the United States and Sri Lanka, and served as Sri Lanka’s Secretary of Defense after obtaining his citizenship in the United States.

CJA’s complaint was filed on behalf of Lasantha’s daughter, Ahimsa Wickrematunge. In the aftermath of the attack on Lasantha, attempts to credibly investigate the killing in Sri Lanka were met with interference and delay. A decade later, there have still been no charges filed against those responsible for his death. Says Ahimsa: “My father was killed because he was a journalist devoted to freedom of the press. Although this case is a civil matter, my primary focus is for the world to know in a court of law how my father was killed and who allegedly ordered the killing. So far, despite strong investigative work by the police in Sri Lanka, politics has hindered the pursuit of justice.”

CJA Senior Staff Attorney Nushin Sarkarati said, “Violence against journalists in Sri Lanka was a tool used by the Rajapaksa administration to suppress a free and independent press, and the impunity for these abuses persists to this day. We now seek truth in a U.S. court with the hope of seeing such cases move forward in Sri Lanka.”

Gotabaya Rajapaksa served as Sri Lanka’s Secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2015 throughout the presidency of his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The complaint alleges that during the final years of Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war, the Rajapaksa government cracked down on perceived critics of the war effort and launched an assault on the free press. One victim was acclaimed journalist, Lasantha Wickrematunge, who was killed by masked assailants in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo on January 8, 2009.

He famously penned a final editorial to be published in the event of his murder. His funeral drew mourners from around the world, and statements condemning his assassination came from freedom of expression organizations and governments alike. Known for exposing government corruption by senior officials and abuses committed during the war, Lasantha’s writing drew criticism and threats from the Rajapaksa regime.

The complaint alleges that members of security forces under the command of Gotabaya Rajapaksa were responsible for Lasantha’s killing, and that the initial investigation into Lasantha’s murder was obstructed by a number of cover-ups within the police department, which was also under the authority of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Gotabaya was personally served with a court summons and copy of Ahimsa’s complaint on April 7, 2019 in Los Angeles, while visiting his family in the United States. He has until April 29, 2019 to respond to the allegations against him.

Ahimsa’s case on behalf of her father was filed with support from Schonbrun Seplow Harris & Hoffman, and from the Mintz Group and Ideal Investigations.

(The Following is a Fact Sheet Comprising Frequently Asked Questions about the Case Filed Against Ex-Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa in California,USA by Ahimsa Wickrematunge the daughter of Slain Sri Lankan Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge)

Why was a complaint filed?

Ahimsa Wickrematunge has been seeking accountability for her father’s murder for over ten years. Despite the hard work of the investigating authorities in Sri Lanka, there have still been no charges filed against those responsible for Lasantha’s death. For these reasons, Ahimsa and the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) decided to bring this civil suit in the United States. Even though the suit will not result in any jail time, it is an opportunity for Ahimsa to have her father’s case heard in a court of law, and to have an impartial judge rule on Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s liability for his murder.

Where was the complaint filed?

The complaint was filed in Los Angeles, California before the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

Was defendant served with the papers?

Yes, the defendant was personally served on April 7, 2019 in Montrose, California (within Los Angeles County). Service was performed by a private investigator from Ideal Investigations, with support from the Mintz Group.

What are the issues raised in the complaint?

The complaint alleges that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was involved in the extrajudicial killing of journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge as well as the widespread and systematic targeting of other journalists perceived to be critical of the Rajapaksa government.

What laws are referenced/What is the legal framework for such a complaint?

The case brings civil claims under two federal statutes: the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA) and the Alien Tort Statute (ATS).

The TVPA, passed in 1991, allows U.S. federal courts to hear claims against individuals who, acting under the actual or apparent authority of a foreign nation, committed torture or extrajudicial killing. Under the TVPA, both U.S. citizens and non-citizens may file suit. The perpetrator must be served with the lawsuit while they are present in the U.S. in order for a court to have jurisdiction over the individual.

The ATS, passed in 1789, allows foreign victims of international human rights abuses to sue the perpetrators in U.S. federal courts for violations of customary international law. U.S. courts have applied this law to hear claims involving crimes against humanity, torture, extrajudicial killing, war crimes, and other serious human rights violations.

Neither of these laws require U.S. nationality to pursue a claim. However, the Defendant must be within the jurisdiction of the U.S. for a case to be initiated.

What is the defendant’s obligation now?

The defendant has three weeks from the time of service to respond to our complaint, by either affirming or denying the facts we allege or by filing a motion to dismiss. If he does not respond, the case can still proceed without him, and the court will assess the strength of our claims against him.

