All issues that crop up in Sri Lanka have one thing in common; they have a very short lifespan. But the Easter Sunday carnage has been different thanks to the tireless efforts of the Catholic Church, especially Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith to keep their quest for justice alive. Channel 4’s recent programme has given the ongoing campaign for justice a boost although it has not made any fresh revelations as such and is based on poorly-substantiated claims and allegations.

The parliament was thrown into turmoil on Thursday, when it discussed the Channel 4 allegations with SJB MP and former Army Chief Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka tearing into former President Maithripala Sirisena and accusing the latter of being one of the masterminds of the terror attacks. Fonseka obviously did not base his argument on hard facts; he relied on surmises and allegations to settle political scores with Sirisena, who, as the President, refused to appoint him the Defence Minister after SLFP-led UPFA’s pull-out from the Yahapalana government in October 2018. He also accused former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of having had a hand in the terror strikes.

The parliamentary debate on Channel 4 allegations provided no fresh insights as such into the ongoing debate on the Easter Sunday terrorist bombings, which claimed more than 270 lives and injured over 500 others. The MPs of both sides of the House spoke at length about conspiracy theories and, true to form, let out invectives against one another.


Promises broken, hopes dashed

The Catholic Church drew heavy fire from the UNP-led Opposition in 2019 for backing Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the presidential fray. Current Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, who contested the last presidential election unsuccessfully, has said the Easter Sunday attacks created a situation where the Catholics voted for Gotabaya overwhelmingly. They did so because they expected Gotabaya to have the carnage probed thoroughly and justice served expeditiously. In fact, Gotabaya made a solemn pledge to the Catholic clergy to that effect.

Gotabaya reneged on his pledge and betrayed the Catholic community’s trust after securing the presidency. The report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the Easter Sunday terror attacks, consisted of 88 volumes, but he released only one of them. But later, he had them submitted to Parliament in early 2022. Opposition Leader Premadasa complained to Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, a few days ago, that the conditions on which the entire report had been submitted to the parliament hindered the MPs’ access to some of the volumes kept in the parliamentary library.

The Catholic Church urged President Rajapaksa to implement the recommendations made by the PCoI, the institution of criminal proceedings against former President Sirisena being one of them. Spokesman for the Catholic Church Rev. Fr. Cyril Gamini Fernando has renewed this call. He has asked the government to implement the PCoI recommendations fully. The Church is obviously willing to make compromises if the government agrees to launch a credible domestic probe into the Easter Sunday attacks although it has called for an international investigation.


Ire of families of victims directed at GR

The Catholic Church was left with no alternative but to take on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa when it realized that he would not honor his pledge. The ire of the families of the Easter Sunday carnage victims, the Catholic community in general and the church leader in particular was directed at Gotabaya, who was seen to be dragging his feet on implementing the PCoI recommendations and police investigations into the tragedy because he had something to hide. The police have not been able to provide a plausible explanation regarding the tardy progress their probe is making.

In July 2021, the Catholic Church, seeking justice for those killed and maimed in the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks, wrote a 20-page, strongly-worded letter to the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, giving his government an ultimatum.

The letter signed by eight Bishops including Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith said, among other things:

“We would like to inform you that if truth and justice can’t be assured and the incident is dealt with rather superficially, we will be forced to agitate for such through alternative ways. We hope you act on this urgently and provide a credible answer at least within one month.”

The Bishops did not mince their words when they expressed their displeasure at the way the investigations were being conducted:

“ … We are truly saddened by the lethargic pace at which the state machinery is moving in order to find those who are responsible for these attacks; those who planned it and those who, even though they had forewarning about it and could have easily prevented it, did not fulfill that responsibility, and willfully neglected it, and bring them before the law.”

While demanding action against former President Maithripala Sirisena and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for their leniency towards Islamic extremism, as revealed by the PCoI, which probed the Easter Sunday attacks, the Bishops warned the government that Catholics would be compelled resort to public protests unless their demands were met.

The Cardinal urged the country’s Catholics to express their dissatisfaction publicly. “Raise a black flag on August 21 in front of your homes, institutions and market places as a strong symbol of the silent protest,” he said at a press conference on August 13, 2021.


IGP’s response

The Gotabaya Rajapaksa government’s response to the church’s protest campaign came a few days later in the form of a special statement by IGP Wickramaratne, who picked holes in the previously–conducted investigations into the Easter Sunday attacks. As was pointed out in a previous comment, the police chief blamed the delays on the investigators and the flaws in previous probes. He claimed that there had been a rush to make the bombings out to be the work of a small band of extremists who wanted to have the world believe that ISIS was present in Sri Lanka, and there was no organized terror network involved in the crimes. He stressed the need to get to the bottom of it.

The investigations had been aimed at proving the claim that Zahran, the leader of the National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ), who led the Easter Sunday attacks, was dead and his group had perished, and others involved in those acts of terror had been arrested, the IGP maintained.

Some officers handling investigations had acted irresponsibly, said the IGP, noting that certain ego-driven investigators had been conducted in a hurry to conclude the probes fast, and claim credit for that, and their approach had adversely impacted the criminal investigations. The PCoI report containing findings and recommendations in respect of such officers had been referred to the Attorney General for necessary action, the IGP added.

