Easter Sunday attacks: jury is still out on the perpetrators

• Island-wide solidarity on Black Sunday • Government approves Oddamavadi for Covid -19 burials following local community protests • Tamil groups claim draft Resolution falls short of expectations

The storm clouds are brewing and it’s going to be a Black Sunday.  The priests of the archdiocese of Colombo are organizing a special prayer during mass on the 7th of March and the church bells will ring out. Churches across the country are expected to join and to do the same, especially those in the dioceses of Colombo, Gampaha and Batticaloa where the churches and hotels which were targeted by the Easter Sunday suicide bombers were located. The activities are being organized to seek justice for victims of the Easter Sunday attacks which killed 270 people and injured around 500.  ‘It is coming up to two years and these relatives still don’t know who the perpetrators are’, said a source at the media centre in the Archbishops House in Colombo. ‘This is a silent protest’.  

What happens on Sunday could snowball into a campaign but the source said ‘this will depend on the response of the government’.

Victims of the attacks and those who want justice for them have been frustrated with the delay in bringing the perpetrators to book. In September 2019, former President Maithripala Sirisena appointed a Presidential Commission of Inquiry to look into the Easter Sunday attacks.  After hearing the testimonies of some 457 people over 214 days, the Commission concluded that the former President was culpable for not preventing the attacks from taking place. Other top defence and police officers similarly implicated are IGP Pujith Jayasundara, former defence secretary Hemasiri Fernando and former head of the State Intelligence Services Nilantha Jayawardana. However, the jury is still out on who the masterminds and perpetrators are.

The Commission’s six volume Report which runs into 472 pages with 215 annextures was handed over to President Gotabaya Rajapakse at the Presidential Secretariat on 1 February by the Chairman of the Commission Janak De Silva who is a judge of the Supreme Court.  The other members in the Commission are Nishanka Bandula Karunaratne who is a judge of the Court of Appeal, Nihal Sunil Rajapaksha and A.L Bandula Kumara Atapattu, both of whom are retired judges of the Supreme Court and W. M.M.R Adhikari, a former secretary to the Ministry of Justice. This final Report, preceded by two interim reports which were handed over to the President on 20 December 2019 and 2 March 2020, was tabled in Parliament last week and a document for the public is expected to be made available soon.  Among the recommendations in the Report is that the Attorney General looks at bringing criminal proceedings against the former President under suitable provisions of the Penal Code.  Earlier this week the Attorney General’s department is reported to have said that some volumes and annextures have not been sent to them on the grounds that it is sensitive information and has implications for national security. This caveat will also take it out of the reach of potential applications under the Right To Information Act No 12 of 2016.  According to S. 5 a request under the Act for access to information shall be refused where the disclosure of such information would undermine the defence of the State, its territorial integrity or national security. The Opposition has asked for a three- day parliamentary debate on the Report. For now, what the government has promised is a one- day debate on Wednesday next week.  The Opposition is optimistic it will be extended to at least two days.  

The timing of the event this Sunday with the ongoing UN Human Rights Council sessions is a coincidence with the source at the Archbishops House media centre hastily dismissing any link between the two.  ‘The victims of the Easter Sunday attacks have been waiting for answers for months and this has not been forthcoming in those parts of the Commission’s Report which were made public last week. In February there were protests by the people in Katuwapitiya demanding justice for the victims and something had to be done before they took matters into their own hands’.  

Sections of the Sri Lankan polity are increasingly getting into the habit of turning to the international community to resolve their domestic issues after years and months of trying and failing to get a satisfactory response from their government. Grievances about alleged human rights violations arising from the 30- year war with the LTTE have been thrashed out in UN fora for years. Recently, the issue of Covid-19 burials has had the ear of the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan and the UN. In February, the Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith told reporters that action will be taken to reach out to international organisations for justice if Sri Lanka does not bring to book the masterminds and perpetrators behind the Easter Sunday attacks.

