My Neighbor the Suspected War Criminal

by Reveal News podcast, California, April 23, 2022

This month, atrocities in Ukraine have triggered new allegations of war crimes. While people around the world call for accountability, we look into why those who are suspected of committing war crimes in the past often walk free. Reporter and host Ike Sriskandarajah spent the past six months investigating the U.S. government’s failure to charge accused perpetrators of the worst crimes in the world. The federal government says it is pursuing leads and cases against nearly 1700 alleged human rights violators and war criminals. Victims of international atrocities sometimes even describe running into them at their local coffee shop or in line at Walgreens.

After the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, families seeking accountability for state-sanctioned violence filed a suit against a man they say is a war criminal. A private eye was tasked with hunting down Gotabaya Rajapaksa (better known as Gota), Sri Lanka’s former defense minister. The P.I. found the alleged war criminal in Southern California, shopping at Trader Joe’s.

At the close of World War II, dozens of former Nazi leaders came to the United States. After decades of inaction, in 1979, President Jimmy Carter created a special unit within the Department of Justice dedicated to hunting down Nazi war criminals. Decades after passing the first substantive human rights statutes that make it possible to prosecute war criminals for crimes like torture and genocide, the U.S. has successfully prosecuted only one person under the laws. Sriskandarajah talks to experts about why prosecutors often take an “Al Capone” strategy to going after war criminals, pursuing them on lesser charges like immigration violations rather than human rights abuses.

With little action from the government to prosecute war criminals, victims of violence are instead using civil lawsuits to try to seek accountability. Lawyers at the Center for Justice & Accountability have brought two dozen cases against alleged war criminals and human rights violators – and never lost at trial. But when the lawyers share their evidence with the federal government, it often feels like the information disappears into a black box.

Dig Deeper



Family and friends light candles in front of a portrait of slain Sri Lankan newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge on Jan. 8, 2013, the fourth anniversary of his death. Credit: Gemunu Amarasinghe/Associated Press

Gotabaya Rajapaksa (center), then Sri Lanka’s defense minister, stands with his commanders and special forces in 2010. Credit: Reuters

Read: ‘And Then They Came For Me’: Last Words of Lasantha Wickrematunge (The UNESCO Courier)

Read: Sri Lanka Case Hearing – Lasantha Wickrematunge (People’s Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists)

Watch: Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields (Channel 4)


Reporter, producer and guest host: Ike Sriskandarajah | Lead producer: Neroli Price | Editors: Brett Myers and Andy Donohue | Production manager and archival research: Amy Mostafa | Fact checker: Nikki Frick | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Episode art: Molly Mendoza | Original score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, with help from Steven Rascón, Kathryn Styer Martínez and Jess Alvarenga | Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan

Special thanks: Shawn Musgrave and Jad Abumrad

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Inasmuch Foundation.


