Updated April 11, 2019​ 

Sri Lanka Express

“Let them attack, I’m prepared” – Gota responds to “baseless lawsuits” filed in California

Gotabaya Rajapaksa
Pic 2016  (Leelarathna/SLE Library)
Yasmine Sooka, Exec. Director ITJP

Exclusive interview with Hassina Leelarathna

These lawsuits have been filed to delay the process and discourage me. I have handed the matter to my lawyers [in Los Angeles] to take care of and I’m looking ahead to what needs to be done for our country,” said former Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa commenting on the two civil lawsuits filed against him in the Central District of California.

He met with his attorneys in Los Angeles on Tuesday (April 9).

One of the cases has been filed by the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) based in South Africa and the US law firm Hausfeld on behalf of Sri Lankan- Canadian Roy Samathanam who claims he was tortured while in custody in 2007-2010 by a terrorism investigation unit reporting to the defense secretary.   The second case has been separately filed by another organization on behalf of Ahimsa Wickrematunga, daughter of journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga assassinated in January 2009.

Speaking by phone with this writer this morning (April 10), Mr. Rajapaksa, widely expected to run at the presidential elections later this year, said the lawsuits were a tactic to distract him and his supporters and that the charges against him would not stand up in a court of law.  “These are baseless allegations made by people outside our country to delay the process because I’m a strong candidate,” he said. “Let them attack, I’m prepared.”

He added that far from being discouraged, he and his supporters will be more motivated by these tactics of foreign-based agencies.  “People in Sri Lanka are disgruntled and want a change.  When we were in power, we achieved great things. We were able to deliver, not just talk.  We want to solve common problems people in the north and the south are facing.  These type of attempts by outsiders will get out people more motivated to bring our country back under proper leadership.”

Rajapaksa was on a short visit to attend a wedding and spend time with his son who lives in the area.  Process servers ambushed him with papers for the two lawsuits last Sunday (April 7) at a Trader Joe’s (health food store) in Pasadena, about ten miles northeast of Los Angeles.  The city, at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, is home to a large number of Sri Lankan expats and houses the oldest Sri Lankan Buddhist Temple in the west coast. 

The campaign against the former defense secretary appears to be a well-coordinated effort spearheaded by Yasmine Sooka, human rights lawyer and ITJP executive director.  Judging by its fiery press releases, ITJP’s primary focus is on defending terrorism suspects in the LTTE separatist war.

Even though it was around midnight in Johannesburg when the lawsuit papers were served in Pasadena, the well-oiled pro-LTTE media machine had Sooka’s press release out in cyberspace within a couple of hours.  A press conference featuring Samathanam was held in London within 24 hours of the serving.   


The ITJP contact for the release is Frances Harrison former BBC correspondent and author of a book on the final phase of the LTTE war.

What happens now?

The first step Rajapaksa’s attorneys will take is to determine if the lawsuits are within the statute of limitations.  Depending on the type of case, California's statutes of limitations range from one year to 10 years.  The clock starts to click on the date of the incident or the date of discovery of the harmful action.

Initially, they may also file a "demurrer," which is essentially a pleading in state court to have the case dismissed, challenging the sufficiency of the complaint.  While not disputing the facts of the case, a demurrer argues on the grounds that there is no legal claim even if the facts presented by the plaintiff are true.

Thousands of civil cases are filed in the California’s sprawling court system which serves a population of more than 39 million people—about 12 percent of the total U.S. population.  In 2016, a total of 610,627 cases asking for damages over $10,000 were filed.  State government statistics show 95 percent to 96 percent of personal injury cases being settled pretrial.

Finding a jury or even a judge knowledgeable enough in Sri Lankan matters to rule on the cases against Rajapaksa will be particularly challenging.

In her press release, Sooka calls on other “survivors of torture” to come forward, expressing ambitions of turning the ITJP’s lawsuit into “a class action.”

“Mr. Rajapaksa has to give up his US citizenship to be able to stand in presidential elections so this was probably the last chance for a long time to begin to hold him accountable. We hope other survivors of torture will join the suit and make this a class action.”

A class action is also a civil lawsuit, but brought by a group of people who are “similarly situated," usually a group of people harmed in a similar way by a business entity (with deep pockets).  Class actions are very complex and must first be certified by a judge before they can proceed.

Given that it has already been filed, it is not clear how Ms. Sooka expects Roy Samathanam’s personal lawsuit to morph into a class action.

        Notice was formally served on Mr. Rajapaksa on Sunday night at a Trader Joe’s parking lot in Pasadena.This was after the ITJP and Hausfeld hired private investigators to track down the whereabouts of Mr Rajapaksa who is currently on holiday in California. Notice was also served at the same time in a seperate [sic]case filed by another organisation on behalf of assasinated [sic] journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga. 

Roy Samathanam, who is a Canadian national, was detained in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo in September 2007 by the Terrorism Investigation Division of the Sri Lanka police, who reported directly to Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Roy Samathanam was physically and psychologically tortured and forced to sign a false confession before being released in August 2010 on a plea deal and payment of a fine. In 2016. Mr. Samathanam won a UN human rights committee case but Sri Lanka has failed to abide by the compensation ruling.

ITJP Press Release