A U.S. judge threw out a lawsuit Wednesday against Sri Lanka’s president over killings allegedly carried out by his forces during the country’s ethnic civil war.
U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled that she must dismiss the suit against President Mahinda Rajapaksa because the Obama administration says he is immune from the litigation as a foreign head of state.
"The court does not take this step lightly," Kollar-Kotelly wrote. "The plaintiffs’ complaint contains shocking allegations of human rights abuses and violations of United States and international law. The court’s dismissal of this case is in no way a reflection of the merits of plaintiffs’ claims or defendant’s defenses. Rather, two centuries of case law and basic constitutional and statutory principles prevent this court from allowing plaintiffs’ complaint to move forward at this time."
The suit was brought by relatives of Tamil Tiger minorities and a humanitarian worker who was assisting them. The plaintiffs claim all were killed by government security forces under Rajapaksa’s control.
Government forces defeated the Tamil insurgency in 2009 to end more than 25 years of bloody civil war in which between 80,000 and 100,000 people are believed to have died. The separatists had been fighting to create an independent Tamil state after decades of marginalization by governments controlled by the Sinhalese majority.
The families sued Rajapaksa under the Torture Victim Protection Act passed by Congress in 1992 that says "any individual" who uses their authority to carry out extrajudicial killing is liable for wrongful death and can be ordered to pay damages to survivors. The families argued a head of state could not be immune from suits brought under the act because it refers to "any individual." But Kollar-Kotelly said congressional records make it clear that lawmakers intended heads of state to be immune if the State Department declares them to be.
"This court is not in a position to second-guess the executive’s determination that in this case, the nation’s foreign policy interests will be best served by granting defendant Rajapaksa head of state immunity while he is in office," Kollar-Kotelly wrote.
The alleged victims and the description of their deaths included in the lawsuit include:
— Raghiar Manoharan, one of five graduates of Sri Koneswara Hindu College shot dead while gathered outside in the port city of Trincomalee on Jan. 2, 2006. His father, now living in London, is the lead plaintiff in the suit.
— Premas Anandarajah, one of 17 workers with humanitarian aid organization Action Against Hunger killed by gunfire on Aug. 4, 2006 after distributing food to Tamils in the town of Mutter. Anandarajah’s wife, Kalaiselvi Lavan, now lives in Sunrise, Fla., and is a party to the suit.
–Four members of the Thavarajah family killed in May 2009 when Sri Lankan naval ships opened fire on displaced Tamils bunkered in a no-fire zone on the country’s eastern shore. Their relative Jeyakumar Aiyathurai is the family’s legal representative and now lives in Millstone, N.J.