Meanwhile the issue of Covid -19 burials persist despite the gazette notification which was issued last week legitimizing it after an expert committee gave the greenlight. The Ministry of Health issued three pages of Standard Operating Procedures for the preparation, transportation and burial of corpses connected with Covid-19.  It clearly sets out that burials have to take place in Iranathivu, an island in the Gulf of Mannar in the northwest. Iranathivu which used to be made up of scrub mostly, has a harsh terrain. It has no fresh water and for years it has been known as a karawalawadiya, a place where fish was dried. These days the Island is home to a number of families who have title deeds although only about 14 families are said to reside on it permanently.  The others commute between the Island and the mainland.  These families are predominantly Tamil and are fishermen.  The islanders have dug ground wells for their supply of water.  The Island also has a small naval detachment which has its own reverse osmorsis plant for its water supply.

The government’s decision to designate the Island as a burial site led to protests by the local community who together with Tamil political groups are accusing the government of trying to pit them against the Muslim community.

According to Dr Anver Hamdani, Director Medical Technological Services and Ministry of Health Coordinator in charge of Covid-19 operations, Iranathivu was chosen as a site for Covid -19 burials because the ground water level is low and it is an alienated part of the country.

Following the public protests which erupted after it became known that the island was going to be used as a burial site an alternative site in Oddamavadi has now been approved.  The decision was taken at a meeting last Thursday between the Director General of Health Services Dr Asela Gunewardene, his nominee Dr Hamdani, district and divisional secretaries, the regional director of health services and environment and water board officials.  

Dr Hamdani clarified that no Covid-19 burials have taken place in Iranathivu.

Oddamavadi is in the Batticaloa district and is a dry area.  The site which has been chosen is a burial ground and the Covid -19 burials will take place in one section of it. The corpses of nine persons who died of Covid were buried here on Friday.  

The SOPs make provision for health and public administration officials to propose an alternative burial site which the authorities will consider after a feasibility study is carried out.  

Unless the issue of Covid burials is resolved satisfactorily it will remain on the draft Resolution which the core group on Sri Lanka is planning to present at the UNHRC.  A political source said that at the end of last week, foreign minister Dinesh Gunewardene was expecting to lobby a few countries for their support. With around 20 countries already reportedly having taken the position that they will abstain from voting, the Resolution could become a hotly contested one.

Meanwhile Tamil groups have expressed disappointment with the draft Resolution.  Among the first to object was C.V Wigneswaran, leader of the Tamil Makkal Thesai Kootani who said the Resolution falls short of expectations of the recommendations made by the High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. The High Commissioner in her Report which was released at the end of January encouraged Sri Lanka’s referral to the International Criminal Court, targeted sanctions on individuals for alleged human rights violations and a dedicated mechanism to collect and preserve evidence for future accountability processes.  

The Tamil Civil Society Forum shared the same sentiment as the TMTK saying ‘the Resolution fails to meet even the basic expectations of the Tamil victims in pursuing international accountability for war crimes committed by Sri Lanka.’

In a letter dated 1st March 2021 sent to the heads of missions in Geneva the TCSF said ‘the Resolution’s framing of issues is highly problematic and fails to locate them in the political context accurately’.

Their letter addresses three key and significant areas of militarization, accountability and the need to find a political solution. They refuse to accept the 13th Amendment and have asked for an opportunity for ‘Tamils must be given an opportunity to exercise their right to self-determination and freely determine their political status.” 

Earlier in the year the TCSF and other Tamil political parties, civil society and religious leaders signed a joint statement calling for decisive action on Sri Lanka at the current UN Human Rights Council sessions. That statement was also sent to the heads of missions in Geneva

In their recent letter too the TCSF reiterates its call for Sri Lanka’s referral to the International Criminal Court and for an independent mechanism of evidence collection that would assist a future ICC referral’. The letter adds that referring Sri Lanka to the ICC would “bring attention and urgency to Sri Lanka’s chronic evasion of accountability.’  

Tamil parties have been giving their recommendations to the committee which is drafting the new constitution.  The TNA, which had a meeting with them, followed it up with a letter with the recommendations they had made.  Minister C. V Wigneswaran is yet to hear from the committee although he sent his party’s recommendations in a letter to them about three weeks ago.  Mr Wigneswaran wants greater powers and autonomy for the periphery and is pushing for a confederal system.  His position diverges from that of the TNA which wants a federal set up. (SW)

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