ONE = Sanjana Hattotuwa: “The Candidate,” in Island, April 2019,
“The lie is revealed. There was no summons served. The photo depicts a lookalike of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The FBI is engaged in an effort to ascertain who produced this false information”. The Facebook Page with this content originally in Sinhala also featured a screenshot of a news story from a leading private electronic media institution. This TV channel, with pages on Facebook in both Sinhala and English that regularly generate very high engagement, ran a story which strongly suggested news of Gotabaya Rajapaksa being sued in the US was false and incorrect.
Also on Facebook and in response to the entirely unexpected development around the former Secretary of Defence when on holiday in the US, nearly a dozen posts in Sinhala venomously decrying those who brought the lawsuits, journalists who reported it and anyone who welcomed it was published in the space of a day. Each post saw very high levels of engagement by way of responses and sharing. The usual hate prevailed, with one post on a fan page with close to 100,000 followers noting that the entire pack of dogs who brought lawsuits against Gotabaya Rajapaksa would be chased out beyond the ends of the earth once he became President.
Official social media accounts of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, at the time of writing this column, were silent on the lawsuits but published other content featuring meetings and gatherings in the US. Namal Rajapaksa, soon after the first reports of his Uncle being served papers at a car park in the US, tweeted a denial anchored to ignorance of the family around what at the time was carried in the media. A deluge of tweets around his birthday, the day after, soon subsumed this single tweet on the Uncle. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was completely silent, producing absolutely nothing by way of a vehement denial or a post indicating strong support.
Google Trends, which showcases search interest over a term or phrase of a given period, showed a dramatic increase in interest around ‘Gotabaya’ from April 8, by way of domestic as well as international traffic. Disaggregated by Google, much of the search traffic from Sri Lanka came from the Western Province, followed by the Central and Southern Provinces. On Twitter, the news spread rapidly. Just two tweets by BBC correspondent Azzam Ameen on the lawsuits respectively filed by Ahimsa Wickrematunge and the International Truth and Justice Project generated nearly 700 likes in under two days.
Clearly, on account of this, vicious posts on Facebook against Ameen’s reporting appeared on pages linked to political parties and politicians allied to Gotabaya Rajapaksa or the SLPP. A motley array of braying apparatchiks on social media took to two common themes to dismiss concerns arising out of the lawsuits, noting that any publicity was good publicity and that the news served only to strengthen Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s appeal and prospects of candidacy. On WhatsApp, news of the development was repeatedly shared with me as well as the concern around the safety and security of those involved or referenced in the lawsuits, including family and relatives in Sri Lanka. Though not explicitly noted, there was fear and anxiety over even expressing an opinion around the development in public.
For a man who has yet to be officially nominated as a candidate for the Presidential election, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s every statement and move already generate tremendous levels of interest and related media content. There is clearly more on him than there is content produced officially by him, which fits a pattern; on the one hand, a strategic distancing from the frothing fans and their open racism, hate and violent nationalism. This allows for plausible deniability when the worst of this content is highlighted, while at the same time allowing the content to seed and spread amongst audiences it was clearly aimed for. On the other hand, through both Viyathmaga and official accounts pegged to the individual, the careful construction of an identity which is part saviour, part visionary and all about delivery. A cardinal mistake would be, entirely independent of the prospects of candidacy, to dismiss all this.
As with all populists, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a product of a system of governance that has fragmented polity and society. His appeal is in effect the desire for the good life by those who are tired of its pursuit and angered by its unreachability. While the deep or the dark state economy will obviously throb and thrive under Gotabaya, the perception of so many whose comments I study online is that there will also be the opportunity for many others to succeed in a society where order and discipline prevail. This is a compelling fiction projected and promoted in extremely nuanced ways over many platforms. It is an illocutionary act, which disguises strong demands through utterances and content disguised as that which expresses the will of the downtrodden, forgotten or a majority interested in a better future.
The campaigns – and it is very much in the plural – of Gotabaya Rajapaksa are engaging studies in the adoption and adaptation of media for populist appeal. From creating enemies of elites to emphasising the sovereignty (or power) that resides in the people, campaigns also promote an exclusive Sinhala-Buddhist heartland which represents core values of culture, country and community. Problems are flagged, but instead of government or state responses or redress, Gotabaya’s campaigns perennially promise personal attention or action – promoting self and individual power over democratic institutions.
