Previous Sri Lanka government accused of blocking investigation into Easter bombings

Previous Sri Lanka government accused of blocking investigation into Easter bombings

Accusations are growing that the former Sri Lankan government, led by strongman president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, blocked an investigation into the country’s worst terrorist attack amid claims that they had helped orchestrate the blasts in order to return to power.

In the attacks on Easter Sunday in 2019, six suicide bombers targeted churches and luxury hotels across the country, killing 269 people, including eight British tourists.

But almost five years on, an investigation has failed to provide any answers for how the attacks took place and the security failures that led up to them. So far, there have been no criminal convictions.

Instead, people previously involved in the investigation, and the leader of Sri Lanka’s Catholic church, have alleged that inquiries were repeatedly sabotaged and obstructed by the Rajapaksa government.

In a recent documentary for Channel 4’s Dispatches, a whistleblower alleged that the attacks were part of a plan to create instability in Sri Lanka and ensure that Rajapaksa, a member of Sri Lanka’s most powerful political family, would win the presidential elections in 2019

The source said he had helped an intelligence officer with close ties to the Rajapaksa family meet members of the local Islamist militant group, National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ), that carried out the attack. He said it had been part of a plan that had been hatched over a couple of years to create an “unsafe” security situation that would help bring Rajapaksa to power.

The Rajapaksa family had ruled Sri Lanka for almost a decade from 2005. They were credited with ending its bloody, 26-year-long civil war but became notorious for their authoritarian methods, including the use of “death squads” to target critics and journalists.

Mahinda Rajapaksa was ousted in 2015 after a backlash against alleged corruption, but the family had planned a return to power in the 2019 election, this time with younger brother Gotabaya as the presidential candidate.

He won the election but was toppled dramatically from power in July last year, after the country experienced a catastrophic economic crisis, and replaced by Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is seen as close to the Rajapaksa family.

Ravi Seneviratne, the former director general of police who initially led the Easter attacks investigation, told the Observer that after Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president, the government had “prevented the investigation”.

He said his team had already “established links” between state and military intelligence officers and the NTJ suicide bombers. He said that the investigations had also led him to believe there was someone higher up helping to coordinate the attack who had yet to be apprehended.

However, when Rajapaksa took office, Seneviratne’s entire team at CID was taken off the case. More than 20 of his officers were transferred without his approval and travel bans were imposed on all 700 CID officers.

“The motive was to make them too scared to send a message. Many were too scared to work and some people even applied for transfers out of CID,” he said. Since then, Seneviratne claims there have been several attempts to “keep me quiet”.

The targeting of those involved in the investigation took a murkier turn this month after the attorney general told the courts that there had been a conspiracy to murder Shani Abeysekara, the former head of Sri Lanka’s CID, who was overseeing the investigation before he was suddenly removed when the Rajapaska government came to power.

A court petition filed by Abeysekara, which was taken up this month, said a plan to kill him in a staged vehicle accident had been uncovered. The petition identifie dhis involvement in the bombing investigation as one of the reasons for the assassination attempt.

Upul Jayasuriya, the lawyer representing Abeysekara, said that his client’s involvement in the Easter bombing investigation was “one of the biggest problems”. Still fearful for his life, Abeysekara declined to comment directly on the case.

Last year, Abeysekara went public with allegations that prior to the attacks – when the CID was already investigating NTJ militants – state and military intelligence officers had sabotaged the investigation and “fabricated” evidence to divert investigators away from the group, including ringleader Zahran Hashim, who later carried out one of the suicide bombings.

He has also alleged that his attempts to raise the issue of NTJ militants with the national security council had been obstructed. After the Easter bombings, he said, his investigators had established links and vidence of communication between intelligence officials and members of the NTJ group that carried out the attacks.

Former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa speaks during a news conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on 15 October 2019.
The then president Gotabaya Rajapaksa speaks during a news conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on 15 October 2019. Photograph: Eranga Jayawardena/AP

Another former CID officer who was part of an investigation into NTJ militants months before the bombings, and who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons, confirmed the accounts.

“There were several attempts that were made by the military intelligence and state intelligence to sabotage the criminal investigation department’s work,” he said.

While more than 200 people have been charged in the investigation, so far no one has been convicted, and there have been no answers on how several specific high-level warnings about the imminent attacks, particularly from Indian intelligence, were ignored.

In January, former president Maithripala Sirisena, who was in power at the time of the attacks, was ordered by the supreme court to pay millions in compensation to the victims.

Following the Dispatches revelations, the Sri Lankan government said it had set up a special parliamentary committee to investigate allegations, but sources said that no one had been called to testify before it.

A recent statement by the ministry of defence said the government “vehemently denounces the accusation of orchestrating the attack and assisting the bombers against a dedicated senior military officer who has served the nation for 36 years”.

The ministry added that “successive Sri Lankan governments have demonstrated an unwavering commitment to uncovering the truth”. Gotabaya Rajapaksa could not be reached for comment.

Among the harshest critics of the ongoing failures is Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, head of the Catholic church in Sri Lanka, who alleges there was a cover-up from the highest levels of government.

“When Gotabaya Rajapaksa came to power, he appointed a stooge to take over the case who made a blunder of all investigations,” he said. “We know that there are several occasions when evidence was deliberately covered up. They have made a mockery of transparency, a mockery of accountability and a mockery of democracy.”

Ranjith added: “We are demanding a transparent, accountable investigation where the politicians don’t meddle with the investigators.”

For the families of the victims, the lack of justice has been excruciating. “I ask God every day to take us too. How can we live with this pain?” said Sebastian Patrick Fernando, 74, who lost his son Neranjan in the attack on St Sebastian’s Church in Negombo.

“We voted for the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government thinking they would give us answers. But they have done nothing, and now people say they did it to come to power. They should be held responsible.”

Thilina Harshani, who was paralysed from the waist down and lost her six-year-old son in the blast, also blames the government for inaction. “Why did this happen to us?” she said. “Why did they bomb our church? Why were we targeted? And why are the masterminds still on the loose?”