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In July, a popular uprising in Sri Lanka forced the country’s president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to step down and flee the country. Rajapaksa is accused of carrying out massive atrocities more than a decade ago. 

Reveal reporter and guest host Ike Sriskandarajah looks into why powerful people suspected of committing war crimes often walk free. Sriskandarajah spent 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 1,700 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 Rajapaksa, better known as Gota, who previously was Sri Lanka’s defense minister. The P.I. found him 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. But 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 go 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. 

This is a rebroadcast of an episode originally released on April 22, 2022.

Dig Deeper

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

Read: Six Takeaways from Our Investigation into Suspected War Criminals in the US (Reveal)

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)

Credits

Reporter, producer and guest host: Ike Sriskandarajah | Lead producer: Neroli Price | Editors: Brett Myers and Andy Donohue | Production manager: 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 | Interim executive producers: Taki Telonidis and Brett Myers

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.

Transcript

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.

Ike Sriskandara…:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Ike Sriskandarajah in for Al Letson. Last month, something almost unthinkable happened. A popular uprising forced the president of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to step down and flee the country. The presidential mansion was overrun by protestors.

I’ve watched this one video probably a dozen times, of protestors diving and doing back flips in the mansion swimming pool. For some, this pool party in the president’s palace in Colombo also marks an opportunity, that the recently deposed president may have to account for accusations of mass atrocities and serious human rights violations carried out more than a decade earlier.

A couple months back, we brought you the story about the last closest time Gotabaya Rajapaksa came face to face with some of those allegations, and it starts with a call to a private investigator.
Private Investi…:I’m actually in the middle of surveillance, and my girl should be leaving from work any minute.
Ike Sriskandara…:One who’s currently on a stakeout.
Private Investi…: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?
Private Investi…: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.
Private Investi…: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 specializes in delivering legal documents to people who are especially hard to serve: millionaires, celebrities, government people. And I wanted to ask her about one particular hard serve.
Private Investi…:So, the subject was Gota, and forgive me, I cannot not remember his last name.
Ike Sriskandara…:His full name, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Private Investi…:Yep, that’s him.
Ike Sriskandara…:And he isn’t like the PI’s regular targets.
Private Investi…:You know 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.
Private Investi…:He’s scary, and those he associates with seem scary. And 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.
Private Investi…: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, #downtime, #SriLankanmusic. She stakes him out waiting for just the right moment.
Private Investi…:Then we were able to get him when they left and then follow him to Trader Joe’s.
Ike Sriskandara…:Yes, like many Americans on this Sunday, April 7th, 2019, the former Sri Lanka defense secretary and his family are making a grocery run.
Private Investi…: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, 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.
Private Investi…:So, he didn’t have an entourage of people around him to protect him, so that was what I was thinking was going to happen.
Ike Sriskandara…:Seeing none, the PI proceeds.
Private Investi…:When I got out, I called for his name and when I called his name, he turned around. And then when I walked up to him, I noticed his wife was looking at me, “Who is this person?” And I went to hand him the envelope and he reached out to receive it. And 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?
Private Investi…:Shocked. Both him and his wife looked shocked. Since he refused to take it, I just dropped it at his feet and told him he’s been served and then walked away. And as I walked away, I reminded him 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.
Private Investi…:We got you on tape, sir. You got to take them. You’ve been served.
Speaker 3: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 1700 alleged human rights violators and war criminals who are right here. Living among us. 1700.

Reveal has filed foyers, our lawyers have sued for government records. We’ve talked with ambassadors, federal prosecutors, federal 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 tells stories that feel like nightmares. A Guatemala 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 is 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 Lanka 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 murders everywhere, in the whole world there are murders. Why are you asking about Lasantha? Who is Lasantha?
Ike Sriskandara…:So, why are we talking about the killing of one journalist during a civil war that took the lives of 100,000 people? And 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 Lankan 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? And so 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. And I was like, “Wow, this is so strange. Because this is this man who’s taking on the establishment. And here 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 6:The mobs were coming out. They started attacking anything and everything they saw, which were Tamil.
Speaker 7:There had 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 Lanka history. There was before ’83 and then there was after.
Speaker 7:The civil war had begun.
Ike Sriskandara…:It was a conflict between the Sri Lankan military controlled by the Sinhalese majority and a gorilla 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 Lankan Tamil, and my mom and brother were in Colombo when Sinhalese rioters 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 deadest 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 Lankan government. And then in 2005, Sri Lanka, 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. And 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 rated 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 motorcycle 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. And 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 9:[foreign language].
Ike Sriskandara…:Thousands of mourners filled the streets. They demanded that the killers be held accountable, but this outpouring of resistance only lasted a moment.
Dharisha Bastia…:Yeah. 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…:And 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 Lanka 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 zone.
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 10:[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, and 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 war crimes had made no progress in Sri Lanka 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.
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Ike Sriskandara…:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Ike Sriskandarajah. Earlier this year, atrocities in Ukraine 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.

It’s the combination of the scale and depravity of violence that’s 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.