The lawsuits in the US will fuel the heightened production of content that is anchored to all this. But in a larger sense, the dynamics before the dramatic development in the US, endure at least in the complex media ecosystems I study and their relationship with electoral outcomes. Gotabaya is isolated from within the family, unable, yet, to elicit even a single tweet from Mahinda even after a significant development. Gotabaya attempts to cement, and soon, his candidacy as a given by feeding a large, pulsating fan base, tearing, straining and snapping at anything or anyone hindering an official nomination. It is this feverish, frothing, feeding frenzy that elder brother and nephew stand, for now, apart from. But this may change, and developments in the US may serve to in the short-term, strengthen domestic appeal, forcing the hand of those who have held back. The New Yorker magazine in 2011 published a fascinating account of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, where the writer was shown four sharks in his garden, in massive tanks. When describing them, Gotabaya giggled softly.
This succinct capture of man and mentality still gives me shivers. But he represents a growing disconnect between elected officials and ground realities, which cannot be defeated by derision, denial or dismissiveness. Gotabaya’s sharks, we are told, needed fresh sea-water every fortnight, which was trucked in. All predators thrive in conditions that allow them to feed and grow. Sri Lanka’s socio-political rot, decades in the making, is populism’s rich nutrient base. That’s the problem. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is just a symptom.
TWO =Michael Safi: “Brother of Sri Lanka ex-president sued over alleged torture and killings,” 9 April 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/09/brother-of-sri-lanka-ex-president-sued-over-alleged-torture-and-killings
The brother of the former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa is being sued in a US court over alleged extrajudicial killing and torture, by the same lawyers who successfully brought a civil suit against the Syrian government for the killing of the Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was Sri Lanka’s defence secretary during the final years of the country’s civil war against the Tamil Tigers until his brother lost the presidency in 2015, and has been mooted as the family’s presidential candidate in this year’s election.
He is believed to have directly overseen the country’s police and military, which have been accused by the UN, human rights groups and Sri Lanka’s own investigative agencies of crimes including torture, arbitrary detention and extrajudicial killings both during the Tamil conflict and in the years since it ended in 2009.
Private investigators working on behalf of the legal teams tracked Rajapaksa down on Sunday night to a Trader Joe’s car park in the Californian city of Pasadena, where he was formally served with notice of the civil suits.
One relates to Roy Samathanam, a Canadian citizen of Tamil origin who a UN human rights committee has concluded was detained by Sri Lankan counter-terrorism police and tortured for three years on baseless accusations of aiding the Tigers. The alleged torture included beatings, painful handcuffing and being forced to witness rapes by security forces. “Sexual assaults were normal on women inside the prison,” Samathanam told a press conference in London on Tuesday. “The images I saw, the girls who were there and the guys were being sexually assaulted, I can still remember their faces and I can still remember what happened.”
A second suit alleges Gotabaya “instigated and authorised” the extrajudicial killing of Lasantha Wickrematunge, a veteran journalist who prophesied his own death in an editorial that ran a few days after he was gunned down while driving to work in 2009.
Gotabaya, 69, was a US citizen at the time of the alleged offences, but would have to give up his American citizenship if he ran for president later this year. “So this was probably the last chance for a long time to begin to hold him accountable,” said Yasmin Sooka, the executive director of the International Truth and Justice Project, the group bringing the torture suit.
The killing suit was brought by the Centre for Justice and Accountability on behalf of Ahimsa Wickrematunge, Lasantha’s daughter-in-law. The complaint is sealed but lawyers have applied to make it public.
Gotabaya has been contacted for comment. Should he defend the case and lose, or choose not to contest it, he could be ordered to pay compensation that might be extracted from any assets he owns in the US.
The torture suit is being led by Scott Gilmore, who in January won a civil case against the Syrian government for the extrajudicial killing of Colvin, a Sunday Times war correspondent. The court ordered Syria to pay $300m (£228m) in punitive damages.
Lawyers will seek to argue that Gotabaya had “overall command and control” of the forces that tortured Samathanam, and is therefore legally liable for their conduct. “Gotabaya made it very clear in his public statements that for many years he centralised control of the security forces,” Gilmore said. “These incidents were widely reported, documented by the UN, and the Sri Lankan government was repeatedly confronted with these allegations. So as defence secretary he clearly knew that these abuses were taking place, or allegedly taking place, but he never took the legal steps to investigate or punish the perpetrators.”
