Following London-based Channel 4’s recent programme on the Easter Sunday terrorist bombings, which claimed more than 270 lives and left over 500 persons injured, on April 21, 2019, pressure has been mounting on the SLPP-UNP government to have an international investigation conducted into the carnage. The UNHRC has also urged Sri Lanka to conduct a thorough investigation with international help into the terror strikes.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe has appointed a three-member committee to investigate the allegations made by Channel 4. It comprises retired Supreme Court Judge S. I. Imam (Chairman), retired Air Force Commander A. C. M. Jayalath Weerakkody and Harsha A. J. Soza, PC.

Sri Lanka finds itself in this unenviable position, because its governments have reneged on their promises to investigate the 2019 terrorist attacks thoroughly and deliver justice expeditiously; some political leaders have taken the church leaders for a ride.

Two committees and one presidential commission of inquiry have so far investigated the Easter Sunday bombings and submitted their reports, but the truth is far from revealed, and justice remains undelivered. The timeline of these probes is of interest.


Vijith Malalgoda committee

On April 22, 2019, a little over 24 hours after the Easter Sunday terror attacks, the then President Maithripala Sirisena appointed a committee to conduct an investigation and submit a report within two weeks. The Committee comprised puisne Supreme Court Judge Vijith Malalgoda (Chairman), former IGP N. K. Illangakoon, and former Law and Order Ministry Secretary Padmasiri Jayamanne. It was tasked with submitting a report to the President within a period of two weeks.

The Malalgoda committee submitted its report to Sirisena on June 10 2019, one month behind the schedule. Its report however was not made public. TNA MP M. A. Sumanthiran alleged that the appointment of the committee was illegal and violative of the Constitution; this issue, however, fizzled out with the passage of time, and the Malalgoda committee and its report have now been forgotten.

Obviously, Sirisena had no intention of getting at the truth; he only sought to deflect criticism against him. He was accused of having failed to act on repeated intelligence warnings of an impending terrorist attack on Catholic churches. At the time of the attacks, he was in Singapore, and this has also been held against him.

PSC on Easter Sunday attacks

President Sirisena and the UNP-led government were at daggers drawn in 2019. The former had made an abortive attempt to sack Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and the SLFP-led UPFA had withdrawn from the Yahapalana government, leaving the UNF without a simple majority in the House. The UNP moved to have a separate probe launched into the carnage obviously in a bid to settle political scores with Sirisena, who was the Defence Minister at the time. He was blamed for the serious security lapses that had led to the attacks.

While the Malalgoda committee was investigating the terror attacks, a parliamentary select committee (PSC) was appointed consequent to a resolution moved by 40 MPs representing the UNP, the UPFA, the ITAK (TNA) and the JVP in Parliament, calling for a parliamentary probe into the Easter Sunday terrorist bombings. The resolution was passed on May 22, 2019 without a division.

The PSC headed by J. M. Ananda Kumarasiri, Deputy Speaker and Chair of the Committee, included Rauff Hakeem, Ravi Karunanayake, (Dr.) Rajitha Senaratne, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, M.A. Sumanthiran, President’s Counsel, (Dr) Nalinda Jayathissa, (Prof) Ashu Marasinghe, and (Dr) Jayampathy Wickramaratne, President’s Counsel. It presented its report to the parliament on Oct. 23, 2019.

The PSC held 24 sittings from May to October 2019 and recorded evidence from 55 persons. Its 272-page, endorsed by all its members, was submitted to the parliament on Oct. 23, 2019. Its recommendations were not implemented.

