Deep wounds in Sri Lanka five years since Easter bombings

Among the dead were 45 foreigners, including tourists visiting the island a decade after the end of a brutal civil war

April 21, 2024 09:13 am | Updated 09:13 am IST - Colombo

The New Wings activists take part in a silent protest demanding justice of the 2019 Easter Sunday suicide attack, in Colombo on April 20, 2024.

The New Wings activists take part in a silent protest demanding justice of the 2019 Easter Sunday suicide attack, in Colombo on April 20, 2024. | Photo Credit: AFP

Sri Lanka marks on April 21 five years since Islamist bombers slaughtered 279 people in the island's deadliest suicide attack, but grieving families say they are still waiting for justice.

Government employee Saman Sirimanna, 59, and his wife Sriyani, 57, lost their two children when a suicide bomber stormed into St. Anthony's church in the capital Colombo on Easter Day 2019.

It was part of a wave of attacks that included three luxury hotels and two other churches in the majority Buddhist nation.

Mr. Sirimanna said his 19-year-old son and 22-year-old daughter had gone to "seek blessings" for good exam results.

"My loss is irreplaceable", Mr. Sirimanna told AFP, with tears in his eyes. "My children will never return."

Among the dead were 45 foreigners, including tourists visiting the island a decade after the end of a brutal civil war.

Mr. Sirimanna is bitter over delays in court proceedings and a dragging investigation into the bombings.

A court last year ruled that Sri Lanka's ex-president and top officials had failed to heed urgent warnings that the attacks were imminent.

‘Hope’ for justice

An inquiry into the bombings found the attacks were the work of a homegrown jihadist group that declared an affiliation with the Islamic State group.

But survivors and bereaved families are demanding a proper investigation into claims of links between the bombers and Sri Lankan intelligence officials.

"I am the first person who filed legal action," Mr. Sirimanna said. "I went to court because the authorities did not carry out their responsibilities."

Evidence tendered during a civil case brought by Mr. Sirimanna and other relatives of the dead showed that Indian intelligence officials warned Colombo of the attack more than two weeks earlier.

The Supreme Court ruled last year that top officials, including then-president Maithripala Sirisena, had been negligent in failing to prevent the bombings. Mr. Sirisena was in Singapore on the day of the attacks.

It ordered the defendants to pay 310 million rupees ($1 million) in compensation to victims and relatives.

But the ruling has yet to be fully implemented as Mr. Sirisena has appealed the order.

"The court gave them six months to pay — they didn't," Mr. Sirimanna said, noting the next hearing in the case is scheduled for July.

"We hope at least then there will be some justice," he added.

‘Hanging on to the Lord’

Successive governments have failed to probe media claims that Suresh Sallay, a top military intelligence official linked to former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, had connections with the bombers.

Mr. Rajapaksa, a retired army officer, won a landslide presidential election seven months after the attacks, campaigning on a pledge to keep Sri Lanka safe.

He appointed Mr. Sallay as head of Sri Lanka's main intelligence agency.

Mr. Rajapaksa was ousted around two years ago when protesters stormed his compound during an unprecedented economic crisis.

His successor, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, announced a probe into Mr. Sallay's relationship with the attackers last September.

But there has been no public announcement of its progress — and the intelligence chief remains in his role.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has urged an independent investigation with international help to establish the "full circumstances" of the bombings.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the leader of the Catholic church in Sri Lanka, said the lack of a credible investigation had shaken people's trust in the government.

"We have been critical of government people and various authorities over and over again, but no positive response has come," he told AFP.

"We are now hanging on to the Lord to settle this matter in order to find out what really happened, pleading with him to take us from ignorance to knowledge."

Mr. Ranjith will attend a remembrance service for the victims at St. Sebastian's church on Sunday, one of the places attacked in 2019.

"We are not interested in punishing anybody, but we are interested to know why somebody did that to these people," he said. "They have a right to know."

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