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Aura Bogado: Hi, I’m Aura Bogado, a senior reporter at Reveal. My work focuses on migrant children confined in federal custody. I’ve investigated abuse, forced drugging, even tasing in government sponsored shelters. The stories I work on are told from the perspective of the people experiencing the policies and practices I’m investigating, in this case, migrant children. Support rigorous ethical investigative reporting. Donate today at
Ike Sriskandara…: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Ike Sriskandarajah for Al Letson. It’s hard to get a private investigator on the phone…
Speaker 1: I’m actually in the middle of surveillance, and my girl should be leaving from work any minute.
Ike Sriskandara…: … especially one who’s currently on a stakeout.
Speaker 1: Yeah. No, I need to focus because I’ve got… I’m eyes on her car, and I got to call another investigator right when she comes out to catch her.
Ike Sriskandara…: Eventually, with one eye still on her target, she calls me back.
How’s your day?
Speaker 1: Today’s been great. It’s been activity after activity.
Ike Sriskandara…: Sometimes a company will hire her to investigate an employee for misconduct, or a family will hire her to track down a missing loved one.
Speaker 1: I do a lot of fraud. I do a lot of missing person cases, and then I do hard serves.
Ike Sriskandara…: Hard serves are not the opposite of soft serve. It’s when someone being sued is handed a manila envelope and told, “You’ve been served,” and this PI is specializes in delivering legal documents to people who are especially hard to serve, millionaires, celebrities, government people. I wanted to ask her about one particular hard serve.
Speaker 1: The subject was Gota, and forgive me, I can not remember his last name.
Ike Sriskandara…: His full name, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Speaker 1: Yep. That’s him.
Ike Sriskandara…: He isn’t like the PI’s regular targets.
Speaker 1: What he’s accused of and just all of it, there’s just so much.
Ike Sriskandara…: He was Sri Lanka’s defense secretary from 2005 to 2015 and has been accused of committing war crimes to end the civil war there.
Speaker 1: He’s scary, and those he associates with seem scary. When you get into those high profile people, you don’t know what they’re capable of.
Ike Sriskandara…: Scary enough that she wanted to remain anonymous.
Speaker 1: It did alarm me, but it also made me feel compelled to do this for the families.
Ike Sriskandara…: Families suing him. The PI was hired to put their lawsuit in his hands. Now she just has to find him, but he’s not making it especially hard. Even Tweeting about singing karaoke with his friends in an upscale LA suburb, hashtag, downtime, hashtag, Sri Lankan music. She stakes him out waiting for just the right moment.
Speaker 1: We were able to get them when they left and then follow them to Trader Joe’s.
Ike Sriskandara…: Yes, like many Americans on this Sunday, April 7th, 2019, former Sri Lankan defense secretary and his family are making a grocery run.
Speaker 1: He’s just a passenger in a regular car, and we’re going to Trader Joe’s. Okay.
Ike Sriskandara…: The Rajapaksa family walks through the parking lot towards the entrance of the Trader Joe’s in Montrose, California, just north of LA. The former military leader is in his late 60s. He’s wearing khakis and a maroon long sleeve button up, gray military grade haircut, and a mustache common to South Asian men of his age. The PI is checking for counter surveillance, a secret service detail, but Rajapaksa seems surprisingly unprotected.
Speaker 1: He didn’t have an entourage or people around him to protect him. That was what I was thinking was going to happen.
Ike Sriskandara…: Seeing none, the PI proceeds.
Speaker 1: When I got out, I called for his name, and when I called his name, he turned around. Then when I walked up to him, I noticed his wife was looking at me. Who is this person? I went to hand him the envelope, and he reached out to receive it. As soon as I said, “You’ve been served,” he quickly pulled his hand behind his back.
Ike Sriskandara…: What was the look on his face?
Speaker 1: Shocked, both him and his wife looked shocked since he refused to take it. I just dropped it at his feet, told him he’s been served, and then walked away. As I walked away, I reminded them again, you need to take those papers. They’re legal documents. You’ve been served.
Ike Sriskandara…: The PI’s partner waiting near the car captured this moment on tape.
Speaker 1: We got you on tape, sir. You got to take them. You’ve been served. Good job. Good job. Good job. Come on. Let’s go.
Ike Sriskandara…: The whole 15 second scene is so chaotic and bizarre and baffling. Rajapaksa is a military leader facing war crimes accusations, but this isn’t some federal SWAT team swooping in with handcuffs to haul him off to The Hague. It’s a private investigator serving civil lawsuits in the parking lot of a grocery store that has those tiny free cups of coffee.
I’ve spent the past six months investigating why the US fails to charge accused perpetrators of the worst crimes in the world. The federal government says they are pursuing leads and cases against nearly 1,700 alleged human rights violators and war criminals who are right here living among us. 1,700. Reveal has filed FOIAs. Our lawyers have sued for government records. We’ve talked with ambassadors, federal prosecutors, historians, and of course, the victims of atrocities themselves to understand why they almost never see justice. Today on the show, why are alleged war criminals and human rights violators almost never criminally charged in the US?