What is the legal process in such a case?

Gotabaya Rajapaksa has now been served and is therefore put on notice about the case. He must respond to the complaint and may obtain a lawyer to represent him in court. Should the case continue, both parties will have an opportunity to depose witnesses and obtain evidence from one another. The case may eventually go to trial, and the plaintiff will be required to prove the case before a judge or jury through the testimony of our client, witnesses, and experts in court.

Will there be criminal sanctions?

If the judge or jury determines that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was indeed responsible for the crimes in the complaint, the case will result in monetary damages. Unlike a criminal case, it will not result in any jail time. However, we hope that our case, if successful, will support the criminal investigation in Sri Lanka and eventually lead to criminal accountability.

Will this case prevent justice being pursued in the Sri Lankan courts?

We fully support the need for fair and independent prosecutions of attacks against journalists in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, such cases have not yet materialized. If and when such prosecutions become viable in Sri Lanka, our case will not prevent these cases from moving forward. Instead, our hope is that our case will serve to support the ongoing investigations and future prosecutions of the attacks on Lasantha, Keith Noyahr, and other persecuted journalists.

Are there any similar cases filed in the United States that have provided justice for victims?

CJA has successfully brought a number of cases in U.S. courts seeking justice for human rights abuses that occurred in Bosnia, Chile, China, El Salvador, and Somalia, to name a few examples. The following are two examples of recent victories· In 2012, a U.S. court awarded Somali torture survivors $21 million against General Mohammed Ali Samantar, Somalia’s former prime minister and minister of defense. Samantar had presided over countless killings and torture of civilians in the 1980s. The case was the first to ever hold a Somali official accountable for human rights crimes committed under the Siad Barré regime. It also established the precedent that foreign officials cannot claim immunity for acts of torture, extrajudicial killing, or other universally recognized human rights violations.

In 2016, a jury found Lieutenant Pedro Barrientos Nuñez responsible for the murder of Chilean singer Victor Jara and awarded Jara’s family $28 million. In 1973, Jara, famous for his outspoken messages on social equality, was tortured and murdered along with hundreds of others by the military under the Pinochet regime. Former soldiers finally broke their silence in 2009, and a number of officials were indicted in Chile. However, because Barrientos had moved to the U.S., the Chilean courts could not reach him. The decision in CJA’s case, along with the prosecutions in Chile, have finally provided judicial acknowledgement of the government’s role in his murder.

the Torture Victim Protection Act and Civil Suits for Human Rights Abuses in the U.S.

CJA’s case against Gotabaya Rajapaksa brings claims of extrajudicial killing and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in Sri Lanka. These claims are brought under two U.S. federal statutes, the Torture Victim Protection Act and the Alien Tort Statute, which allow victims of serious human rights abuses to seek a remedy in U.S. courts when perpetrators of these abuses seek safe haven or are present in the United States.

Passed in 1991, the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA) gives rights to U.S. citizens and noncitizens alike to bring claims for torture and extrajudicial killing committed in foreign countries. Similar to the Alien Tort Statute, the TVPA allows for the filing of civil (rather than criminal) claims in U.S. courts when perpetrators of these abuses are present or within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Since it was passed, the TVPA has been used to hold foreign military officials, government officials, and paramilitary members accountable for human rights abuses.

The Alien Tort Statute in US Federal Law

The Alien Tort Statute is a U.S. federal law dating to 1789, which allows foreign victims of international human rights abuses to sue the perpetrators in U.S. courts, no matter where the abuses were committed, so long as the perpetrator is within the jurisdiction of the U.S. The law was first enacted to provide jurisdiction over certain transnational violations, such as piracy. In 1980, a U.S. court determined that a “torturer” has become the modern-day equivalent to a pirate, an enemy of all mankind, and should therefore be subject to our U.S. courts when they are found here. The ATS has been used to litigate violations of international law, including slavery, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide.


About the Center for Justice and Accountability

The Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) is a San Francisco-based human rights legal organization dedicated to deterring torture, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other severe human rights abuses around the world through innovative litigation, policy and transitional justice strategies that strengthen the global net of accountability. CJA partners with victims and survivors in pursuit of truth, justice, and redress, and has successfully brought cases against a former Minister of Defense of Somalia’s Siad Barre regime, the military officer responsible for the assassination of Chilean activist and singer Victor Jara, and Syria’s Assad regime for its targeted killing of war correspondent Marie Colvin.

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