Military and police forces led by former Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence permanent secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, now a presidential hopeful, repeatedly tortured and raped political opponents, in some cases branding them with hot metal rods and lashing them with electrical cables, according to new allegations made Wednesday by 10 men and women in a US court.
The claims against Rajapaksa 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 UN experts’ panel report has said about 45,000 Tamil civilians could 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. “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 Rajapaksa — an American citizen who the lawsuit says immigrated to the US in about 1990 and lived and worked for a time in California — was brought in federal court in Los Angeles under a statute that permits US lawsuits for acts of torture and murders committed in foreign countries.
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 Rajapaksa was defense secretary and his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was Sri Lankan 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, 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.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 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 plans to contest them in court.
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