Try to imagine living through one of the most horrific brutal periods of violence anywhere, managing to survive, moving across the world, and just as you’re starting to build your new life in the US, the person who tortured you or disappeared your family is right in front of you. Survivors tell stories that feel like nightmares. A Guatemalan woman, seeing the militia leader she believes disappeared her father and uncle right there in line behind her at a Walgreens in Providence, Rhode Island, a Somali man who stops at his local coffee shop in Alexandria, Virginia, only to spot the war lord who he says killed his family, an Ethiopian woman in Atlanta who catches a glimpse of her torturer as he steps into an elevator in a hotel lobby, and in that Trader Joe’s parking lot in Montrose, there was Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a Sri Lankan man who human rights groups accuse of ordering torture, white van abductions, disappearances, and overseeing the Sri Lankan armed forces as they shelled civilian areas resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands. But, in that parking lot, the legal documents the private investigator dropped at Rajapaksa’s feet outlined one killing in particular, a Sri Lankan journalist, who is one of the government’s fiercest critics, Lasantha Wickrematunge. Shortly after his death in 2009, the BBC asked Rajapaksa about Lasantha’s killing. Here’s the former defense secretary.
Gotabaya Rajapa…: There are so many other things in everywhere. In the whole world, there are murders. Why are you asking about Lasantha? Who is Lasantha?
Ike Sriskandara…: Why are we talking about the killing of one journalist during a civil war that took the lives of a 100,000 people? One reason is that Lasantha’s death effectively stopped the Sri Lankan press from covering all the other killings to come.
Dharisha Bastia…: It’s often called a war without witness, those last five months, and of course there were no witnesses because all of us had been silenced. Lasantha’s murder just before the final push made sure of that.
Ike Sriskandara…: I spoke with Dharisha Bastians, who is a hard hitting Sri Lanka journalist, but back in 2004, she was just a cub reporter when she went to interview for a job at the Sunday Leader in the capital city of Colombo, and she still lights up remembering meeting its legendary editor-in-chief.
Dharisha Bastia…: For me, meeting Lasantha alone was this huge thing because I was very shy. I am very shy, and Lasantha is this larger than life figure.
Ike Sriskandara…: He made a career of spotlighting corruption, hypocrisy, and scandal among the most powerful people in the country.
Dharisha Bastia…: He was so provocative that governments hated him.
Ike Sriskandara…: Really hated him. He’d been pulled out of his car and beaten with bats, shot at, and a former minister while in parliament threatened to have him killed. Lasantha could have fled the country with his three children, but he stayed. For Dharisha, it was like being interviewed by a journalism folk hero.
Dharisha Bastia…: It was a real moment to meet this guy, right? I was very surprised that he had this soft voice, and he giggled a lot.
Ike Sriskandara…: A tough adversarial journalist who had a soft spot for mentoring young reporters who wanted to learn how to hold the powerful accountable. Dharisha got the job.
Dharisha Bastia…: As soon as I joined, I was so confused. He kept eating our lunch, and he would just walk around the office, stealing everybody’s pens. It was like, “Wow, this is so strange,” because this is this man who’s taking on the establishment, and he is chewing on my pen.
Ike Sriskandara…: Lasantha and her new colleagues at the Sunday Leader helped her learn how to cover the biggest stories in the country, but for Dharisha, there was only one.
Dharisha Bastia…: No other story, whether it was corruption or anything else I was covering compared to covering the human cost of the war. When you talk to people, when you see people, it’s like the civil war was written on their faces. The story of our war was written all over these people’s faces.
Ike Sriskandara…: The story begins in 1983.
Speaker 2: The mobs were coming out. They started attacking anything and everything they saw, which were Tamil.
Speaker 3: There have been plenty of riots before, but this was different, a state sponsored pogrom.
Ike Sriskandara…: An ethnic attack or pogrom against the Tamil minority, it was an event that interrupted the normal timeline of Sri Lankan history. There was before ’83, and then there was after.
Speaker 3: The civil war had begun.
Ike Sriskandara…: It was a conflict between the Sri Lankan military controlled by the Sinhalese majority and a guerrilla army known as the Tamil Tigers or LTTE who were fighting for a separate Tamil state, but the lines in civil wars are never that bright. My family is Sri Lanka Tamil, and my mom and brother were in Colombo when Sinhalese riots burned down the house my mom grew up in. They left the country not long after that. My aunt is Sinhalese, and she stayed, and was pregnant with my cousin when suicide bombers blew up the bank she was working in. They survived what was one of the deadliest attacks attributed to the Tigers. The war went back and forth for more than two decades, terrorist style attacks and repressive government crackdowns. 20 million civilians lived through it, including Dharisha.
Dharisha Bastia…: I was born into a generation that had only known war. My generation didn’t know a country, a Sri Lanka that was not at war.
Ike Sriskandara…: Some of the island’s best coverage of the war came from Lasantha’s paper, critical of the Tigers and the Sri Lanka government. Then in 2005, a new administration stepped in. Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected president of Sri Lanka, and he made his brother, Gotabaya, the secretary of defense. They promised to take a hard line on the Tigers. Journalists came under a new level of scrutiny too. Still, Lasantha approached the new administration the only way he knew how. In 2007, his paper published an investigative series alleging Gotabaya Rajapaksa bought expired fighter planes at an inflated price. The defense secretary responded by suing Lasantha. Soon after, a masked gang stormed the Sunday Leader and set their printing press on fire, but Dharisha tells me Lasantha didn’t slow down.
Dharisha Bastia…: He was the kind of journalist, the more you attack him, the harder he goes at you.