Sri Lanka pledged in 2015 to investigate and prosecute human rights abuses during and after the civil war, but that process has stalled in domestic courts and the country has resisted turning over its citizens to hybrid or international justice processes.
The country’s progress towards human rights reform has “virtually ground to a halt” and brutal torture is used with impunity, the UN concluded in a scathing report last year.
THREE = “Civil Case Filed in the US Against Former Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa,” 9 April 2019, News Item Hausfeld & Co, April 2019
Johannesburg, South Africa, 9th April 2019 – The International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP), in partnership with the international law firm Hausfeld and human rights lawyer Scott Gilmore, have filed a civil damages case in California against former Sri Lankan defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, on behalf of a Tamil torture survivor Roy Samathanam. Roy Samathanam made the complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against Mr. Rajapaksa, who is a dual US Sri Lankan citizen. The case was brought under the Torture Victim Protection Act, which gives torture victims legal redress in US courts.
Notice was formally served on Mr. Rajapaksa on Sunday night. Notice was also served at the same time in a separate case filed by another organisation on behalf of assassinated journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge.
Roy Samathanam, a Canadian national, was arrested on false charges in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo in September 2007 by Sri Lankan police who reported directly to Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the time. Visiting Sri Lanka to marry his wife, Mr Samathanam was detained for three years and repeatedly denied access to a lawyer or a judge. Under Mr Rajapaksa’s command, guards tortured Mr Samathanam, threatened to rape and kill his wife and child, and made him watch the electrocution of other prisoners. He was forced to sign a false confession before being released in August 2010 on a plea deal.
Since his release, Mr. Samathanam has been an outspoken advocate. In 2011, he testified about his ordeal in the Parliament of Canada. In 2016, Mr. Samathanam won a UN Human Rights Committee case, but Sri Lanka has failed to abide by the compensation ruling.
“While I was in prison I learned what inhumanity looks like,” said plaintiff Roy Samathanam. “So far, there has been no accountability, so I am happy to take this first step to get justice. This action will give torture victims in Sri Lanka hope for the future.”
“Mr Samathanam was one of countless civilians detained and tortured in Sri Lanka because of their ethnic Tamil identity,” said human rights lawyer Scott Gilmore, who led the compensation case successfully brought by the family of Sunday Times journalist, Marie Colvin, against the Government of Syria. “Under international law, Mr Rajapaksa bears command responsibility for the abuses carried by his security forces.”
Yasmin Sooka, executive director ITJP: “Roy’s torture case is just one of many hundreds the ITJP has documented in Sri Lanka that are systematic and speak to incredible levels of impunity. This is believed to be the first instance of civil suits being filed against Gotabaya Rajapaksa abroad. We hope that others will come forward and contact us. They can join a collective action for redress.”
“We commend Roy for his bravery in being among the first to step forward and we are happy that our expertise and resources can benefit the struggle for justice in Sri Lanka,” said Michael Hausfeld, Chairman Hausfeld, “We hope more victims will come forward”.
Scott Gilmore of Washington DC Yasmin Sooka of South Africa
A SIGNIFICANT NOTE under Hausfeld & Co. site
For further media information, please contact Sophie Toumazis +44(0)7974 428858 or Frances Harrison on +44 (0)7946 488089.
Note to editors
About Scott Gilmore
Scott Gilmore is an international human rights lawyer based 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 Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin.
Hausfeld is a leading global law firm with offices in Berlin, Boston, Brussels, Düsseldorf, London, Stockholm, New York, Paris, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. The firm has a broad range of complex litigation expertise, particularly in antitrust/competition, financial services, sports and entertainment, environmental, mass torts, consumer protection, and human rights matters, often with an international dimension. Hausfeld is the only claimants’ firm to be ranked by the Legal 500 and Chambers & Partners as a top tier firm in private enforcement of antitrust/competition law in both the United States and Europe.
About the ITJP
The International Truth and Justice Project is an NGO run by the South African transitional justice expert Yasmin Sooka. It has the largest archive of testimony and other information pertaining to the final phase of the civil war in Sri Lanka and the post-war period. In August 2017, the ITJP filed 4 universal jurisdiction cases in Chile, Brazil, Peru and Colombia against a Sri Lankan retired General who was a diplomat there for his alleged role in the war and torture.