During a promising lull in the Sri Lankan civil war, Roy Samathanam left Toronto and returned to the island country, which he had fled in 1990.
It was a big mistake.
He was handcuffed and blindfolded by counter-terrorism police, who detained and tortured him for almost three years, accusing him of involvement with the Tamil Tigers rebels.
Nine years later, Samathanam is trying to hold the official he blames to account, launching a civil suit against Sri Lanka’s former defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The case was filed in California, where Rajapaksa lives part-time. A second suit, by the family of assassinated journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, similarly holds Rajapaksa responsible.
The legal action comes at an awkward time for Rajapaksa, a dual U.S.-Sri Lankan citizen, who arrived back on the island last week and is being discussed as a contender for Sri Lanka’s presidency.
In 2005, Rajapaksa joined the government of his brother, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and oversaw the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009.
He dismissed the civil suits as baseless and an attempt to delay his renunciation of U.S. citizenship, a prerequisite for running in this year’s presidential election.
But the cases threaten to cast a shadow over his political ambitions. They could also highlight allegations of abuses committed during the final months of the Sri Lankan conflict which have not been properly investigated a decade later.
The complaint filed by Samathanam alleges “an untold number of Tamil civilians disappeared into the torture chambers of security forces under Gotabaya’s command.”
The United Nations Human Rights Committee has ordered Sri Lanka to compensate Samathanam and prosecute those responsible for torturing him, but that has not happened.
“So far, there has been no accountability, so I am happy to take this first step to get justice,” Samathanam said in a statement. “This action will give torture victims in Sri Lanka hope for the future.”
In the civil complaint, unsealed on the weekend, Samathanam sought unspecified damages from Rajapaksa for torture, assault, emotional distress and false imprisonment.
The complaint alleged that as defence minister, he controlled Sri Lanka’s military and police agencies and is liable for the injuries Samathanam suffered as a result of their misconduct.
The 20-page complaint recounted how Samathanam returned to Colombo in 2005 to marry and, after learning his wife was pregnant, decided to stay until their child was born.
Early on Sept. 14, 2007, police searched his home, asked for a bribe and, when Samathanam refused to pay, took him away on the grounds he had helped a friend import cell phones.
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Samathanam was beaten with metal pipes, rubber clubs and rifle butts, the document alleged. He was kicked in the face, abdomen, arms and legs, and chained in painful positions.
He was forced to watch as other prisoners were hung upside down, struck with pipes, burned, sexually assaulted and suffocated with plastic bags filled with gasoline and chili peppers, according to the complaint.
Samathanam’s captors threatened to shoot him in the head, arrest and rape his wife and kill his child, all the while accusing him of working for the Tamil Tigers intelligence wing in Toronto.
“No one can help you here,” he was allegedly told.
In August 2008, Samathanam wrote what he says was a false confession to having imported a GPS device for the Tamil rebels. He was then charged and in August 2010, paid a fine and was released.
The complaint alleged Rajapaksa was aware of his detention; Samathanam said he once overheard a phone call between his captor and Rajapaksa in which they discussed his case.