Easter Sunday attacks probe: Pressure continues to mount on Govt.

Image caption: Families and loved ones of victims of the Easter Sunday attacks gathered at Katuwapitiya St. Sebastian’s Church for the second year memorial service this year
Photo Pradeep Dambarage

  • Former SIS Chief and other officials to be added as state witnesses

By Yoshitha Perera

Following the conclusion of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) and several committees tasked with investigating the co-ordinated Easter Sunday terror attacks of 2019, the question still remains whether these final reports and the current pace of the investigation are sufficient to take legal action against those responsible.

While many, including Archbishop of Colombo His Eminence Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, have expressed their disappointment over the probe, the Government is of the view that litigation will be pursued based on the facts and recommendations presented in the final report of the PCoI.

Ongoing investigation process

Sharing his views with The Sunday Morning, Presidential Secretariat Director General – Legal Affairs Harigupta Rohanadeera said that at present, 10 cases (see Table 1) related to the Easter Sunday terror attacks are ongoing, which include six Trials-at-Bar and four High Court matters.

He said the main trial of the attacks is set to begin in September.

Rohanadeera said the PCoI’s fact-finding process was conducted without considering the provisions in the Evidence Ordinance or any other Act, which poses a challenge. “When we file indictments, we have to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt. Therefore, it is very difficult to file indictments against former President Maithripala Sirisena and former State Intelligence Service (SIS) Director SDIG (Senior Deputy Inspector General) Nilantha Jayawardena.”

He said that Jayawardena has been named as a state witness before the special Trial-at-Bar, and added that there will be more state witnesses in the main case.

“Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya appointed a special High Court Trial-at-Bar on 31 August to hear the main case of the Easter Sunday terror attacks. The main case was filed against 25 accused, including Naufer Moulavi, Sajid Moulavi, Mohammed Milhan, Sadik Abdullah, Aadham Lebbe (alias Gafoor Mama), Mohammed Sanasdeen, and Mohammed Rizwan,” he said.

While adding that the Attorney General (AG) filed 23,270 charges against the accused, Rohanadeera claimed that they were connected to the eight attacks carried out at St. Anthony’s Church in Kochchikade, St. Sebastian’s Church in Katuwapitiya, Zion Church in Batticaloa, The Kingsbury in Colombo, Shangri-La Hotel in Colombo, Cinnamon Grand Colombo, Tropical Inn in Dehiwala, and the housing complex in Dematagoda.

He stated that the three-member Trial-at-Bar would be led by High Court Judge Damith Thotawatta and would comprise High Court Judges Amal Ranaraja and Nawaratne Marasinghe as members.

He stated that initially, three inquiries were carried out by the former Government right after the attacks, adding: “The first was carried out by the (Vijith) Malalgoda Committee, which was appointed by the former President; the second and third inquiries were carried out by the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) and Sectoral Oversight Committee (SOC) (on National Security), respectively.”

Later, the PCoI was appointed by the former Government on 21 September 2019, before the last presidential election. It commenced recording fresh evidence again from several witnesses, including some key witnesses who were suspected of being directly involved in the attacks and it also explored some areas that were untouched by the two previous committees, Rohanadeera said.

“The PCoI went on a fact-finding mission that involved recording nearly 1,888 statements from 800 witnesses. The final report of the PCoI, which contains 38,000 pages, was submitted on 1 February 2021,” he added.

Rohanadeera further noted that after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected at the end of 2019, he had asked Archbishop Cardinal Ranjith whether it was necessary to change the mandate of the PCoI. “At that time, the Cardinal stated that there was no need to change the mandate or the functioning process of the Commission; he said to continue it with the same members.”

Without revealing specific details, Rohanadeera brought attention to four incidents that occurred in 2018 that were directly connected to the Easter Sunday terror attacks.

“After submitting the final report to former Attorney General (AG) Dappula de Livera with the video evidence recorded via a camera (relating to these four incidents), the AG took nearly five months to observe the findings and to file cases in that regard,” he noted.

Table 1: Details of the 10 ongoing cases 

Case Number of accused Court 
1.wOperating a training facility with explosives in the Ollikulam area in Batticaloa (under the Prevention of Terrorism Act [PTA]) 2Colombo High Court 
2.Assassination of two police constables in Vavunathivu (under PTA)4Puttalam High Court 
3.Vandalising Buddha statues in Mawanella (under PTA)16Kegalle High Court 
4.Manufacturing explosives in Lacktowatta, Wanathawilluwa (under PTA)6Puttalam High Court 
5. The case against Attorney-at-Law Hejaaz HizbullahPuttalam High Court 
6.Attempted murder of Taslim, MP Kabir Hashim’s Co-ordinating Secretary3Kandy High Court 
7.Explosives raided in Palamunai3Colombo High Court 
8.The case against former Inspector General of Police (IGP) Pujith JayasundaraSpecial Trial-at-Bar, Colombo
9.Case against former Defence Secretary Hemasiri FernandoSpecial Trial-at-Bar, Colombo
10.Main case related to the Easter Sunday attacks25Special Trial-at-Bar, Colombo

Church to talk with Govt.?

In response to Minister of Foreign Affairs Prof. G.L. Peiris’ request for a meeting with Archbishop Cardinal Ranjith, the Catholic Church last Wednesday (1) stated that the Government must first demonstrate the credibility and transparency of the investigations into the Easter Sunday attacks.

National Catholic Social Communication Centre Director and Kurana St. Anne’s Church Parish Priest Rev. Fr. Cyril Gamini Fernando said that although the Archbishop is open to a discussion, it would only take place if certain conditions are fulfilled beforehand.

“In his response to Prof. Peiris, the Archbishop said that the meeting can only happen if certain requirements are first met. It is critical to gain public faith in the investigations, particularly among the Catholic community. The public must see that the PCoI recommendations are being implemented at least in part. The Government is in charge of fostering this trust,” Fr. Fernando said.

Prof. Peiris has asked to meet the Archbishop of Colombo to brief him on the Government’s progress on bringing justice to victims of the Easter Sunday terror attacks, in order to avoid any international pressure being applied to Sri Lanka, he added.

Meanwhile, according to a press statement from the Foreign Ministry, the matter of the investigations into the Easter Sunday attacks was discussed during a meeting between Apostolic Nuncio to Sri Lanka Archbishop Brian Udaigwe and Foreign Minister Prof. Peiris on 31 August.

According to the statement issued by the Foreign Ministry, the Papal Nuncio expressed his deep gratitude for the attention paid to the Catholic Church and Catholics in Sri Lanka, despite the fact that they are a minority. He also stated that he has not seen equal respect given to Catholics in other nations.

The Apostolic Nuncio advised that a meeting with a Committee of the Bishops’ Conference be scheduled as soon as possible, so that the Government could discuss the relevant problems with church representatives. The Minister expressed his gratitude for the opportunity and stated that the Government is gathering all relevant material from the AG’s Department, the Police Department, and other relevant state authorities in order to present complete information at the meeting with the Church.