Sri Lankan court acquits security officials over Easter attacks

CNA Staff   By CNA Staff

 

April 21, 2021: Catholics mark the second anniversary of the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka that killed more than 260 people. / Ruwan Walpola/Shutterstock

Colombo, Sri Lanka, Feb 18, 2022 / 13:00 pm (CNA).

A court in Sri Lanka on Friday acquitted two former security officials who were charged with negligence relating to the 2019 Easter bombings, in which at least 260 people were killed.

Pujith Jayasundara, who was Inspector General of Police, and Hemasiri Fernando, who was permanent secretary to the Ministry of Defence, were cleared of the charges against them in Sri Lanka’s High Court Feb. 18.

They were accused of failing to act on warnings of an imminent attack given by foreign intelligence agencies.

The coordinated suicide bombings on three churches, four hotels, and one housing complex on April 21, 2019, Easter Sunday, took place while Masses and religious services were held. The suicide bombers are believed to have been members of radical Islamist groups with ties to the Islamic State.

Jayasundara and Fernando both resigned April 25, 2019, and were arrested later that year. A prosecutor had wanted to charge them with murder in relation to the attacks, AFP reported, but there was no evidence to link them to the bombers.

The former security officials have said that Maithripala Sirisena, who was president of Sri Lanka at the time of the attacks, didn’t follow protocol in responding to national security threats, and was dismissive of the warnings.

Indian intelligence agencies had shared relevant information with Sri Lanka in the weeks prior to the attacks. The data had been extracted from a member of the Islamic State with connections to Zahran Hashim, who is believed to be one of the people behind the attack.

Jayasundara had issued a memo of caution April 11, but government officials said neither the prime minister nor other top administrators were made privy to the information.

The warnings were not given to Church officials, either.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo, has consistently been critical of the government’s handling of information prior to the bombing, and of its investigation and prosecution since.

In September 2021 the cardinal reiterated his call for a “transparent investigation, which ascertains instigators and responsibility for the Easter attacks.” He said, “the Church and the entire nation, shocked by terrorism, have the right to know the truth, have the right to receive justice.”

Cardinal Ranjith said he fears that the government “does not want to find out the truth about the attack,” adding that “it wants to cover up everything and wash its hands.”

In July 2021 letter, the country’s Catholic leaders criticized the “lethargic pace” of a government inquiry into the terrorist attacks on churches, and questioned why recommendations brought by an official inquiry into the attacks have not yet been acted upon.

In an earlier statement, Cardinal Ranjith said the country is “still not secure and attacks like the one that took place on Easter Sunday are still possible at any time.”

“We can’t allow this culture of killing to continue. The country must learn a lesson from the sacrifices of the innocents killed on Easter Sunday,” he said, adding that “the real killers must be identified and the country must know the truth.”

Following the bombings, Sirisena created a five-person commission to investigate the attacks. The commission’s final report was presented to current President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in February 2021.

Rajapaksa then appointed a new six-member committee to study the report but did not share the report with the Church or with the attorney general.

The refusal to release the contents of the report has led to criticism, with fears that corruption or negligence have prevented the prosecution of collaborators in the attack. The study committee is composed only of government ministers who are members of the ruling coalition.

Cardinal Ranjith has been pushing for Sri Lankan authorities to be held responsible for failing to prevent the bombings.

In October 2020, five of seven suspects arrested in connection with the attacks were released by the government, on the stated grounds of lack of evidence.

At that time, Cardinal Ranjith said security officials had confirmed to him that there was sufficient evidence against many of the suspects who had been arrested. The cardinal, along with friends and family of the victims, have said they fear the release of the suspects meant corruption, or a lack of a thorough investigation, on the part of the Sri Lankan Criminal Investigation Department.

Several other persons have been charged with receiving weapons training from or being indoctrinated by the Islamist groups believed to be behind the bombings.


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