Ike Sriskandara…: He was scheduled to testify in court in early 2009 about Rajapaksa’s alleged role in the corrupt arms deal, but shortly before, heavily armed assailants raided a major independent broadcaster where Lasantha hosted a TV show. He showed up just after the attack and talked directly into a camera. What you were about to hear are Lasantha’s last recorded words.
Lasantha Wickre…: I wholeheartedly condemn this terroristic attack. What we are seeing is a Pol Pot type of regime, trying to establish a dictatorship. They do not care for another point of view. They only want the people to blindly agree with all that is happening in this country. There is a total disregard for human rights, but we as media personnel will have to face up to this challenge by expressing what is happening in this country, giving all shades of opinion their due place without being intimidated into silence by the jack boat of a dictatorship.
Ike Sriskandara…: Two days later on the morning of January 8th, 2009, according to court documents, Lasantha noticed men dressed in black riding motorcycles around his home in Colombo. He called his friends and family to say he thought he was being watched. Still, he got in his car and headed to work. When he arrived at a busy intersection, the men on motorcycles swarmed. Court records say they smashed his windows and punched a hole in Lasantha’s skull with a sharp instrument. Dharisha found out and turned on the TV.
Dharisha Bastia…: I just remember sitting there completely shell shocked and just watching these images of him on a stretcher. This man was larger than life, and I couldn’t recognize him. I think I was too shocked, or scared, or horrified to even cry. About 15 minutes later, I got another text saying he didn’t survive.
Ike Sriskandara…: Still, Lasantha managed to have the last word. In a posthumous essay that was reprinted around the world, he predicted his own death and named the people he thought would kill him. Here’s Dharisha reading Lasantha’s final essay.
Dharisha Bastia…: I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom, but an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts. Indeed, I hope that it will galvanize forces that will usher in a new era of human liberty in our beloved motherland. I also hope it will open the eyes of your president to the fact that however many are slaughtered in the name of patriotism, the human spirit will endure and flourish. Not all the Rajapaksas combined can kill that.
Speaker 4: [Foreign language]…
Ike Sriskandara…: Thousands of mourners filled the streets. They demanded that the killers be held accountable…
Speaker 4: [Foreign language]…
Ike Sriskandara…: … but this outpouring of resistance only lasted a moment.
Dharisha Bastia…: I just constantly felt that Lasantha had nine lives, and it just felt like if he wasn’t going to survive this regime, none of us were.
Ike Sriskandara…: Then the Sri Lankan government began the worst escalation of violence in the history of the conflict. It has become the subject of international outrage, multiple UN resolutions, and more than a decade long campaign aimed at holding leaders accountable. First, the Sri Lankan government kicked out international observers, and when they were gone, the military repeatedly targeted civilian hospitals. Reporters confronted Rajapaksa about it.
Gotabaya Rajapa…: No hospitals should operate in the area. Nothing should operate. That is why we clearly gave these no fire zones.
Ike Sriskandara…: After Tamil Tigers and their families tried to surrender holding only white flags, they were allegedly killed by Sri Lankan troops. One headline about a 12 year old boy read, Handed A Snack and Then Executed. The Sri Lankan government claimed few innocent people died in those final days of fighting. The UN estimates that as many as 40,000 civilians were killed.
Speaker 5: [Foreign language].
Speaker 6: [Foreign language].
Ike Sriskandara…: At the end of the war, most of the surviving Tamil population was herded onto a beach the size of Central Park. They carried the only things they had left. One man had a plastic bag with his child’s body in it. Rajapaksa was the secretary of defense who oversaw this campaign, and even after the war, Tamils kept disappearing. A BBC reporter asked him why.
Gotabaya Rajapa…: These are wrong, wrong allegations.
Speaker 7: They’re not wrong allegations because I’ve met the victims.
Gotabaya Rajapa…: Don’t get angry. Usually, I get angry, so you don’t get angry. Okay? I’m the secretary of defense. Take the word from me.
Ike Sriskandara…: To the people on their side, they were war heroes, and allegations of crimes had made no progress in Sri Lankan courts. For people who believed Rajapaksa was responsible for war crimes, they had one last hope, the US courts. Rajapaksa was a US citizen. Before the war, his family had settled here. The US was home, and after the war, he came back often. Here he is in 2019 singing karaoke with his friends in Southern California.
Gotabaya Rajapa…: (singing).
Ike Sriskandara…: It’s not just Rajapaksa. The US government says it has leads on close to 1,700 suspected war criminals and human rights violators who are here. What are they doing about it? That’s next on Reveal.
Al Letson: Hey, Hey, Hey. It’s time for another Al’s podcast pick, and I am so excited to tell you about this one. It’s called Open and Shut, and it’s hosted by former Reveal intern, Phoebe Petrovic. Listen, Phoebe was amazing when she worked at Reveal, which makes me so excited to listen to this seven part investigative series that dives deep into the careers of two Wisconsin district attorneys to show how prosecutors hold more power than any other official in the criminal justice system and what’s at stake for victims, the accused, and all of us. That’s Open and Shut from Wisconsin Watch and Wisconsin Public Radio. Find it wherever you get your podcasts.
