US court rules Sri Lanka president immune from suit

[JURIST] A judge for the US District Court for the District of Columbia [official website] ruled on Wednesday that Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa [official website; BBC profile] is immune from suit [opinion, PDF] under the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991 (TVPA) [text] while he is in office. Rajapaksa is accused of human rights violations in connection with the country's civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam [JURIST news archive]. Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly stated that there were "shocking allegations of human rights abuses and violations of United States and international law" but that Rajapaksa is nonetheless entitled to immunity as a foreign head of state. The US Department of State [official website] filed a memorandum arguing that Rajapaksa was immune from suit. The plaintiffs argued that the TVPA holds anyone, including heads of state, liable for torture and killings, but the judge held that there is no indication that Congress intended to overrule the longstanding common law principle of head of state immunity when it passed the TVPA.

In November the Sri Lankan government announced that it would begin investigating civilian casualties resulting form the civil war [JURIST report]. Earlier that month Sri Lanka's Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission [official website] delivered its final report [JURIST report] on alleged abuses committed during the country's civil war to Rajapaksa. Also that month, a former Sri Lankan army chief was sentenced [JURIST report] to an additional three years in prison for his comment to a local newspaper that the government of Rajapaksa ordered the killing of surrendering rebel leaders during the civil war and therefore, was in breach of Sri Lanka's emergency laws effective at that time.

 

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