Lawsuit vs Sri Lankan presidential favorite dismissed in US

BHARATHA MALLAWARACHI
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Sri Lanka Presidential Elections

Sri Lankan presidential candidate and former defense chief Gotabaya Rajapaksa waves to his supporters during a rally in Neluwa village in Galle, Sri Lanka, Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019. Rajapaksa is the front-runner in Sri Lanka's upcoming presidential election. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — The daughter of a Sri Lankan journalist assassinated during the country's civil war said Tuesday that she'll challenge a U.S. court's decision to throw out her lawsuit against Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the front-runner in Sri Lanka's upcoming presidential election.

Rajapaksa was defense chief when Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper, was killed in January 2009, around four months before the end of the long civil war. His daughter, Ahimsa Wickrematunge, filed a lawsuit in a Los Angeles court seeking damages from Rajapaksa for his alleged involvement in the killing.

Rajapaksa, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Sri Lanka, is considered the favorite to win the Nov. 16 presidential election. He has said he has started the process of renouncing his U.S. citizenship because dual citizens can't hold political office in Sri Lanka.

On Monday, the California court announced that it had granted Rajapaksa's motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

Ahimsa Wickrematunge said the court's decision is a "disappointing setback" for the family as well as for the movement to end impunity for the killing of journalists in Sri Lanka.

The Center for Justice and Accountability, a San Francisco-based human rights legal group, had assisted Wickrematunge in filing the lawsuit in April, accusing Rajapaksa of torture, extrajudicial killings and crimes against humanity.

Following the court's ruling, the center said in a statement that the court held that it lacks the jurisdiction to consider Wickrematunge's claims because Rajapaksa is entitled to common law foreign official immunity for the acts that are alleged.

"Killing a journalist because of their reporting should never be seen as an official state act and my lawyers and I will continue to fight to ensure perpetrators of these abuses do not escape justice," Wickrematunge said in the center's statement.

The statement said that Wickrematunge would "challenge the decision."

The Sunday Leader was known for its investigative reporting, some of which was about alleged corruption involving Rajapaksa.

Rajapaksa's campaign spokesman, Keheliya Rambukwella, said the lawsuit was politically motivated.

"The murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge was one of the main allegations made by the present government in their election platform in 2015. But after almost five years, they were unable to prove anything in courts," he said.

Rajapaksa is a hero to many Sri Lankans — especially ethnic majority Sinhalese — for his role in ending the civil war a decade ago, and his popularity is on the increase following April's Easter attacks that killed 263 people and wounded 500. But to his opponents and critics, he is a feared defense official accused of condoning rape, torture and shadowy disappearances of critics.