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The Catholic Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, knows exactly why most Sri Lankans are living through the worst times ever experienced in recent history. It’s the curse on the bloodstained leaders of the land.
“The true faces of the people behind the ruthless Easter Sunday attacks are evident. Although the conspirators could gain power, they could not sustain it, as their power was cursed by God. Maybe it is one of the main reasons why the country has not moved forward in any direction during the past two years,” the Cardinal told an anti-Government protest organised in Negombo last week.
“The present Government used the Easter Sunday attacks to regain power, by spreading fear and ethnic strife, especially among the Muslim communities. However, before too long we understood that it was an act of cowardly political conspiracy and urged people not to be deceived by such hatred to fellow Sri Lankans,” he said.
As the country marks the third anniversary of the deadly Easter Sunday bomb attacks on April 21, 2019, Sri Lanka is engulfed in a perfect storm of a scarcity of basic goods and services coupled with unrealistic prices and growing turmoil as the citizens strike back. Tuesday saw the first death when police fired at unarmed protesters in Rambukkana in the Kegalle District, killing one person and injuring 12. Fifty nine percent of people in the Rambukkana polling division voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa as their president.
“We really feel the government is cursed because of its involvement in the Easter Sunday attacks. From 2019 until today we, as a country as well as the government, have been going through a hell of a time,” Father Cyril Gamini Fernando, Director of the National Catholic Centre for Social Communications told Groundviews.
The Easter Sunday attacks occurred when Maithripala Sirisena was president and Ranil Wickremesinghe was prime minister under an unity government. It is no secret that it was completely disunited, especially at the latter stages when Mr. Wickremesinghe said he was not even invited to security briefings.
As dissent mounted against the government, the Cardinal extended the support of the Catholic Church to the protest at Galle Face, saying that changing Cabinet members was like changing the pillow to overcome a headache. Just two and a half years ago, the Cardinal was encouraging his flock to vote for the very same president and his government. What had changed?
“Since the attacks happened during the previous regime, many Catholics thought that if there is a change in government we will get justice because we couldn’t it from the regime that was in power. One of the current president’s main election campaign promises was to find the culprits behind the attacks,” explained Father Fernando.
He added that if the truth was not revealed, Sri Lanka was in danger of further attacks by the perpetrators who were still at large, so the government should show its bona fides by allowing the CID and the police to do their jobs. Father Fernando also called for an independent inquiry to ascertain the truth. “We have the hope that a new government will bring justice. We ask any parties who come to power to do this not just for the Catholics but for the whole country.”
Two main reports – the Select Committee of Parliament (PSC) report and the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCOI) – have come out about the attacks that killed 269 people and injured over 500. Over 45 foreign nationals were also killed in the wave of attacks on two Catholic churches, one evangelical church and three luxury hotels. Twenty five men, including alleged ring leader Mohamed Naufar, are being tried for the crimes.
Former IGP Pujith Jayasundara and former Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando were being prosecuted for failing to act on repeated intelligence warnings of a possible attack but they were released because of insufficient evidence. The PCOI found that former President Maithripala Sirisena was responsible for failing to prevent the attack and should be prosecuted.
Those arrested for involvement in the attacks have been detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, most without any legal redress. Many of them merely attended a lecture by former leader of the now-banned National Thowheed Jamath, Zahran Hashim, one of the suicide bombers, or went to a mosque to hear a radical moulavi.
Earlier this month Defence Secretary General Kamal Gunaratne said that 735 people have been taken into custody and 27 cases against 79 people have been filed. Another 29 suspects were being held under detention order by the police and CID and 493 persons have been released on bail. He said that the investigations had to be done thoroughly and were a time consuming taskwhile dismissing “baseless allegations” of the involvement of current leaders and security officials in the attacks.
In an extraordinary statement in December last year, General Gunaratne had to refute accusations of President Rajapaksa’s involvement in the attacks. “There are lot of allegations on social media that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the main mastermind of the Easter attacks. There is no truth in those allegations,” he told a press conference. He also denied that intelligence officers had instigated Zahran to carry out the bombings.
Why then is the Catholic church adamant that these efforts are not enough and that there is something rotten in the state of Sri Lanka?
“We are not saying that the actions they have taken so far are bad, they are good, but we are not satisfied with them,” Father Fernando said. He alleged that former Director of the State Intelligence Service (SIS) Nilantha Jayawardena had information about the attacks on April 4 but did nothing to prevent them despite receiving the names, phone numbers and addresses of the suicide bombers. “People who knew before hand and had information did not take action to prevent the attacks. It’s a criminal act because they did not act responsibly or carry out their duties.”
The main demand of the church is that the recommendations of the PCOI be carried out. “There are many high ranking police officers about whom the commission has made suggestions. The AG should see about filing criminal cases and others should have disciplinary inquiries. Some religious and nationalist organisations should be banned according to the recommendations,” Father Fernando pointed out.
He also called for the full Parliamentary Select Committee report to be released as well as the full PCOI report, which has not been seen by the public.
“It is not our duty to inquire into these things. The CID and the police should investigate and find the truth. If they can really implement the recommendations, then the truth will come out. We feel there are politicians who are not allowing the police to do their job independently. Since the attacks happened during the last regime so why can’t this government allow an independent inquiry into all these aspects?” Father Fernando asked.
No amount of compensation or medical treatment or rehabilitation will make victims’ families and survivors forget what happened that terrible day. “Innocent people who went to worship died. There are hundreds of wounded who will suffer until they die. They cannot forget. That is why we say justice should be done. The foundation of justice is the truth and the victims and country should know the truth about the attack,” Father Fernando said.
In November Father Fernando was taken in by the CID and interrogated for several hours over two and a half days about a statement he had made saying that intelligence units had provided financial and other assistance to Zahran. “I told them I repeating what had already been said in parliament. Former Attorney General Dappula de Livera also said there had been a grand conspiracy so I told them to ask him too.”
Mr. de Livera in May last year said that information by the SIS “with times, targets, places, method of attack and other information is clear evidence there was a grand conspiracy in place with regard to the April 21 2019 attack.”
Convinced that the government was not going to deliver the justice he was demanding, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith approached the Pope, who encouraged him to take the case before the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, where the Cardinal met UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet ahead of the 49th session of the UNHRC, which discussed Sri Lanka’s case.
According to Father Fernando, the Pope encouraged the Cardinal to carry on doing what he thought was right. In Geneva, UN human rights officials had said that they would push the government to deliver justice and have also put the matter on the agenda of the UNHRC. Another possibility was to complain to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) but since Sri Lanka was not party to the statute of the court, it was not obliged to participate in any cases. But several foreigners had lost their lives so their families could go to the ICJ, Father Fernando pointed out.
As far as the current political turmoil was concerned, Father Fernando insisted that the Church was not calling for regime change but a system change.
“We are not involved in party politics but in the political rights of people. We need some changes until there is a new Constitutionsuch as abolishing the 20th amendment and going back to the 19th amendment, after correcting any weaknesses in it. The Executive Presidency should be abolished.
“People want president to leave; the whole country and the young generation are asking for that. The struggle at Galle Face is a symbol of the voice of the people and we are with them. The government and president should listen,” Father Fernando stressed, pointing out that the franchise given by the 6.9 million people who voted for the government had now been lost.
“If they don’t listen to the people’s voices, violence will start. The economic crisis may make people violent. Then the government will be responsible for the situation,” he warned.