Ike Sriskandara…: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Ike Sriskandarajah. Just this month, atrocities in Ukraine have triggered new allegations of war crimes. Images from the town of Bucha showed civilians with their wrists bound, lying dead in the streets, regular people living their normal lives until the laws of reality around them suddenly change. The combination of the scale and depravity of violence is shocking. These moments often get their own name, the Rwandan genocide, Srebenica, Dos Erres, Ethiopia’s Red Terror, Haiti’s Raboteau massacre. Alleged perpetrators for many of the world’s worst atrocities, including all those I just mentioned, have been found inside the United States. What is the US government doing about it? Americans first demanded a solution to this problem after World War II.
Speaker 8: The United States is currently a haven for hundreds of war criminals.
Ike Sriskandara…: Scores of Nazi persecutors entered the US.
Speaker 9: You were a propagandist for the Nazis. Then you became an informer for the US Army intelligence?
Speaker 10: Yes. Yes.
Speaker 9: For decades, they lived untouched by the United States government, even though there was evidence available against them.
Ike Sriskandara…: The immigration and naturalization service was supposed to be investigating Nazi persecutors, but they weren’t doing a great job.
Speaker 9: The lack of action by the immigration service became the subject of congressional hearings.
Ike Sriskandara…: By 1974, Congress pushed them on it.
Speaker 9: Representative Elizabeth Holtzman…
Elizabeth Holtz…: Finally, I asked the immigration commissioner about this at a hearing, and I said to him, “Is it true that there are Nazi war criminals in the United States?” He said, “Yes, we have a list of alleged Nazi war criminals in this country.” I said, “Well, what are you doing about?” There was silence
Ike Sriskandara…: In 1979, president Jimmy Carter announced a solution.
Jimmy Carter: The world must never forget the lessons of the Holocaust. That is exactly the reason why I set up a special unit in the Department of Justice to root out Nazi war criminals who may be in hiding in the United States.
Ike Sriskandara…: In a dilapidated building in the middle of DC’s red-light district on 14th street, just above a fried chicken restaurant, a new Department of Justice Nazi hunting unit was born. Eli Rosenbaum was there almost right at the beginning.
Eli Rosenbaum: It took our own country nearly 30 years from when the first World War II Nazi criminal was found in the United States to finally launch in 1979, a comprehensive program to identify, investigate, and prosecute the cases.
Ike Sriskandara…: Eli’s own father had fled Nazi Germany escaping the Holocaust. Later, he returned as part of the US forces that liberated concentration camps. Now, Eli was tasked with finding the suspects who ran those camps. DOJs Nazi hunters, officially known as the Office of Special Investigations, were investigating crime that happened long ago, far away, with evidence in foreign languages, but the new office had a secret weapon.
Eli Rosenbaum: Specifically for us at Justice, we had the good sense, back in 1979 at the very beginning, to start hiring historians.
Ike Sriskandara…: I talked with four of those historians. These Nazi hunters, armed not with a gun and a cruiser, but a stacks pass and desk privileges at the Library of Congress, they turned out to be the key.
Eli Rosenbaum: They have the language skills, they have the archival research skills, the interpretive skills to look at a document that might mean almost nothing to most of us, but they see a code that they recognize, a German military code like O-3, what kind of officer in what unit. They know all that stuff.
Ike Sriskandara…: They would visit dusty archives, hunched over barely legible documents, gathering Nazi personnel files. Then they would run those names against US immigration records and zero in on Nazi criminals here.
Eli Rosenbaum: These cases are usually very complex, evidentiary jigsaw puzzles, and everybody plays a role in assembling the puzzle, historians, lawyers, agents, analysts, everybody.
Ike Sriskandara…: It was working.
Speaker 11: In January alone, four new cases entered the courtroom phase in this country.
Speaker 12: Some of the testimony for the first time ever has been taken in the Soviet Union.
Speaker 9: A resident of Miami is now charged with lying about his background as an SS guard at Treblinka concentration camp.
Ike Sriskandara…: The office had a rogues gallery up on the wall showing the faces of more than 100 former Nazis they prosecuted, but it didn’t mean these Nazis were being hauled off to jail.
Eli Rosenbaum: There was no criminal law in the United States covering crimes that were committed outside the United States by the Nazis during World War II.
Ike Sriskandara…: It’s worth repeating the greatest crime in the 20th century was not a crime in the United States, and this led to some very frustrating moments in Eli’s line of work.
Eli Rosenbaum: In the 1990s, I questioned a suspect of ours, Jakob Reimer. He lived north of New York City and came into the US Attorney’s office in Manhattan. By the end of the interview under oath, he had admitted to leading a platoon of his men on a mission to, as he described it, liquidate a labor camp.
Ike Sriskandara…: Even though he had a confession, Eli couldn’t arrest him.
Eli Rosenbaum: All we could do was bid him farewell to go back out of the building and take Metro north home. I remember thinking if he had so much as slapped a security guard on the way in, we could get him arrested, but he had admitted to participation in genocide, mass murder, and the law just wasn’t there, just wasn’t there for us. We were left with civil jurisdiction, revocation of citizenship, known as de-naturalization and deportation.
Ike Sriskandara…: De-naturalization and deportation, meaning all those cases, the intricate historical investigations, the nationwide manhunts, they only resulted in immigration charges. Since Eli couldn’t charge Nazis with committing atrocities, he charged them with lying on immigration paperwork. Prosecutors have a name for this.
Eli Rosenbaum: The Al Capone theory is near and dear to the hearts of prosecutors. It’s named after the notorious gangster of the prohibition era of the 20th century. He was a mass murder. In the end, what the Department of Justice was able to prove was just tax evasion.
