Sri Lanka’s Catholics ‘can’t accept’ new Easter bombing inquiries

Sri Lanka’s Catholics ‘can’t accept’ new Easter bombing inquiries

The appointment of new committees to investigate Sri Lanka’s deadly Easter Sunday bombings in 2019 has not satisfied the country’s Catholic Church or families of the victims, who say the probes lack independence.

On April 21, 2019, bombs ripped through three churches and three luxury hotels, killing over 250 people, including 42 foreign nationals from 14 countries. Nine suicide bombers belonging to the local Islamist extremist group National Thowheed Jama’ath (NTJ), linked to Islamic State, were found to have carried out the attacks.

But a documentary aired this month by Britain’s Channel 4 has reopened the wounds, claiming the bloodshed was part of a sinister plan involving the powerful Rajapaksa family and their allies in the security forces. The allegation is that there was a plot to help the Rajapaksas return to power after losing the 2015 presidential election to Maithripala Sirisena. Just days after the attacks, Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced his candidacy, vowing to strengthen national security. He went on to win the election.

Rajapaksa, who was ousted last year amid massive protests over Sri Lanka’s economic crisis, responded to the Channel 4 documentary with a firm denial. “To claim that a group of Islamic extremists launched suicide attacks in order to make me president is absurd,” he said in a statement.

But the allegations apparently rattled the government enough that President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s office on Sunday announced the appointment of a new committee led by a retired Supreme Court judge to look into the allegations, as well as another parliamentary committee.

Security forces comb the wreckage at St. Sebastian Catholic Church after bomb blasts ripped through churches and luxury hotels on Easter in 2019.   © Reuters

The value of this exercise, however, is already being called into question.

“We can’t accept this offer,” Rev. Cyril Gamini Fernando, a spokesman for Sri Lanka’s Catholic Church, told Nikkei Asia.

“Since the attacks there have been many committees and commissions appointed to probe it, and even though almost all of them provided recommendations, none of the recommendations even have been implemented,” he said. “So, appointing another committee will not solve the problem.”

Fernando noted that, according to the whistleblower allegations in the documentary, police officers, Criminal Investigation Division (CID) officials, intelligence agents and politicians may have been involved. As a result, he said there would be concerns about the impartiality of any local committee.

“We can’t be certain of the independence of such committees appointed locally,” he said. “That is why we are asking for the support of a foreign investigative team, which will be more independent.”

The spokesman said the church has no particular country or organization in mind to lead such a probe, and that it would be up to the government. But he stressed that an international, truly independent team is the only way to get to the bottom of the attacks.

The deputy high commissioner for human rights at the United Nations, Nada al-Nashif, agrees. On Monday, speaking to the Human Rights Council in Geneva, she reiterated calls for an impartial international inquiry into the bombings. “Truth-seeking alone is not sufficient, and must be accompanied by clear commitment to accountability,” she said.

A police officer inspects the explosion area at the Shangri-La hotel in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on April 21, 2019.   © Reuters

An international investigation, however, might not be a simple proposition.

N. K. Ashokbharan, a Colombo attorney, explained that such a probe is only possible with Sri Lanka’s consent. Even when it comes to investigating alleged war crimes during the Sri Lankan civil war — a subject of international law — he noted that an international inquiry has not materialized.

“It would be even more difficult in the context of the Easter attacks, as it is not a subject of international law per se. However, if Sri Lanka consents to an international inquiry, on a voluntary basis, it could occur,” he said. But he thinks such an outcome is unlikely. A “viable alternative,” he suggested, would be a domestic inquiry with international monitoring.

Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, Sri Lanka’s justice minister, said that when Wickremesinghe took over the presidency last year, he did consider bringing in Scotland Yard, the British police, but there was no response from the Catholic Church. “But this is something we can consider after a fruitful discussion,” he told Nikkei Asia.

The church’s Fernando suggested that an international team could supervise investigations by a new local CID squad. He emphasized that the local contingent should include officers who had been engaged in the investigations from the start. “More than 20 such officers have been transferred and they should be called back,” he insisted.

In 2021, it was revealed in Parliament that all the CID officers who were investigating the attack had been transferred.

An investigation marker is seen near potential evidence at St. Sebastian Catholic Church after the attack.   © Reuters

As things stand, few appear to have much faith in the fresh investigations.

Alan Keenan, a senior consultant with the International Crisis Group, said Wickremesinghe’s decision to appoint not one but two committees bodes ill.

“Commissions of inquiry and ad hoc committees have been used for decades as a way of obscuring the truth and avoiding accountability,” he said. “Given Sri Lanka’s long and ongoing tradition of impunity for political crimes and atrocities, and given that the main accused is the sitting head of the State Intelligence Service, it is hard to be hopeful of a breakthrough.”

Keenan added that the “more than a dozen states whose citizens were killed in the bombings have a particular duty and interest in seeing that the truth is found and justice is done.”

The rekindled controversy over the bombings highlights a broader issue of distrust between the government and public that has plagued Sri Lanka for years. Perceptions of widespread corruption and economic mismanagement fueled last year’s protests as the country slipped into default.

The nation is still picking up the pieces from that crisis as it prepares for the International Monetary Fund to conduct the first review of a $3 billion bailout agreement, starting Thursday.

Sneha Mindani, 14, one of the survivors of the April 2019 Easter Sunday bomb attack, wipes her tears as her father delivers a speech during a protest to demand justice on April 17, 2022.   © Reuters

Col. Ramani Hariharan, a retired Indian military intelligence specialist on South Asia, compared Wickremesinghe’s new committees to those established by Sirisena soon after the attacks. “It has become the characteristic of successive governments to appoint a parliamentary select committee and a presidential commission on any controversial national issues. After a few headlines on contrarian opinions aired in the media, the issue will be wished away from the public domain,” he predicted.

Hariharan doubts the government will recommend international involvement, as it would set a precedent for other investigations into alleged human rights violations against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam during the civil war, as demanded by the U.N. Human Rights Commission.

“The Ministry of Defense has already come out in defense of intelligence agencies. This is perhaps a signal on how the investigation is likely to end,” Hariharan said. “All this is part of the drama politicians like to enact in Sri Lanka. I don’t think the public have huge expectations of anything better.”