In the decade since Sri Lanka’s civil war ended, a former wartime defense chief has successfully dodged accusations of crimes against humanity. He may soon run for president.
But the accusations, which are supported by United Nations inquiries, recently caught up with him in a California parking lot.
The former official, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, oversaw the final stages of a quarter-century-long conflict with Tamil separatists that ended in 2009. So far he has avoided prosecution at home and abroad over the allegations of crimes against humanity.
But in early April, a private investigator tracked Mr. Rajapaksa, now an American citizen, to a Trader Joe’s parking lot in a Los Angeles suburb. He was then personally served with civil court complaints accusing him of a journalist’s murder and the torture of an ethnic Tamil who had Canadian citizenship, court documents show.
“There is no doubt that the case has caused enormous interest because Sri Lankans are amazed to see a powerful and feared figure, who still has his people inside the security establishment, being openly challenged,” said Yasmin Sooka, a South African human rights lawyer who specializes in Sri Lanka and worked on the torture complaint.
Mr. Rajapaksa’s spokesman, Milinda Rajapaksha, said on Friday that the defendant “does not acknowledge any kind of official delivery of legal documents by any party.” But he said Mr. Rajapaksa’s legal counsel in the United States would take action “if required.”
Separately, Mohammed Ali Sabry, the head of Mr. Rajapaksa’s legal team in Sri Lanka, said that California litigation would be handled exclusively from the United States.
Mr. Rajapaksa was Sri Lanka’s defense chief from 2005 to 2015, when his brother, Mahinda, was president. Thousands of people disappeared or were tortured during the war’s final years, including aid workers, journalists, ethnic Tamil civilians and the Rajapaksa family’s political opponents.
Last week in Sri Lanka, Mr. Rajapaksa told reporters that he had started the process of renouncing his American citizenship, a requirement for contesting the presidency, which his brother relinquished after losing a 2015 election.
Harshana Rambukwella, a political scientist at the Open University of Sri Lanka, said that if Mr. Rajapaksa runs for president, he could potentially leverage the California litigation to drum up nationalist sentiment among his base within the country’s Sinhalese ethnic majority.
The essence of the candidate’s argument, Mr. Rambukwella said, would be that human rights campaigners are persecuting leaders who liberated Sri Lanka from civil war.
But rights advocates say that the California cases are important because they focus international scrutiny on the Rajapaksa family’s wartime actions.
The first case concerns the 2009 killing of a prominent Sri Lankan investigative journalist, Lasantha Wickrematunge, who was bludgeoned to death by men on motorcycles who had surrounded his car.