Ike Sriskandara…: Al Capone served time in Alcatraz, but the Nazi platoon leader who told Eli he participated in the liquidation of a labor camp, that guy never saw the inside of a prison. He died while the US was trying to find a country to deport him to. If this seems like an inadequate punishment to you’re not alone.
William Proxmir…: I’d like to speak briefly on that subject.
Ike Sriskandara…: It was also frustrating to members of Congress.
William Proxmir…: Let me just take a minute to say, what is genocide? It is the most vicious, the most cruel, the most terrible crime imaginable.
Ike Sriskandara…: By 1988, Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin had given something like 3000 speeches pushing the US to pass a genocide statute, and then right before he retired…
William Proxmir…: The Genocide Convention Implementation Act in 1988 clears the way, at long last, for the United States to finally approve the Genocide Convention.
Ike Sriskandara…: President Ronald Reagan signed the law criminalizing the intentional destruction of an ethnic, national, racial, or religious group.
William Proxmir…: With its passage, we’ll end a 40 year congressional stalemate.
Ike Sriskandara…: The US was late to the human rights party, but it was starting to catch up. The genocide statute created in response to the Holocaust was the first so-called substantive human rights statute. A few years later, in the wake of atrocities in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur, Congress passed new statutes, criminal laws against torture in 1994, war crimes in ’96, and the recruitment of child soldiers in 2008. The old Nazi hunting unit was reassigned to now investigate modern human rights violators. ICE started their own war crimes unit. Then the laws, the teams, and the new mandate all came together for a historic first.
Speaker 13: This marks the first time the Department of Justice has indicted an individual with torture charges.
Ike Sriskandara…: DOJ successfully prosecuted Charles Taylor Jr. for torture. In 2009, a Florida judge sentenced Chuckie, the son of the former Liberian president, to 97 years in federal prison. This case showed what it looks like when the US uses the full force of federal law enforcement and a substantive human rights law to hold a violator accountable, but senators wanted to know, what’s next?
Russ Feingold: The successful prosecution of Chuckie Taylor was an important milestone, and I hope it will send a message to perpetrators of human rights abuses that the United States will not turn a blind eye towards torture for and other egregious human rights violations.
Ike Sriskandara…: At this Senate hearing called No Safe Haven, Russ Feingold, pressed a top DOJ official representing the human rights section.
Russ Feingold: But, it is absolutely unacceptable that this is the only human rights case that has been filed by the DOJ. It’s not enough to give lip service to these principles or to simply pass laws that are never enforced. We need to make sure that these cases are aggressively and proactively investigated and prosecuted.
Ike Sriskandara…: This hearing was back in 2009. What has the DOJ done since? Earlier this year, I got on a video call with leaders at the Department of Justice. The old Nazi hunting unit grew into the Human Rights and Special Prosecution Section. Hope Olds is their acting chief.
Hope Olds: We are a small section made up of 25 attorneys and five historians with expertise in various conflicts and language abilities. We handle a variety of matters, including human rights abuse cases, as well as international violent crime, and international human smuggling matters.
Ike Sriskandara…: The government says it has leads on nearly 1,700 suspected war criminals and human rights violators inside the US. I wanted to know how many of them the DOJ is pursuing.
In terms of the human right portfolio, can you tell us how many cases you all are investigating right now?
Speaker 14: That was something I addressed…
Ike Sriskandara…: The public affairs officer on the line interrupts, says they can’t answer that.
Speaker 14: … because we don’t discuss ongoing investigations.
Ike Sriskandara…: I got a similar answer when I tried to ask about Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the former Sri Lankan secretary of defense accused of war crimes.
Speaker 14: I’m sorry. We’re not going to discuss non-public cases.
Ike Sriskandara…: They can’t discuss ongoing investigations. They can’t discuss non-public cases, so I turned to the ones they can talk about.
I wanted to go over the criminal substantive statutes that are on the books. Has the US ever charged someone with war crimes?
Hope Olds: No.
Ike Sriskandara…: Has the US ever charged someone with genocide?
Hope Olds: No.
Ike Sriskandara…: How about the recruitment of child soldiers?
Hope Olds: No.
Ike Sriskandara…: Torture?
Hope Olds: Yes.
Ike Sriskandara…: Why has the US only successfully prosecuted one person for human rights violations?
Speaker 14: Hope, do you want to talk about how DOJ decides to bring criminal charges against human rights violators?
Eli Rosenbaum: Can I just say…
Speaker 14: Yeah?
Ike Sriskandara…: At this point, one of the original Nazi hunters, Eli Rosenbaum, who’s also on the call, jumps in.
Eli Rosenbaum: There have been far more than one successful criminal prosecution of human rights violators, quite a few that our office prosecuted.
Ike Sriskandara…: Eli says the DOJ does win prosecutions against war criminals and human rights violators just on lesser charges, that Al Capone strategy. They also wanted me to know that recently they have announced a new charge under the torture statute. It’s the second one in the last two years. Both of those cases are pending, but still, 30 years of human rights statutes and just one conviction. Every Nazi persecutor and almost every modern day abuser of human rights who has faced a charge is only been accused of lying on their forms. When people are deported, they sometimes rise to power in the very countries where they’re accused of committing atrocities in the first place. One man, after being removed from the US for using child soldiers was then elected to the house of representatives in Liberia. Another who is facing lawsuits here in the US over war crimes allegations attempted to run for president of Libya. Then there’s Gotabaya Rajapaksa, accused of ordering torture, murder, and mass atrocities in Sri Lanka.
