At first glance, Ahimsa, 27, shows no signs of the trauma she has suffered in her life. Her beautiful face and happy demeanour belie the weight of someone engaged in a massive international legal wrangle. She is happy to answer questions put to her with the eloquence of someone far above her years.
When Ahimsa was just 17, her father Lasantha, a investigative journalist and editor of a ground-breaking newspaper in Colombo, Sri Lanka, was assassinated by hired goons. For years before, Lasantha had been exposing massive corruption in successive governments, naming and shaming the guilty and sometimes bringing powerful individuals and establishments to their knees. He had faced the ire of those he wrote about, many times. He and Ahimsa’s mother were once dragged out of their vehicle and assaulted, the presses were set on fire and another time his newspaper was shut down by the government which invoked a vague censorship regulation. However, it was in 2009 that Lasantha finally paid the ultimate price for his courage.
After the murder, a thoroughly traumatised and grieving Ahimsa moved to Melbourne, Australia, to be with her mother and two brothers. The terrible events surrounding her father’s assassination stayed fresh in her mind and for years afterward, she suffered a host of issues.
Ahimsa knew that during the months leading up to his murder, Lasantha had been running a series of articles on a corrupt aircraft purchase deal which implicated the then defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, brother of one-time strongman President of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksa. The week prior to his murder, Lasantha was planning to publish some damning facts about the purchase in what had come to be known as the MIG deal.
“My father was also investigating Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s assets at the time he was killed. Due to the legal proceedings, I cannot comment on what I have since learnt of the current state of his assets,” Ahimsa says.
Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was a dual citizen of both the United States of America and Sri Lanka, and Ahimsa knew that if she wanted to file a lawsuit against the ex-defence secretary, her best bet was filing a case in the US as Sri Lanka just wasn’t an option for her in her quest to obtaining justice due to the political interference.
“I chose to file a case in the US since Gotabhaya Rajapaksa seemed to enjoy impunity in Sri Lanka,” Ahimsa says. “The Sri Lankan Judiciary broke with over a century of tradition by preventing his arrest and halting his criminal trials in several corruption investigations. Hoping for a fair trial involving him in Sri Lanka is futile.”
A US law firm based in California, the Centre for Justice and Accountablity (CJA) that had previously appeared for clients who had suffered at the hands of despotic rulers in other parts of the world such as Bashar al Assad in Syria, agreed to appear for Ahimsa. After that, it was a case of waiting for the right time to gather evidence and serve Rajapaksa. Ahimsa worked with several different law firms and lawyers for years before concluding that the CJA was the right firm for her, Rajapaksa was due to fly to the US to attend to matters regarding revoking his US citizenship.
And on April 7, the former defence secretary and his wife made an ill-fated decision to stop at a Trader Joe’s convenience store on the way to another event. Here, at the car park, a bemused Rajapaksa was served with papers, informing him that Ahimsa, daughter of Lasantha, was filing charges against him in the district court of California, for complicity in the extra-judicial murder of her father.
Immediately Rajapaksa went into damage control mode. His attorneys filed a response in the California court seeking to have the case dismissed.
Whatever the outcome of the case, the very fact that Ahimsa filed such a case against a powerful, and most believe a ruthless, man as Rajapaksa who it is said ran his own terror unit within the Sri Lanka Army intelligence wing allegedly responsible for several murders and disappearances of adversaries – most of them journalists, has put a dark cloud over his presidential ambitions. Although the man is forging ahead with his campaign, there are doubts as to whether his US citizenship has indeed been revoked, what with a pending murder case against him in courts.
Many have applauded Ahimsa’s courage in taking on a man as powerful as Rajapaksa, but her family and friends are worried for her safety. But Ahimsa stands firm in her pursuit of justice for her father, whatever the dangers that lurk.
“I will not rest until the man who I believe gave the order for my father to be killed, is hauled before court and has to face the consequences of his evil actions. I am willing to lay my life down in getting justice for my father and other victims of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa,” she says. “And I hope my suit will motivate the loved ones of others who have suffered similar fates to take action.”