War Crimes against Journalists

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.

Will the case continue if defendant is no longer a US citizen?

On information and belief, Defendant Rajapaksa was a U.S. citizen at the time our case was filed, and during the period in which the attack against Lasantha Wickrematunge took place.  While he may have renounced his citizenship after being served in this case, U.S. courts can exercise personal jurisdiction over non-citizens who were personally served while in the United States.

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.

Why was the complaint amended?

CJA filed an amended complaint on July 15, 2019 to add an additional  claim that Rajapaksa is liable for Lasantha’s torture in the lead-up to his extrajudicial killing, in violation of the Torture Victim Protection Act and customary international law. The amended complaint also contains additional factual allegations of the targeting of journalists during the Rajapaksa regime.

Where in the legal process is the case?

On October 21, 2019, the United States District Court for the Central District of
California granted Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s motion to dismiss. The Court held that it lacks
the jurisdiction to consider Wickrematunge’s claims, because, in the Court’s view,
Rajapaksa is entitled to common law foreign official immunity for the acts that are
alleged—acts of torture, extrajudicial killing, and crimes against humanity. The Court
found that these acts were committed in his official capacity as Sri Lanka’s Secretary of

The Court made no finding on the actual merits of the allegations against Rajapaksa,
which include his alleged responsibility for the extrajudicial killing of Lasantha
Wickrematunge and for the Sri Lankan government’s campaign of violence against
journalists during Sri Lanka’s civil war. 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 challenge the decision through an appeal on
behalf of Ahimsa Wickrematunge.

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.  

What happens once the appeal is dismissed under head of state immunity?

CJA will continue to work with Ahimsa and our Sri Lankan partners to advocate for accountability for Lasantha’s murder and other attacks on journalists. 

Who is CJA?

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. Visit www.cja.org.