Gotabaya Rajapa…: You are talking all the time on the past. I am trying to become the president of the future Sri Lanka.
Ike Sriskandara…: Up next, how a small group of nonprofit lawyers tries to do a government sized job.
Carmen Cheung: We sue war criminals because our government doesn’t prosecute them.
Ike Sriskandara…: That’s coming up on Reveal.
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Ike Sriskandara…: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Ike Sriskandarajah in for Al Letson. During the very first session of the very first congress, the United States passed what would become a key to modern human rights law, though nobody knew it for about 200 years. Tucked into the Judiciary Act of 1789 was a brief provision known as the Alien Tort Statute. It was meant to provide a solution to thorny problems with unclear jurisdiction. Basically, it made it possible to sue pirates in a US federal court or any foreigner in violation of the law of nations.
You could miss it if you blinked, and most did until about 1979. That’s when a family who fled from Paraguay to New York learned the person they accused of torturing their son to death was also here. Some creative lawyers helped them sue this man in civil court by reincarnating that antique pirate law, and they won a judge ruled the torturer has become like the pirate and slave trader before him, an enemy of all mankind. That precedent is the main reason why the former Sri Lankan military leader, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, could be served a lawsuit in that Trader Joe’s parking lot. The family of killed journalist, Lasantha Wickrematunge, sued him with help from a nonprofit.
Carmen Cheung: We were contacted by a representative of Lasantha’s family.
Ike Sriskandara…: Carmen Cheung runs the Center for Justice and Accountability, five lawyers who sue alleged war criminals on behalf of the families they’re accused of persecuting, and they’ve never lost a trial.
Carmen Cheung: We’ve brought about two dozen cases, and in those 2,000 cases, our clients have been awarded damages of over $700 million.
Ike Sriskandara…: Oh my God, that’s…
Carmen Cheung: Yeah.
Ike Sriskandara…: A staggering sum, but with the exception of one former Haitian death squad leader who had won the Florida lottery, those damages are almost never collected. Usually the accused don’t have it, or they leave the country without paying, but Carmen says for her clients, that’s not the point. They want accountability. They want closure. They want a court of law to acknowledge what happened to them, and if the criminal justice system isn’t going to provide that, that’s where they step in.
Carmen Cheung: We sue war criminals because our government doesn’t prosecute them.
Ike Sriskandara…: Their lawsuit contains evidence about Lasantha’s killing, including findings from a Sri Lankan police investigation that tracked the alleged killers cell phones as they fled the scene of the crime.
Carmen Cheung: The cell phone evidence that we’ve been able to obtain will forensically demonstrate that this group of assassins basically just fled into a compound that was military access only.
Ike Sriskandara…: Police identified the alleged assassins as part of a military intelligence unit linked to other attacks on journalists, all while under the command of defense secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Just as Carmen’s team is building the case against Rajapaksa, they learn their window to sue him in the US is quickly closing. Rajapaksa, remember, is an American citizen, and Carmen’s team hears that he’s making one last trip to California. The rumor is he plans to renounce his US citizenship, so he can run for president of Sri Lanka.
Carmen Cheung: We really saw this as our only chance to bring a case against him.
Ike Sriskandara…: Carmen’s team had been sharing information with different agencies inside the US government. Federal officials knew they were tracking Rajapaksa, and then right before they were about to serve this lawsuit, they checked back one last time.
Carmen Cheung: I mean, we told them what we were doing.
Ike Sriskandara…: With no indication that DOJ would bring charges, the moved.
Speaker 1: Got you on tape, sir. You got to take them. You’ve been served. Good job. Come on. Let’s go.
Ike Sriskandara…: Several human rights lawyers describe the same experience. They share evidence with the human rights section at DOJ, hoping their lawsuits will trigger federal investigations and criminal charges, but one of them told me it feels like passing information into a black box.
Mona Sahaf: I very much empathize with that point of view.
Ike Sriskandara…: I talked with one former DOJ prosecutor who used to work inside that black box.
Mona Sahaf: I think that’s probably exactly what it looks like to NGOs that are doing a lot of work gathering evidence.
Ike Sriskandara…: Mona Sahaf was a prosecutor at the Human Rights Section until 2021 for six years. She was in a key position hold human rights violators accountable, but she isn’t able to talk about any of those cases.
Mona Sahaf: I don’t think any of my human rights cases became public, so I don’t have one to talk about unfortunately. I did some investigations, some that were closed, some that are still ongoing, on the human rights side, but didn’t end charging anything.
Ike Sriskandara…: We know the DOJ never charged Rajapaksa, but what happened to the evidence that was shared with them? Did they investigate him for war crimes?
Mona Sahaf: Anything that I worked on that’s non-public, I can’t discuss, I can’t comment on its existence or non-existence unfortunately.
