WASHINGTON, Jan 29 (AFP) - Members of Sri Lanka's Tamil minority yesterday filed a lawsuit in the United States against the island's President, seeking $30 million in damages over alleged extrajudicial killings.
Activists from the Tamil diaspora spearheaded legal action after President Mahinda Rajapaksa quietly travelled to the United States, in a test of how much deference US authorities show to visiting heads of state.
Bruce Fein, a prominent Washington lawyer, said he filed the suit on behalf of three plaintiffs under a 1991 act that allows for action in the United States against foreign officials over torture and extrajudicial killings.
“President Rajapaksa will not escape the long arm of justice secured by the Torture Victims Protection Act by hiding in Sri Lanka,” Mr. Fein said after the filing in the US District Court in Washington.
He said he wanted a reply from Mr. Rajapaksa and otherwise would seek a ruling without him.
The lawsuit seeks $30 million on behalf of three plaintiffs who said their relatives were killed in three incidents, including the Sri Lankan A rmy's offensive in 2009 against the final holdout of the Tamil Tiger (LTTE) rebels.
Rajapaksa came to the United States last week on what Sri Lankan officials called a private visit. Tamil diaspora groups, which strongly oppose Rajapaksa, said they believed he was visiting family in Texas but has since left.
A US-based activist group calling itself Tamils Against Genocide, which is leading the suit, said in a statement it was “alarmed and disappointed” that US authorities allowed Rajapaksa to visit without questions on his actions.
The group said it was testing the law in the wake of the June 2010 Samantar decision by the Supreme Court, which found that countries -- not individuals -- enjoyed diplomatic immunity from lawsuits in the United States.
In the case, the top court ruled unanimously that Mohamed Ali Samantar, a former prime minister of Somalia who now lives in the United States, may be sued over alleged torture during his rule.
Media circus of a mercenary: President’s media unit
The Sri Lankan embassy in Washington declined comment, but in Colombo, President Rajapaksa’s media unit dismissed the action as a publicity stunt.
“We have no time for mercenaries funded by the LTTE who want media attention,” said Bandula Jayasekera, the director general of the President's media unit and Mr. Rajapaksa's spokesman.Rajapaksa's office earlier dismissed as “frivolous and mischievous” a call by Amnesty International for the United States to investigate the head of state during his trip.