The claims made Wednesday against Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who along with his brother is a prominent figure in Sri Lankan politics, add harrowing details to allegations of abuse that surfaced in an April lawsuit in California. The case details physical, sexual and psychological attacks during and after a decades-long civil war between the government and the island country's ethnic minority. A U.N. experts' panel report has said about 45,000 Tamil civilians may have been killed in the final months of the fighting alone.
"This is not a case of isolated incidents. These are not random occurrences," Scott Gilmore, an attorney for the victims, said in an interview with The Associated Press. "This was an institutional practice amounting to crimes against humanity and the head of that institution was the defense secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa."
The case against Gotabaya - an American citizen who the lawsuit says immigrated to the United States around 1990 and lived and worked for a time in California - was brought in federal court in Los Angeles under a statute that permits U.S. lawsuits for acts of torture and murders committed in foreign countries. It aims to use the U.S. court system to hold Gotabaya accountable for acts by the police and military he oversaw just as he has resurfaced politically and postured himself as a presidential contender.
A spokesman for Gotabaya, Milinda Rajapaksha, denied the accusations.
"We categorically reject these allegations which are politically motivated propaganda because election is approaching," the spokesman said Thursday in an emailed statement. "We reject the allegation. Our lawyers will take necessary action if required."
The lawsuit taps into the ethnic and sectarian conflict that divided the nation for decades between the majority Sinhalese, who are overwhelmingly Buddhist, and the minority Tamil, who are Hindu, Muslim and Christian. The mistreatment of Tamils helped nurture the growth of armed separatists and led to nearly 30 years of civil war, with Tamil Tiger fighters eventually creating a de facto independent homeland in the country's north. The Tigers were crushed in a 2009 government offensive.
The allegations in the lawsuit center on rape, torture and brutal interrogations in army camps and police stations between 2008 and 2013, when Gotabaya was defense secretary and his brother, Mahinda, was president. He left office in 2015 after his brother's defeat but has recently told local media that he intends to seek the presidency.
The lawsuit includes claims from a Tamil human rights activist who says he was choked with a gasoline-soaked plastic bag; a young woman who says she was abducted by police and raped and burned with cigarettes; and a Tamil graduate student who says he was abducted by police, sent to an Army camp and branded with hot metal.
The abuses were "routine and systematic" and often began with an abduction in which victims were pushed into the back of a van, blindfolded and driven for lengthy interrogations to "torture sites" at police stations and army camps, according to the complaint.
Gotabaya, who was served with the lawsuit in the parking lot of a Trader Joe's in Glendale, California, has repeatedly denied the allegations and has signaled that he will contest them in court. He told Al-Jazeera in May, for instance, that the claims were baseless.
"You talk about human rights, you talk about freedom of individuals, you talk about reconciliation, but all these depend on national security," he said. "If you don't have national security what happens ... do you have freedom? Everything depends on national security."
His American lawyer, John Ulin, did not immediately return a call and email seeking comment. He has indicated that he plans to seek the dismissal of the case on grounds including foreign official immunity and statute of limitation, according to a court document filed earlier this week.
The original complaint was filed in April on behalf of Roy Samathanam, a Canadian Tamil who was arrested while visiting Sri Lanka. Guards beat him with pipes and clubs in prison, yelled at him to confess that he was a member of the Tamil Tigers and threatened to kill his wife, according to the lawsuit.
The amended lawsuit contains allegations from an additional 10 plaintiffs, eight Tamil and two Sinhalese, the majority ethnic group.
"He knew or should have known that torture and sexual violence were being committed on a mass scale by security forces under his control," the lawsuit says. "Instead of preventing these abuses, he encouraged or tolerated them. Instead of prosecuting the perpetrators, he obstructed justice and threatened witnesses with death."
It also identifies name several high-ranking Sri Lankan officials who it says were involved in the abuse, including a top investigative police officer and a counterterrorism investigative chief who is alleged to have received directions from Gotabaya directly.
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