Ike Sriskandara…: Should they have investigated him?
Mona Sahaf: Can we turn off the recording for a second?
Ike Sriskandara…: Mona can’t say anything else. Deciding whether or not to bring a case often hinges on one critical question. Is it important enough for the US government to get involved? Mona says when the government weighs all the interests it has to balance around the world, human rights cases aren’t at the top of the list.
Mona Sahaf: Bringing human rights cases and bringing accountability to the victims of human rights abuses is just not our number one priority.
Ike Sriskandara…: If bringing accountability to the victims of human rights abuses was truly the number one priority, this work would look a lot different. US human rights laws are still lagging behind the rest of the world. We don’t have a crimes against humanity statute, the law that was first used at Nuremberg and this year led to the conviction of a Syrian colonel in Germany. We don’t have that law here, and the list of atrocities that the US military and government leaders have been accused of committing rivals anywhere else in the world, every major human rights violation can think of, and none of the alleged perpetrators of those crimes were ever charged under substantive human rights statutes. DOJ veteran, Eli Rosenbaum has dedicated his life to holding perpetrators of atrocities accountable. He deeply understands how important and how frustrating this work can be.
Eli Rosenbaum: I would say the fact that the vast majority of human rights violators from World War II until now have not been brought to justice is really the great human rights tragedy of the postwar world, right? These crimes must never again be committed. Yet, the crimes have continued to be perpetrated, genocide, war crimes, all of the worst human rights violations, and so we ended up with the worst possible scenario, which is that someone taking part in these crimes probably knows that in all likelihood, he or she will get away with it.
Ike Sriskandara…: What about the civil case against Gotabaya Rajapaksa? After those legal documents were dropped at his feet in April 2019, he finished his grocery trip, and soon got on a plane back to Sri Lanka where he renounced his US citizenship…
Gotabaya Rajapa…: [Foreign language].
Translator: I’m a loyal Sri Lankan citizen. I have solved this matter legally.
Ike Sriskandara…: … mounted a presidential campaign…
Speaker 15: Those campaigning for Gotabaya Rajapaksa say he’s a terminator, but won’t be an authoritarian leader.
Ike Sriskandara…: … and then by a slim, but definitive margin…
Speaker 16: Gotabaya Rajapaksa has claimed victory in the Sri Lankan presidential election.
Ike Sriskandara…: … Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president on Sri Lanka on November 17, 2019.
Gotabaya Rajapa…: [Foreign language]
Translator: I love my country. I’m proud of my country, and I have a vision for the future of this country.
Ike Sriskandara…: We tried to talk with President Rajapaksa, but his press office declined our request. More than a decade after overseeing the brutal end of Sri Lanka’s civil war and months after being sued, Rajapaksa gained presidential immunity. While he’s in office, he can’t be sued. The closest he has ever come to facing allegations against him was being handed those documents in that Trader Joe’s parking lot. I reached out to Ahimsa Wickrematunge, daughter of journalist, Lasantha Wickrematunge. I asked her about what the US government’s decision not to bring charges meant to her, and she wrote this back.
I continued to be astounded by the fact that despite overwhelming evidence against him and clear responsibility in heinous atrocities committed in Sri Lanka, the US government never prosecuted him. I think that sends a powerful message to dictators and war criminals all over the world that brutality and murder will have few repercussions in the United States. It is senseless and it is infuriating. As we were getting ready to release this story, President Rajapaksa faced a new tidal wave of criticism.
Speaker 4: Go home, Gota. Go home, Gota. Go home, Gota. Go home, Gota.
Ike Sriskandara…: Sri Lanka’s economy cratered. People are running out of fuel, food, and medicine, and observers are calling it Sri Lanka’s Arab Spring. In a photo from one of the rallies, I saw a protestor holding a sign quoting Lasantha. It said, “If we don’t speak now, there’ll be no one to speak for those who can’t. Hashtag, go home Gota.”
Speaker 4: Go home, Gota. Go home, Gota. Go home, Gota.
Ike Sriskandara…: It’s not a courtroom, but this accountability is harder to ignore.
Neroli Price and I produced this show. Brett Myers edited today’s episode with help from Andy Donohue. Thanks to Shawn Musgrave and Jad Abumrad. Victoria Bear Netsky is our general council. Our production manager is Amy Mostafa. Score and sound designed by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda. They had helped this week from Stephen Rescone, Kathryn Styer Martinez, and Jess Alvarenga. Our digital producer is Sarah Mirk. Our CEO is Kaizar Campwala. Sumi Aggarwal is our editor-in-chief, and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado-Lightning.
Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva & David Logan foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Inasmuch Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Ike Sriskandarajah. Al Letson will be back next week.
Al Letson: If you like what we do and you want to help, well it’s pretty simple. Just write us a review on Apple Podcasts. It’s easy and only takes a few seconds. Just open the Apple Podcast app on your phone, search for Reveal, then scroll to where you see write a review, and there, tell them how much you love the host. Your review makes it easier for listeners to find us, and well, it really does make a difference. If you do it, you will get a personal thank you from me right now. Thank… not him, you, yes, you. Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. All right.
Speaker 17: From PRX.



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