Today, we’re revisiting a show about alleged war criminals who walk free in the US. So, what’s the US government doing about it? Americans first demanded a solution to this problem after World War II.
Speaker 12:The United States is currently a haven for hundreds of war criminals.
Ike Sriskandara…:Scores of Nazi persecutors entered the US.
Speaker 13:You were a propagandist for the Nazis. Then you became an informer for the US Army intelligence?
Speaker 14:Yes, yes.
Speaker 12: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 12:The lack of action by the Immigration Service became the subject of congressional hearings.
Ike Sriskandara…:And by 1974, Congress pushed them on it.
Speaker 12: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?” And he said, “Yes, we have a list of alleged Nazi war criminals in this country.” And I said, “Well, what are you doing about it?” And there was silence.
Ike Sriskandara…:In 1979, president Jimmy Carter announced a solution.
President Jimmy…:The war 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…:And so, 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. And 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. DOJ’s Nazi hunters, officially known as the Office of Special Investigations, were investigating crimes 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…:And it was working.
Speaker 12:In January alone, four new cases entered the courtroom phase in this country.
Speaker 18:Some of the testimony for the first time ever has been taken in the Soviet Union.
Speaker 12: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, Jacob Reimer, he lived north of New York City and came into the US Attorney’s Office in Manhattan. And 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.” And so 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.
Senator William…:I’d like to speak briefly on that subject.
Ike Sriskandara…:It was also frustrating to members of Congress.
Senator William…: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…
Senator William…:The Genocide Convention Implementation Act in 1988, clears the way, at long last, for the United States to finally approved the Genocide Convention.
Ike Sriskandara…:President Ronald Reagan signed the law criminalizing the intentional destruction of an ethnic, national, racial or religious group.
Senator William…:And 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. And 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 20: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. And in 2009, a Florida judge sentenced Chucky, 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 Chucky 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 and other egregious human rights violation.
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. So, 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 1700 suspected war criminals and human rights violators inside the US. And I wanted to know how many of them the DOJ is pursuing. In terms of the human rights portfolio, can you tell us how many cases you all are investigating right now?
Speaker 23:That was something I addressed-
Ike Sriskandara…:The public affairs officer on the line interrupts. She says they can’t answer that.
Speaker 23:… 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 23:I’m sorry. They’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…:And torture?
Hope Olds:Yes.
Ike Sriskandara…:Why has the US only successfully prosecuted one person for human rights violations?
Speaker 23: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 23: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 has only been accused of lying on their immigration forms. And 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, but never charged. That’s why a small group of nonprofit lawyers sued him in the US.
Carmen Cheung:We sue war criminals because our government doesn’t prosecute them.
Ike Sriskandara…:That’s coming up on Reveal.
Najib Amini:Hello listener. My name is Najib Amini and I am a producer here at Reveal. Reveal is a nonprofit news organization, and we depend on support from our listeners, listeners like you. Donate today at RevealNews.org/donate. It helps on the stories that we tell and helps me feed my cat. So, thank you.
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 Statue. 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 2000 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:And so 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, they moved.
Private Investi…:We got you on tape, sir. You got to take them. You’ve been served.
Speaker 3: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 to 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 up 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? And Mona says when the government weighs all the interest 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 you 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. And 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…:So, what about the civil case against Gotabaya Rajapaksa? Well, 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 became president and gained head of state immunity, protecting him from those lawsuits. But then…
Speaker 27:Go home, Gota! Go home, Gota! Go home, Gota!
Ike Sriskandara…:Earlier this year, Sri Lanka’s economy cratered. People running out of fuel, food and medicine. They blamed the president and his family. And for more than 100 days, protestors in Sri Lanka demanded Gotabaya Rajapaksa step down. Then last month, they brought their demand directly to the Presidential Palace.
Speaker 28:Sri Lanka’s president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has fled the country along with other members of his family, following mass protests there.
Ike Sriskandara…:Now, the once feared strong man of Sri Lanka is in exile in Singapore. One human rights group has already filed a criminal complaint with Singapore’s attorney general calling for his arrest for past atrocities.

Back in the US, human rights groups are once again pushing the federal government to act. They say that the US still has jurisdiction and the responsibility to try Rajapaksa for war crimes. And I recently got in touch with a high level official at the State Department who confirmed that Gotabaya Rajapaksa could still face prosecution, even after renouncing his US citizenship.

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 Baranetsky 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. Our intern executive producers are Taki Telonidis and Brett Myers. 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, who will be back soon, would like me to remind you there is always more to the story.
Speaker 29:From PRX.

Ike Sriskandarajah

Ike Sriskandarajah is a senior reporter, producer, and fill-in host for Reveal. He has worked on projects that have won an Emmy, two medals from Investigative Reporters and Editors, and awards from Third Coast, the Education Writers Association, and the New York Associated Press Association. He was a narrative audio producer at The New York Times, making investigative episodes for "The Daily." Sriskandarajah is from Wisconsin and reports from New York City.

