On April 4, 2019, CJA filed a civil suit against Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s former Secretary of Defense and brother of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, for his alleged involvement in the killing of journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge and the widespread and systematic targeting of journalists perceived to be critical of the Rajapaksa government. Read the complaint here.
During the Rajapaksa regime, journalists perceived to be critical of the war effort or the Rajapaksa government found themselves the targets of harassment and violence. Although the government denied playing a role in the abductions, assaults, and killings of journalists, many attacks were traced back to government security forces under Gotabaya’s Ministry of Defense. In particular, a unit within the Directorate of Military Intelligence was allegedly tasked with surveillance of and attacks on journalists, including the assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the abduction and torture of Keith Noyahr, and the assault on Upali Tennakoon.
On January 8, 2009 Lasantha Wickrematunge was killed by masked assailants in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo while driving to work. Lasantha was the editor of The Sunday Leader, famous for his political opinion columns and his investigations exposing government corruption and abuses committed during the war. His reporting drew criticism and threats from both President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Secretary of Defense Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In the weeks leading up to his death, Lasantha was so concerned that he would be assassinated that he wrote an editorial to be released in the event of his death, stating: “When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.”
Stalled Investigation and Continued Impunity
In the immediate aftermath of Lasantha’s killing, the investigation into his death was marked by cover-ups in the police department and political interference. It was not until 2015, after a change in government, that the Sri Lankan police re-opened Lasantha’s case and revealed evidence linking his death to the Directorate of Military Intelligence.
Unfortunately, following the political crisis in Sri Lanka in October 2018, the police department’s investigation has once again stalled. Over a decade has passed since Lasantha’s death, and still no charges have moved forward. Related investigations into other attacks against journalists have similarly stalled. This continued impunity prompted Lasantha’s daughter, Ahimsa Wickrematunge, to seek accountability for her father’s murder through a civil suit in the United States.
Rajapaksa was served with a court summons and copy of Ahimsa’s complaint while he was in California on April 7, 2019. The case was filed with support from Schonbrun, Seplow, Harris & Hoffman and the Mintz Group and is now being litigated alongside pro bono counsel from Debevoise & Plimpton LLP. Rajapaksa filed a motion to dismiss the claims on June 27, 2019. On July 15, 2019, CJA amended the complaint with additional details on attacks against journalists during the Rajapaksa regime, as well as adding a claim that Rajapaksa is liable for Lasantha’s torture in the lead-up to his extrajudicial killing. On August 16 and 27, 2019, Rajapaksa filed a renewed motion to dismiss and a motion to stay the case until the end of the Sri Lankan elections, where he is running for President. Rajapaska claims that the case should be dismissed because he has immunity for actions taken during his tenure as Secretary of Defense, and that any claims against him should be tried in Sri Lanka, not the United States. In addition, Rajapaksa claims that the case should be stayed until after Sri Lanka’s Presidential election, in which he is running as a candidate, based on the assumption that he would be entitled to head of state immunity should he be elected.
CJA and Debevoise are opposing both motions, arguing that the case should not be dismissed because the Sri Lankan government has never requested immunity on Rajapaksa’s behalf, and that neither Lasantha’s assassination nor the targeted campaign against journalists are official acts. This case can only proceed in the US; supporting declarations from international experts Juan Mendez and Steven Ratner, and Sri Lankan constitutional scholar Suri Ratnapala show that human rights cases against the Rajapaksa administration, like this one, cannot proceed in Sri Lanka without facing judicial interference, delay, and danger to litigants and witnesses. Rajapaksa, a U.S. citizen at the time of the events in question and when the case was filed, should be held accountable under U.S. laws prohibiting torture and extrajudicial killing. Further, any motion to stay the proceedings based on the election results is also speculative.
On October 21, 2019, the United States District Court for the Central District of California granted Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s motion to dismiss. The decision comes even though Lasantha’s assassination was neither authorized nor ratified by the Sri Lankan government, and Rajapaksa presented no evidence to suggest the contrary. CJA and Debevoise & Plimpton will seek to appeal the decision before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of Ahimsa Wickrematunge.