By Lionel Bopage –
It is three years since the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka. Yet no substantial headway has been made in the investigation into this atrocity. Previously government reports indicated that nearly 700 suspects were being held. Many of them have been held “awaiting trial” for extremely long times under the draconian and opaque Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), without ever being charged of any offence. Lest we forget, the PTA was enacted in 1979 as a temporary measure. It was presented in parliament, debated, and enacted all in one day.
It has allowed the authorities to conduct arrests without warrant for unspecified “unlawful activities”. It also permits detention of the arrested individuals for up to 18 months without producing them before a magistrate. Most people arrested under the PTA have been physically and/or mentally tortured while in custody, and most often convictions rely on confessions obtained under torture. This process of turning the judicial system upside down started with the SLFP led LSSP, CP coalition when they established the Criminal Justice Commission Act No 14 of 1972. Both parties have routinely used it to jail their critics and those who wish to expose the human rights violations, and economic and corrupt criminal activities of those holding power.
The issue of the Tamil political prisoners held under the PTA for more than decade is an ongoing thorny issue affecting the ethnic relations in Sri Lankan society. Of the many recent cases, Mr Hejaaz Hizbullah’s detention under the PTA, appears typical. This respected lawyer and minority rights activist was arrested in April 2020, and the prosecutors made many baseless allegations against him. Many attempts appeared to have been made to frame him up on trumped up charges. There do not seem to be any justification at all for his detention.
What makes it even worse is when we consider the fact that several preparators of past crimes have been allowed to go scot free, even after they had been convicted under the due process of the law, for the crimes they had previously committed. We wonder whether such detentions that made those detenues voiceless, have been used to make an escape route for the real preparators of the Easter bomb attacks. Whatever that may be, we should not allow the real perpetrators of those heinous crimes to get away scot free.
To revisit the attacks, on 21 April 2019, three churches and three luxury hotels in Colombo, were targeted in a series of coordinated Islamist terrorist suicide bombings. In addition, there were smaller explosions in Dematagoda and Dehiwala. 269 people were killed. Among them were at least 45 foreigners, three police officers, and eight bombers. At least 500 were injured. The State Intelligence Service spoke of a planned second wave of attacks was planned, which did not materialise. The first Indian intelligence about these bombings had come about three weeks prior to the bombings. Furthermore, several local Muslim groups had also notified the security and intelligence services about the threat posed by these radical Islamists. Why were such credible warnings neglected with no action taken?
The Sri Lankan Police launched an investigation into the bombings in tandem with assistance provided by six foreign police agencies that included Scotland Yard, FBI, National Investigation Agency (NIA) and Interpol. In April 2019 , Mr Nagananda Kodituwakku filed a Fundamental Rights petition directing the Attorney General to institute criminal action against the country’s senior political, civil and security officials for their alleged negligence. Among them were President Maithripala Sirisena, who is currently a Member of Parliament and former President and current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse.
The government has failed to deliver justice for the Easter bomb victims, as it has done on numerous times avoiding delivering justice to victims of state sponsored violence. This miscarriage of justice started with the provision of impunity to the state security forces that encouraged their deadly violence and other human rights violations. Such violations inflicting deadly consequences were neither restricted to nor perpetrated against any one single community. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights recently urged Sri Lankan authorities to reform its judicial and security systems so as to put an end to this impunity and thwart any recurrence of such violations. The ruling elite in Sri Lanka is doing its best to circumvent such reforms.
Last Sunday, the April 17th, many Sri Lankans in Australia and all over the world, rallied against the lack of progress in finding those responsible for the Easter bombing carnage. The protestors demanded the regime find the real conspirators behind the attacks. Almost all victims, many of the Sri Lankans and the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka are not satisfied with the government investigation. Much to the anger and pain of the victims’ families and friends, progress has been patchy at best. As Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith said, the true conspirators could still be at large. He further alleged in public that some members of state intelligence knew and had met with at least one attacker.
Why are the authorities reluctant to investigate such matters as a matter of urgency? The victims, their families, supporters and the Church contend that action has not been taken against the former President Maithripala Sirisena and the former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. This despite a commission of inquiry finding both of them culpable for their failures to prevent those bomb attacks. Current President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, of whom Sirisena is a key ally, came to power in November 2019 pledging to end extremist attacks in Sri Lanka.
A commission of inquiry appointed by the government in its report had even recommended that criminal proceedings be initiated against Sirisena for the failure of his responsibilities. It had been more than a year now since that report. Yet no action had been taken against him. Sirisena’s duplicitous actions – on the one hand being critical of the regime, and at the same time protecting the regime has prevented any criminal proceedings from being initiated against him. The church also held the view that the inquiry found the former Prime Minister Ranil was lax in his attitude towards the rising Islamist extremism. It was one of the reasons for the failure on the part of the previous regime to stop the attack, despite the availability of multiple sources of intelligence on impending attacks.
It is under this unacceptable history of the misuse of PTA and its dismal failure to hold the real criminals to account, we need to call upon the Sri Lanka government to comply with its international human rights obligations. We do this as a matter of urgency cognisant of the fact that the inefficiency, unreliability and political manipulations over the decades have resulted in there being no reliable means of ensuring justice to all the past victims. Already there is an example when live bullets were fired at protesters in Rambukkana, killing one and injuring many. Exposed are many attempts at covering up and tampering with evidence at the scene of the crime, where state forces appeared to have created a pretext for intervention by setting fire to a three wheeler.
State’s hand in kidnappings, forced disappearances, killings, bombings and other acts of crimes against humanity that have occurred under the watch of the two main political groupings have hampered the availability of such a justice seeking mechanism. The fight for justice, like in the case of the victims of the Easter bombings appears to have been thwarted or stalled. Failure of the authorities to deliver any meaningful justice will force us to seek assistance of the international community. The future, may be in the long term, will determine who were the real culprits behind such dastardly criminal activities. We need to do whatever possible towards expediting that process.