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What does justice for Easter attacks mean?

a year ago

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  • Archbishop, lawyers, and academic express plethora of views
BY Sumudu Chamara Despite promises by two Governments and many authorities regarding justice and also claims that the relevant investigations have concluded, the biggest bomb attacks that took place following the end of the war in 2009, i.e. the Easter Sunday attacks, remain among the most worrying national-level issues. Even though more legal actions are yet to be taken, a number of parties have expressed concerns about what the future of these investigations and cases would be like in a context where the legal action that has been taken, has not, according to them, resulted in acceptable results. While this matter has been one of the most widely discussed topics within Sri Lanka, recently, it was raised before the international community, and Colombo Archbishop His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith is seeking the international community’s support to get the justice he thinks Sri Lankan authorities have failed to deliver. Easter Sunday investigations The Archbishop is the key person that has been voicing concerns with regard to the Easter Sunday attacks investigations, who went on to meet Catholic Church Head Pope Francis and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (HR) Michelle Bachelet in order to raise his concerns. Most of his concerns were about the lack of action or inaction on the part of the authorities of the present Government. Speaking to the media recently, he expressed grave disapproval regarding the lack of progress as far as the Easter Sunday investigations are concerned. He stated that even after three years following the Easter Sunday attacks, there is absolutely no way to think that justice would be delivered for the victims of the attacks.  He claimed: “It is true that it was Islamist extremists who were directly behind the Easter Sunday attacks. But, intelligence officers and high-ranking police officers were well aware of the fact that the attacks were going to take place. We have evidence with regard to that, and the report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) appointed to look into the attacks also mentioned it. The report includes what was said before the PCoI; however, that evidence has been hidden by the Government and the Attorney General (AG). We have made requests for information about the few volumes of the report that were not released. However, despite those requests, both the former United National Front(UNF)-led Government and the incumbent Government have hidden that evidence.” The Archbishop further stated that even though the PCoI’s report has stated that certain persons were aware of the Easter Sunday attacks, they did not take any action, and therefore, action should be taken against them, adding, however, that the situation is such that due to the AG’s and the AG’s Department’s misconduct, justice is unlikely to be delivered.  He also expressed hope that a future Government will serve justice, adding that the current Government or the AG’s Department cannot be trusted. President’s Counsel (PC) Maithri Gunaratne, who has been vocal about the matter recently, also shared similar opinions. Speaking to The Morning, he said that it is not possible to be satisfied with the Easter Sunday attacks investigations. He also expressed concerns about those conducting the investigations into the Easter Sunday attacks.   “The manner in which the investigations were conducted, caused a lot of concern, and there were a lot of suspicions raised, especially by the Archbishop. He has been telling the Government that these investigations are not taking place properly. Once a team of investigators has commenced investigations from the time of the incident, they should have been able to continue with the investigation,” he said, stressing that when investigations are not happening according to what the people and the general public expect, then there is going to be frustration.  “But on the other hand, these investigations are not matters which can be concluded within 24 hours or within six months or one year. Sometimes, it takes a longer time. For instance, some of the investigations which have taken place in other parts of the world with regard to bomb attacks have gone on for 10 to 15 years, and it is after 10 to 15 years that those investigations were completed and charges were filed against those who have committed those attacks.” He expressed concerns about changing investigators in leading law enforcement and intelligence agencies when Governments change, and said that such agencies should not be interfered with. “When Governments change investigating agencies because they want to have their own people in those agencies, the general public thinks that the investigations are being conducted based on how the Government wants them to be conducted,” he said, adding that the officials of such agencies should be able to function without any fear or favour. “That is the main reason the Archbishop was angry and has been voicing his opinion. I think that it is fair because the investigations have not taken place properly,” he further said. Investigating extremism and prosecutions Meanwhile, Institute of National Security Studies (INSS) Director General Prof. Rohan Gunaratne, during a programme on Ada Derana English, spoke extensively about the nature of the Easter Sunday attacks and the investigations into it. He explained: “The Easter Sunday attacks, like many of the terrorist attacks we witnessed in 2019 worldwide, was driven by the misinterpretation of Islam. Religious extremism came from the ideologies that took root in Sri Lanka from the Gulf countries, and this religious extremism supplanted local and traditional Islam. It is very important for us to ensure that extremist forms of Islam do not take root in and expand in this country, because if it does, we will have more attacks like we suffered on Easter Sunday in 2019.” However, Prof. Gunaratne begged to differ with the countless allegations of a political hand being behind the Easter Sunday attacks. “One must be very, very clear about the alleged political involvement. This is not a terrorist attack by a State. There is no big political conspiracy behind these attacks. These attacks are a direct result of Islamist religious extremism, failure to regulate the religious space, and the neglect of national security.” He added: “Extremist institutions that enabled the attacks need to be dismantled. The Government has very efficiently and effectively incarcerated those who directly participated in the attacks. But, I believe that more work needs to be done to replace those extremist forms of Islam that took root here with more positive forms of Islam. The version of Islam that was preached here came from the Gulf. So we have to restore the local and traditional forms of Islam.” He also noted that even though defence, intelligence, and law enforcement have not changed from the former UNF-led Government’s era, at that time, political focus on national security was lacking. While there is a need to catch extremists who carried out the attacks, he said that Sri Lanka also has to