My Neighbor, the Suspected War Criminal

Reveal

Aug 6 2022 • 50 mins

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 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 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 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. Sriskandrajah 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.

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