IIt was a hot day in April 2019 and Gotabaya Rajapaksa was enjoying the afternoon with her family in an affluent Los Angeles suburb. Rajapaksa, relaxed in his chinos and polo shirt as he strolled through the parking lot of the popular US supermarket Trader Joe’s, looked startled when a woman slipped up and shoved a brown envelope into his hands. “You have been served,” said the private detective before fleeing.
The charges inside that brown envelope, a civil suit alleging complicity in torture and murder, would not go far in court. Seven months later, Rajapaksa, a member of Sri Lanka’s most powerful political dynasty, would be elected president and enjoy immunity from prosecution.
But since Rajapaksa’s presidency came to an abrupt end this month when he fled abroad and resigned in shame, accused of bankrupting Sri Lanka, lawyers, activists and victims around the world have taken action. Stripped of the protections of his office, many believe that ultimately this could be an opportunity for justice.
On Sunday, the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP), which has spent more than a decade doggedly collecting evidence on Rajapaksa and brought the first US civil suit in 2019, filed a criminal complaint with the Attorney General of Singapore, where he is hiding. . He is seeking his arrest for alleged war crimes under the country’s Geneva Conventions Act. Lawyers say more lawsuits could soon follow.
“We are delighted, this is a moment of opportunity,” said Yasmin Sooka, human rights lawyer at the ITJP. “We have spent years putting together a comprehensive dossier on Gotabaya and a series of international violations dating back to 1989. Now that he no longer has immunity, we are confident that we have a credible case for him to answer.”
The message he sent to victims, Sooka added, was “very powerful; the idea that this man, who was known in Sri Lanka as the “Terminator”, could finally be held accountable”.
Although rare, there have been instances where war criminals who escaped abroad have been prosecuted and convicted under universal jurisdiction. Sooka confirmed that the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) is also considering refiling the US civil case and will lobby for foreign governments to impose sanctions on Rajapaksa’s assets.
The charges against Rajapaksa date from late 2008, when he was defense secretary and head of the armed forces in Sri Lanka. It was during this time, when his older brother Mahinda was president, that he oversaw the end of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war between the Tamil separatist militant group known as the Tamil Tigers and Sri government forces. -lankans.
Barbaric methods were allegedly used and endorsed by Rajapaksa. According to the UN, supported by testimonies and video footage, there were “credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity”, including systematic killings, torture and sexual violence against dozens of thousands of Tamil civilians and the summary execution of prisoners by the government. forces.
Citizens were lured to safe fire-free zones in Tamil-controlled areas in the north, only to be bombarded by deadly shelling by government forces, with dozens of hospitals and humanitarian facilities targeted. Thousands of people who surrendered were taken and never seen again. In these final stages of the war, estimates of the dead range from 40,000 to 100,000. Even in the years that followed, thousands more were subjected to enforced disappearances and abductions in white vans, where they were often tortured and rarely fired. According to the ICTJ and others, the responsibility and chain of command for these actions ended directly with Rajapaksa. He denies all the allegations.
Yet despite numerous damning reports, UN resolutions and recommendations, and an international outcry, Rajapaksa has never faced a national or international tribunal. After his brother lost power in 2015, Rajapaksa moved freely to the United States, gaining citizenship. In 2019, still touted as a war hero by Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority, he returned to Sri Lanka and was elected president. Limited progress towards wartime justice and reconciliation has been halted, military generals who had been convicted of war crimes have been pardoned, and the persecution of Tamils has intensified.
But with Rajapaksa’s dramatic downfall came a new appetite for responsibility. As the overwhelming cry from protesters on the streets of Colombo was a call for him and his family to be charged with corruption, human rights organizations and victims began pushing for investigations to go ahead. beyond financial crime and extend to Rajapaksa’s persecution of Tamils and Muslim minorities, mainly concentrated in the northern and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka, as well as activists, journalists and opponents policies.
“We never imagined that this would become a possibility, where President Rajapaksa had to flee for his own safety,” said Leeladevi Aanandarajah, 70, whose son Aanandanadarasa Anura was taken into military custody in the Tamil region. from Vavuniya in 2009 and never seen again. .
Alongside hundreds of other Tamil mothers, Aanandarajah has spent years trying to find answers about her son, including testifying before police and commissions. Yet their calls for justice were always ignored and she was constantly harassed, watched and abused by the authorities and the military. Many mothers of the missing are now dying before they get answers.
Like most people in the north and east, his hopes now rest on the intervention of the international community. so that justice is served for us,” she said. “What we demand is justice for our children, nothing else.”
The ICTJ is not the only group considering further legal action against Rajapaksa. In 2019, a US civil lawsuit was filed against Rajapaksa for his alleged role in the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, a journalist who reported on Rajapaksa’s alleged involvement in corruption and was later killed by a military squad directly under his command. More than a dozen other critical journalists were killed during this period in similar circumstances.
Nushin Sarkarati, a lawyer with the Center for Justice and Accountability in the United States, who filed the case on behalf of Wickrematunge’s daughter but had to withdraw it after Rajapaksa became president, said it felt like “a new moment of opportunity”, the one they had planned to seize.
“We are in discussion with the family about next steps: is civil litigation still the right way to go or is there more fervor to push for criminal action against Gotabaya?” said Sarkarati.
Previous calls by the UN human rights commissioner for member states to open investigations into war crimes in Sri Lanka in their own countries and then seek Rajapaksa’s arrest under universal jurisdiction, do not came to nothing.
But Sarkarati said that with the “groundswell of support and calls for justice for the myriad abuses to which he was linked”, several human rights groups were now pushing governments, including the United States, to reopen old criminal investigations into Rajapaksa. “A government like the United States could open an investigation and then request his extradition,” Sarkarati said.
Nevertheless, the road to Rajapaksa in the face of a trial is strewn with uncertainties. While Singapore authorities let him go free after his visitor visa expired in early August, a cabinet minister has indicated that Rajapaksa intends to return to Sri Lanka.
KS Ratnavale, a senior lawyer who has worked on hundreds of cases of enforced disappearances and victims of massacres, said there remained little chance of Rajapaksa being tried for war crimes in Sri Lanka, where all national mechanisms of accountability had so far failed and where Rajapaksa’s political allies were still running the country.
The new president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, is among those accused of protecting the Rajapaksa family in the past and of complicity in obstructing justice in the civil war. When he was prime minister, from 2015 to 2019, Wickremesinghe never set up the promised hybrid courts – intended to bring leaders of both sides to justice for serious human rights abuses during the civil war – and had refused to disband military units in the north accused by the Tamils of having committed the worst war crimes.
Wickremesinghe’s actions since becoming president this month, including the reappointment of Kamal Gunaratne, a former commander of the Sri Lankan army’s 53rd Division accused of committing alleged war crimes, as Secretary of the Ministry of Defence, have also failed to inspire the confidence of Tamil groups calling for justice.
“Whichever government comes to power, it covers up atrocities and crimes committed against civilians and unarmed personnel and entrenched immunity is granted to armed forces and paramilitary groups,” Ratnavale said. “That’s why the victims are calling for an international investigation.”
For the mothers of the disappeared who are still waiting for justice, the fall of Rajapaksa, although a symbolic victory, was not enough to convince them that they would finally be granted the responsibility and the answers they had been waiting for for 13 years.
Kathirkamanathan Kokilavani, 52, of Kilinochchi, lost his 18-year-old son as they fled heavy shelling and barrel bombing, and never saw him again. “I don’t believe whoever comes to power will give us answers because they are afraid of the truth,” she said. “The Rajapaksas made our children disappear; now they have disappeared from politics.