IGP Wickramaratne also claimed that the previous investigation had been characterized by a total lack of coordination among the teams of investigators, who, he said, had worked in water-tight compartments, and failed to carry out thorough probes because foremost in their minds had been a desire to complete investigations fast and bolster their conclusion that the perpetrators were either dead or in custody. That fact had become evident from the way some incidents were probed before the Easter Sunday bombings, the IGP said, pointing out that their interconnectedness had gone unnoticed.

The IGP cited in support of his argument an attack Zahran and his group had carried out on their rivals in a mosque at Kattankudy, a bomb attack on a political office in the same area, a training programme conducted at a holiday resort in Nuwara-Eliya, the hospitalization of Rilvan with injuries following an accidental blast during an experiment with explosives, the killing of two policemen in Batticaloa [which was initially blamed on former LTTE cadres], a raid on a training camp in Wanathawilluwa and a motorcycle bomb explosion in Kattankudy. All those incidents had been investigated separately, and the investigators had failed to realize their interconnectedness and the gravity of the situation, the IGP said.

Some other factors the IGP adduced to explain the delays in the investigations were the process of ascertaining information from the countries where some suspects were living, and the gathering of information pertaining to telephone conversations from  24 June 2014 and analyzing them to determine when the dissemination of extremist ideas began in this country and how extremism developed. Among those who aided and abetted the perpetrators of the attacks were some educated persons and professionals, and given their calibre and social standing, investigations had to be carried out thoroughly if they were to be successfully prosecuted, the Police Chief said.

The IGP said it had taken four years to bring those responsible for the bomb attack on the Dalada Maligawa (1998) to justice, and investigations into the suicide bomb attacks on a religious ceremony organized by a mosque in 2009 at Akuressa had taken seven years. The police had carried out those investigations free from pressure, he noted. Anyone could surf the Internet and find out how long such investigations into terrorist attacks had taken in other countries, he said.

IGP Wickramaratne highlighted what he called progress so far made in the legal and judicial processes. He said he had written to the AG, asking for a senior official to look into the legal aspects of the probes that had to be reviewed, and the AG had appointed a team for that purpose. A large number of people had been questioned, 723 arrested and 311 detained or remanded. Besides, a large number of documents had been studied and more than 100,000 telephone calls analyzed. The IGP said that bank accounts had been probed and frozen, and assets of those involved in terrorism confiscated. Cases had been filed against 46 persons over the eight attacks on 21 April 2019, and 11 of them had been indicted, the IGP noted.

Wickramaratne said 46 persons had been produced in High Court over the Easter Sunday attacks, and more than 100 files consisting of 104 volumes that ran into as many as 52,000 pages had been submitted to the AG. He also said steps had been taken to arrest suspects including those who were living overseas.

Curiously, IGP Wickramaratne did not claim to have arrested the mastermind behind the Easter Sunday attacks. The government, however, has said Moulavi Naufer, in custody, masterminded the carnage. Wickramaratne only said Zahran Hashim [the leader of the NTJ] and other suicide bombers who carried out the Ester Sunday attacks were only a small group connected to a big network. A second level of activists including children had been indoctrinated in extremism and psychologically prepared to carry forward extremist campaigns.

IGP Wickramaratne, in his statement, made it clear that the police would not be swayed by social media campaigns and various views being expressed on the Easter Sunday attacks and investigations. The police, he stressed, would keep an open mind in proceeding with their investigations. While claiming to respect the people’s freedom of expression, he issued a veiled warning that those who expressed their opinions on the issue ran the risk of commenting on matters that were sub judice and exposing themselves to the risk of facing legal action.

The IGP invited those who claimed to have more information about the Easter Sunday attacks to make it available to the CID conducting investigations. He, however, said only information that could be used in courts would be useful. His request seems to be an attempt to play the ball back into the court of the critics of the police. In fact, this is the course of action they should adopt because expressing their views and making various claims on social media are of little use technically; information they may have of the attacks should be presented to the CID.


Fallout of delayed probe and way out

What one gathers from the IGP’s statement was that the government and the Police were not willing to commit themselves to a deadline, and the investigations are not going to be over anytime soon despite protests from the Catholic Church. The IGP, however, said the police had realized that they were duty bound to complete the investigations into the Easter Sunday attacks for those responsible for them to be brought to justice, in the minimum possible time.

IGP Wickramaratne also said investigations were aimed at not only closing investigations after bringing those responsible for the Easter Sunday attacks to justice but also identifying the factors that led to them and finding whether there are others who will resort to terrorism or other such activities in the future.

We have not heard from the IGP since then, and nobody knows what has become of the police investigations into the Easter Sunday attacks.

The inordinate delay on the part of the government and the police to get to the bottom of the Easter Sunday tragedy has created a situation where interested groups are capitalizing on the consternation of the families of the victims and the religious dignitaries, who trusted the government leaders and took upon themselves the task of having justice served fast. It is only natural that Channel succeeded in selling its ‘exposé’ to them, and creating quite a stir in Sri Lanka to the extent of causing the parliament to have a special debate on its allegations and President Ranil Wickremesinghe to appoint a three-member committee to probe them. Channel 4 also caused the call for an international probe to be renewed.

A compromise however is still possible. The Catholic Church has said there will be no need for an international probe if a credible investigation is launched into the Easter Sunday attacks with the PCoI recommendations being fully implemented. It is now up to the government to decide whether to accede to this request, which is nothing but fair and reasonable, or cause the issue to be further internationalized and face its political fallout.