Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Times
There are many things that I remember today, April 21, 2023 in relation to Easter Sunday attacks four years ago.
Images of damage to the churches and hotels is among the vivid images I recall. These were quickly rebuilt. Except for memorials in churches, the rebuilding may help erase memories of the tragedy from the churches and hotels.
I also recall terrible images of the dead and injured. But more than these, I remember the families of those killed that I met in Negombo, Batticaloa and Nuwara Eliya (families of those killed in Kochchikade church in Colombo) and also a father of a hotel staff member killed. I also remember those injured, including people who are still seeking medical care in Sri Lanka and overseas and their families. Their physical, emotional and financial struggles, tears, grief and pain indicates their lives are far from being rebuilt.
I also remember an image of at least one Muslim man who was killed in violence against Muslims after the attacks and the Muslim shops and houses torched at that time. I remember the asylum seekers and refugees around Negombo who were evicted, re-displaced and became homeless days after attacks, having come to seek temporary refuge in Sri Lanka due to the persecution they faced in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
I also remember the many Muslims who were detained unjustly for months and years after the attacks, including women with children, especially from Kathankudy. Among the cases that drew national and international attention was of young Muslim poet and teacher Ahnaf Jazeem, whose poetry had stinging critiques of Muslims responsible for the attacks and moving expressions of solidarity with survivors and victims’ families. Another was of Muslim lawyer and activist Hejaaz Hizbullah, who had publicly condemned the Easter attacks. I also remember his family who I got to know after his detention and families of others detained on suspicion of being involved in the attacks, all of whom had suffered greatly irrespective of the guilt or innocence of detainees.
I also remember that Sri Lankan criminal justice system, including investigators, prosecutors and the judiciary, have not been able to hold those responsible for attacks accountable for four years. The former Secretary to Ministry of Defense and former Inspector General of Police (IGP) were acquitted from cases filed against them without evidence even being called from the defense. Other criminal cases filed by the Attorney General on behalf of the state and people are still going on. Fundamental rights cases filed by some concerned citizens led to the Supreme Court holding the former president and senior officials responsible for not preventing the attacks and ordering them to pay compensation. The amounts were small compared to previous amounts awarded by the Supreme Court to torture victims and there was no directive to hold them responsible for criminal negligence. The court had ruled to remove the then prime minister and current president Ranil Wickremesinghe from the case before the judgement, citing presidential immunity.
I remember that the private plaint filed in September 2022 against former president Maithripala Sirisena in the Fort Magistrate Court, alleging that he had failed to discharge his duties as the Minister of Defence is still pending. I also remember that there is still no response to the April 2022 police complaint and May 2022 letter to the police chief demanding the arrest of Nilantha Jayawardana, the former director of the State Intelligence Services (SIS). As far as I know no disciplinary action has been taken against him despite the Supreme Court orders to this effect in January 2023. I also remember that no action has been taken against Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police (SDIG) Deshabandu Tennakoon despite a Presidential Commission of Inquiry recommending disciplinary action for not doing his duties to prevent the attacks and a Special Police Investigative Division recommending to press charges against him for negligence. I also remember that it took nearly two years for the former Attorney General to be summoned for questioning in relation to his statement to media in May 2021 that there was a “grand conspiracy” with regard to the Easter attacks and media reports today indicating his refusal to appear for questioning, and that overall there is little interest in looking at “masterminds” or those most responsible for the attacks beyond those who carried them out.
I remember the long time spent for conversations with foreign journalists, researchers, international organizations, diplomats andUN officials about attacks but that international attention has been minimal after the immediate aftermath. Since September 2021,after being visibly absent for two years, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has gradually increased references to theattacks in reports on Sri Lanka to the Human Rights Council. The last report in October 2022 included calls for independent and transparent investigation with international assistance. I also remember the case filed in the US against three suspects in relation to the attacks on charges linked to supporting ISIS. As far as I know, no other country has initiated criminal prosecutions although itis the largest massacre of foreign nationals in Sri Lanka during or after the war.
I remember the reprisals against people and inititaives seeking truth and justice. On April 19, police in Negombo tried stop a protest march and rally demanding justice by seeking a court order, which the Acting Magistrate refused. On April 9, Easter Sunday, police had banned the use of banners, black flags and loudspeakers during a vehicle parade from St. Nicholas Church in Bopitiya to St. Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya (the church most affected by the attacks) demanding truth and justice. A media report accused three prominent Catholic priests advocating for truth and justice of conspiring against the Catholic Archbishop of Colombo. Shehan Malaka, an outspoken youth activist who publicly made an allegation of political conspiracy, was arrested and although he was released on bail, a case has been filed against him in the Colombo High Court.
I remember the many churches I have been to in the war ravaged Jaffna and Mannar Catholic dioceses that had been attacked by the armed forces such as Navaly Church, Gurunagar church, Allaipiddy church, Pesalei church and Madhu church resulting in death and injury to many Tamil civilians. There has been no criminal accountability and adequate compensation for these and many other serious crimes during the three decades long war including the extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances of Catholic priests, journalists and others including Father Karunaratnam who was killed on April 20, 2008. I also remember that mosques and Buddhist temples have been attacked by the LTTE leading to many deaths.
I remember that in the 11 Sundays preceding Easter Sunday in 2019, there had been some disruption at a Christian church service and that at least 13 churches and one person had been affected in nine districts with about 35 incidents and about 70 violations against Christians being reported in 2019 prior to Easter Sunday attacks. Violations reported include disrupting a service, assault, death threats, shouting obscenities, damage to property, forcible entry while services were ongoing, throwing stones and gathering outside places of worship in a threatening manner. Those leading prayers, hosting prayer services and participants had been threatened and obscene language used against them. Such incidents have continued in the four years since the Easter Sundayattacks.
Finally, I remember the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) under which I and many other critics of the state have been arrested and detained. The PTA terrorised Tamils with many being subjected to arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention and torture. It led tothe detention of innocents for upto 16 years. The PTA failed to prevent the Easter Sunday attacks despite information from Muslims over several years and intelligence reports from national and foreign agencies. But the PTA was quickly deployed to terrorise Muslims. The use of the PTA to arrest and detain Sinhalese student activists last year led to increased discourse about the PTA. The Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) proposed as a replacement to the PTA is unlikely to prevent possible future attacks but is likely to terrorise ordinary people, especially ethnic and religious minorities and dissenters.
There is indeed a lot to remember about Easter Sunday attacks. My prayers are for justice for all; a holistic form of justice that includes financial, emotional, legal and other forms of support for survivors and victims’ families. It would include acknowledgement and disclosure of the whole truth starting from full publication of the reports of all inquiries. Criminal accountability for those responsible, especially those most responsible. Most importantly, justice must mean preventing such attacks in the future.