Andy Donohue is the executive editor for projects for Reveal. He’s edited Reveal’s investigations into the treatment of migrant children in government care, Amazon’s labor practices, rehab work camps and sexual abuse in the janitorial industry. He’s been on teams that have twice been Pulitzer Prize finalists and have won Investigative Reporters and Editors, Edward R. Murrow, Online News Association, Third Coast International Audio Festival, Gerald Loeb, Sidney Hillman Foundation and Emmy awards. He previously helped build and lead Voice of San Diego, served on the IRE board for eight years and is an alumnus of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University. Donohue is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Amy Mostafa (she/they) is the production manager for Reveal. She is a UC Berkeley School of Journalism alum, where she focused on audio and data journalism as a Dean's Merit Fellow and an ISF Scholar. She has reported on science, health and the environment in Anchorage for Alaska Public Media and on city government in Berkeley and San Francisco for KQED. Her work also has appeared on NPR, KALW and KALX. Mostafa holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and public policy. She has most recently reported on housing and aging in the Bay Area. She is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Nikki Frick is the associate editor for research and copy for Reveal. She previously worked as a copy editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and held internships at The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times and Washingtonpost.com. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was an American Copy Editors Society Aubespin scholar. Frick is based in Milwaukee.

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Fernando Arruda

Fernando Arruda is a sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. As a multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the original music, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. He has held four O-1 visas for individuals with extraordinary abilities. His work has been recognized with Peabody, duPont-Columbia, Edward R. Murrow, Gerald Loeb, Third Coast and Association of Music Producers awards, as well as Emmy and Pulitzer nominations. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio for media and TV ads, and co-founded a film-scoring boutique called the Manhattan Composers Collective. He worked with clients such as Marvel, MasterClass and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck+Company, BUCK and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles, such as SFJAZZ Monday Night Band, Art&Sax quartet, Krychek, Dark Inc. and the New York Arabic Orchestra. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 Percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker,” Wondery’s “Detective Trapp,” MSNBC’s “Why Is This Happening?” and NBC’s “Born to Rule,” to name a few. Arruda also has a wide catalog of composed music for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which has premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. The original music he makes with Jim Briggs for Reveal can be found on Bandcamp.

Steven Rascón (he/they) is a production assistant for Reveal. He is pursuing a master's degree at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism with a Kaiser Permanente Institute for Health Policy Fellowship. His focus is investigative reporting and audio documentary. He has written for online, magazines and radio. His reporting on underreported fentanyl overdoses in Los Angeles' LGBTQ community aired on KCRW and KQED. Rascón is passionate about telling diverse stories for radio through community engagement. He holds a bachelor of fine arts degree in theater arts and creative writing.

Kathryn Styer Martínez

Kathryn Styer Martínez (she/ella) is a production assistant for Reveal. She studies audio and photojournalism at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She is also a Greater Good Science Center reporting fellow, focusing on Latino well-being.

Martínez was the 2020-21 Toni Randolph reporting fellow at Minnesota Public Radio, the 2019-20 New Economy Reporting Project fellow and the former director of KGPC-LP FM, Peralta Community Radio. Her work has appeared in El Tecolote, The Oaklandside, MPR News, National Public Radio, Outside Online, Talk Poverty, New Life Quarterly and Making Contact.

She earned bachelor’s degrees in Raza studies and political science from San Francisco State University.

Jess Alvarenga (they/she) is an associate producer for Reveal. They are an audio producer and documentary filmmaker from the American South. Meeting at the intersection of art and journalism, they use storytelling as a way to document and reimagine immigrant narratives, particularly those of the Central American diaspora. In 2017, Alvarenga was awarded an individual artist grant from the Houston Arts Alliance and the City of Houston for their work on the city’s Central American population. They have a master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley.

Taki Telonidis is an interim executive producer for Reveal. Previously, he was the media producer for the Western Folklife Center, where he created more than 100 radio features for NPR’s "All Things Considered," "Weekend Edition" and other news magazines. He has produced and directed three public television specials, including "Healing the Warrior’s Heart," a one-hour documentary that explores how the ancient spiritual traditions of our nation’s first warriors, Native Americans, are helping today’s veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Telonidis also was senior content editor for NPR’s "State of the Re:Union." Before moving to the West, he worked for NPR in Washington, where he was senior producer of "Weekend All Things Considered" between 1994 and 1998. His television and radio work has garnered a George Foster Peabody Award, three Rocky Mountain Emmy Awards and the Overseas Press Club Award for breaking news. Telonidis is based in Salt Lake City.

Shawn Musgrave (he/him) is the First Amendment Fellow at The Center for Investigative Reporting. He graduated from Stanford Law School, where he researched government transparency and accountability issues, including oversealing of judicial documents, compliance with public records laws and misuse of the court system by litigation trolls. During law school, he worked at CIR, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a law firm that represents civilian whistleblowers. Before law school, Musgrave was an investigative reporter specializing in public records and government data, with work published in Politico, The Boston Globe, The Intercept and elsewhere.