Channel 4 borrows from PSC report

Channel 4 has not made any revelation as such about the Easter Sunday attacks although its claim that the terror strikes were politically motivated has received a great deal of media attention globally. This claim was first made by the PSC, which probed the Easter Sunday attacks. The PSC report says, among other things:

“The PSC makes a very serious finding in terms of the status of the state intelligence apparatus, where intelligence information known to a few was not shared with relevant parties. The PSC also observes that further investigations will be needed to understand whether those with vested interests did not act on intelligence so as to create chaos and instil fear and uncertainty in the country in the lead up to the Presidential Election to be held later in the year. Such a situation would then lead to the call for a change of regime to contain such acts of terrorism. Coincidently or not so coincidentally, the security situation and fear would be unleashed months away from the Presidential Election. The PSC also notes that this occurred in the context of changes in the leadership in the Sri Lankan Army and DMI in 2019. These are extremely serious observations that can impact the democratic governance, electoral processes and security of Sri Lanka and must require urgent attention.”


PCoI probe and report

Meanwhile, President Sirisena appointed a Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PSC) on Sept. 22, 2019 to investigate and report on the series of terrorist attacks on Easter Sunday and to recommend necessary action based on its findings. Perhaps, he knew the PSC with a majority of Yahapalana politicians would be unfavorable to him. He had to leave office two months later because he opted out of the presidential race, unable to seek a second term. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected President, and the PCoI continued with its probe.

The first and second interim reports of the PCoI were submitted to President Rajapaksa on December 20, 2019 and on March 02, 2020 respectively. The final PCoI report was handed over to him by the Chairman of the Commission Supreme Court judge Janak de Silva at the Presidential Secretariat on Feb. 01, 2021.

The final PCoI report was tabled in Parliament on April 8, 2021, but purportedly due to legal reasons the related witness records, etc., were not released.

President Rajapaksa came under criticism for not releasing 87 volumes of the final PCoI report. Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, who is leading the Catholic Church’s campaign to have justice served for the victims of the Easter Sunday carnage and their families, demanded that all 88 volumes of the PCoI report be made public. He accused President Rajapaksa of suppressing the truth. Thereafter the ire of the campaigners for justice was directed at Gotabaya.

President Rajapaksa buckled under pressure and had the 88 volumes of the report handed over to the Speaker of Parliament Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena in Feb. 2022, but that did not help repair his image.

On Feb. 20 2021, President Rajapaksa appointed a six-member Cabinet sub-committee to study in depth the facts and recommendations by the PCoI, and the report of the Sectoral Oversight Committee on National Security, which had been submitted to the parliament. The committee consisted of President Rajapaksa’s elder brother, Minister Chamal Rajapaksa (Chairman) and Ministers Johnston Fernando, Ramesh Pathirana, Prasanna Ranatunga and Rohitha Abeygunawardena. The Secretary to the Committee was Director General of Legal Affairs of the Presidential Secretariat Hariguptha Rohanadheera.

The final report of the Cabinet Sub-Committee was handed over to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in April 2021. It identified 78 recommendations in the PCoI report, and specified how those recommendations were to be implemented and the agencies responsible for their implementation.

The appointment of the Cabinet sub-committee was widely seen as a ploy to delay the implementation of the PCoI recommendations. Former President Sirisena had joined the SLPP, and the government was seen to be shielding him vis-a-vis the PCoI recommendation that criminal proceedings be instituted against him for his failure to prevent the terror attacks.

The PCoI named a number of people including the then President Sirisena and the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as being responsible for the failure to prevent the Easter Sunday attacks, but only the then Inspector General of Police Pujith Jayasundera and the then Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando were indicted. Both of them were acquitted subsequently.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant deaths, lockdowns, economic difficulties, etc., eclipsed the issue of delay in the implementation of the PCoI recommendations to a considerable extent. The following year (2022) saw the emergence of the worst ever economic crisis, shortages of essentials, long queues, and mass protests, which led to the resignation of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his Cabinet and the ouster of President Rajapaksa.

The denial of justice for the Easter Sunday carnage victims was highlighted during the Aragalaya protests, last year, but no action has been taken by the current government under President Ranil Wickremesinghe to implement the PCoI recommendations, much to the consternation of the Catholic Church and the families and friends of the victims of the carnage. (Next: Reasons for the ongoing campaign for an international probe.)