Credit…Atul Loke for The New York Times

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president of Sri Lanka, won a landslide election in 2019, promising to restore the country’s security after an Islamic State-inspired terror attack that killed more than 250 people.

For Sri Lankan voters, the promise was credible. He had served as defense secretary under his older brother, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the brothers were praised for ending a 27-year-old civil war by crushing the Tamil Tiger insurgency in 2009.

But the brothers were also widely feared and accused of gross human rights abuses by ending the war and then hunting down dissidents, journalists and human rights activists.

Before losing his re-election bid in 2015, Mr Rajapaksa’s final years in government with his younger brother were marked by frequent kidnappings of opponents, often packed into white vans, never to be seen again, according to Human Rights Watch. rights watchers.

Shortly after Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president in 2019, the senior detective of the Criminal Investigation Department, or CID, who had been investigating the Rajapaksa, fled to Switzerland. Prominent journalists, diplomats and other security officials also rushed to leave the country.

With his party’s huge majority in parliament, Mr Rajapaksa quickly filled his cabinet with family members, appointing Mahinda Rajapaksa prime minister. He also consolidated power within the president’s office.

Mr Rajapaksa pushed through a constitutional amendment to give himself the ability to lead ministries, sack ministers and chair formerly independent commissions that oversee elections, police, human rights and anti-terrorism efforts. Corruption.

He also created a presidential commission – ostensibly to end political prosecutions – that was used to discredit years of police work, delay trials and overturn rare court convictions that had inspired hope in a country where justice for wartime atrocities and politically motivated crimes has been served. elusive.

As protests demanding the family dynasty leave government escalated, Mr Rajapaksa emptied his cabinet of family members. But he firmly refused to step down. As long as a Rajapaksa remained in power, many critics believed, the family as a whole would continue to reign quietly behind the scenes.

“They can do anything,” Hirunika Eranjali Premachandra, a political opponent, said of the family. Mr Rajapaksa has granted a presidential pardon to the man convicted of murdering his father, a lawmaker. “They make the law.”

Wasantha Karannagoda, a former navy commander who was charged in an abduction case of 11 boys under President Mahinda Rajapaksa, had the charges against him dropped last year. Soon after, Mr. Rajapaksa appointed Mr. Karannagoda Governor of the North Western Province of Sri Lanka.

“As long as these brothers are here, this case will not move forward anyway,” said Saroja Naganathan, the mother of one of the missing boys.

Mr. Rajapaksa may have clung to power, at least in part, because he loses immunity from prosecution in Sri Lanka upon leaving office.

He could also become vulnerable in the United States, where he lived for many years, renouncing his citizenship there to run for president of Sri Lanka. In California, Mr. Rajapaksa faces civil charges related to wartime atrocities.