ensure that those who neglected national security are brought to account. With regard to initiatives that have been taken concerning the Easter Sunday investigations, Prof. Gunaratne said: “Terrorism financing is the lifeblood of any organisation. In this regard, we have to orient our financial community, not only the government institutions, but also banks with regard to detecting criminal and terrorist financing concerning the collection, storage, and movement and dispersal stages of financing. We have created the Financial Intelligence Unit, but we need to train our military, law enforcement, and intelligence to track the money. Therefore, we have to do more training and more orientation of our security forces in that direction.” Pointing out the international community’s efforts aimed at curbing terrorism and extremism, he added: “It is very important for us to work together with the international community and international intelligence services so that there is proper justice that will be meted out and will deter any organisations that may emerge in the future that will support and participate in terrorism in this country.” Meanwhile, former Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) President and present Justice Ministry Senior Adviser Udaya Rohan De Silva PC explained the complexity of the investigations into the Easter Sunday attacks. He noted that it is not possible to compare the Easter Sunday investigations with other cases, because it is a complicated matter. “The particular Commission which was chaired by Supreme Court Judge Justice Janak de Silva, which has completed its investigations and has submitted its report, has suggested various things and has given their opinion about that. But, that does not mean that we can straightaway file cases. When it comes to this particular report, we have to wait till the AG decides whether to file indictments or not, because after the investigating part is done then they decide whether to file cases. So, for this purpose, it took a long time, and we have come to know that the Police have investigated these matters under the instructions of the AG, and that on the basis of those investigations, they are filing cases one by one in various parts of the country. They have filed cases and we are expecting the results in due course. It will take some time, and we cannot expect it to be finished in one or two months.” He pointed out that in the case of the attacks that took place on 11 September 2001 in the US, it took around 20 years to finalise the investigations and the cases. “These types of cases take some time. But, the Government’s duty is to expedite these matters after discussing with the AG,” De Silva added. Archbishop’s visit to Geneva, Switzerland One of the unexpected developments with regard to the Easter Sunday attacks is the Archbishop’s visit to the UN HR Council (UNHRC), where he alleged that the attacks were a part of a “grand political plot”. In his statement, he said: “The Easter Sunday suicide bomb attacks in Sri Lanka on 21 April 2019, claimed the lives of 269 persons, including 82 children and 47 foreign nationals belonging to 14 nations, and injured more than 500 others. The first impression of this massacre was that it was purely the work of a few Islamist extremists. However, subsequent investigations indicate that this massacre was a part of a grand political plot. Despite our repeated requests, and those of civil organisations pursuing the truth, the incumbent Government of Sri Lanka has failed to mete out justice to the victims. Instead of uncovering the truth behind the attacks and prosecuting those responsible, there are attempts to harass and intimidate those who clamour for justice. As a result, nearly three years after the horrendous crime, we are still in the dark as to what really happened on that Easter Sunday.” He requested the international community’s support to get justice, noting: “As this is a case of a serious violation of the fundamental rights of the aggrieved victims, we earnestly call upon the UNHRC and all its Member States to support the continuation of evidence gathering initiated by the council last year, and to devise a means to ensure an impartial investigation to unravel the truth behind the Easter Sunday massacre.” While the Archbishop’s visit to the UNHRC as well as the Pope attracted both criticism and appreciation, Gunaratne was of the opinion that there are a number of different aspects pertaining to those visits, and that they should be looked into carefully.  He added: “When it comes to the Archbishop’s visit to the UNHRC, I suppose that it is because he is frustrated over the fact that the anticipated results or bringing the perpetrators to book have not been accomplished. Therefore, he has been pressurising respective Governments saying that the investigations must go on. But, unfortunately, the results expected by him have not been achieved, and he has thought that he should take the matter to the Vatican and the UNHRC, which is not a good thing for Sri Lanka especially because we should be able to sort out our problems internally. When the internal mechanisms break down, and when there is political interference, especially when there is interference with the judicial processes, people lose faith.” He stressed that the people have lost faith in the Police and also in the judicial system. He noted that in a context where internal systems have collapsed, people such as the Archbishop visiting the UNHRC is understandable. He added that various people have had to voice their opinions before foreign bodies, because at least they feel that getting some kind of justice is possible, and that their cases will at least be discussed in the proper way.  He further said: “At the same time, the Archbishop and the Catholic church cannot expect things to happen exactly as they have planned or they want. All investigations and cases will have to be led by a proper investigation, and what comes out of investigations, irrespective of what the complainant or the aggrieved parties believe to be the case, should be based on solid evidence. Even the Archbishop has to be very careful when he speaks. He cannot speak without any responsibility, because the moment he comes out with an outburst, arresting someone will be necessary just to satisfy the Catholic church. That is also a completely unacceptable way in which investigations can take place, and the aggrieved party, or the Catholic church, also should be able to control itself. We understand that they are all very anxious about bringing the culprits to book, but we understand that we cannot harass innocent people in the process.” While justice for the victims of the attacks is the hope of the majority of Sri Lankans, the process of achieving that justice through investigations and prosecutions is a pressing concern for many people, due to various reasons including those mentioned by the Archbishop. Although justice is necessary and urgent, as the legal professionals explained, this is not an ordinary or simple incident, and therefore, every move should be supported by concrete evidence. In this context, while seeking justice is the ultimate goal, the means by which that justice is achieved is also extremely important.

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