Sri Lankan Cardinal Laments Slow Pace, Possible Corruption in Easter Attacks Investigation

Cardinal Ranjith said there are many survivors who still carry the scars, both physical and emotional, from the terrorist attacks on Easter Sunday in 2019.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo in his cathedral city, Jan. 13, 2015.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo in his cathedral city, Jan. 13, 2015. (photo: National Catholic Register / Alan Holdren/CNA.)

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — The Archbishop of Colombo highlighted the frustrations of his people over the perceived lack of investigation and prosecutions related to Sri Lanka’s 2019 Easter Sunday bombings, which killed nearly 270 people. 

Although the trial of the suspected masterminds behind the attacks is underway, doubt remains as to whether government officials were negligent in responding to warnings about possible impending attacks.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith said during a recent press conference that there is evidence that Sri Lankan officials had advance warning of the attacks thanks to foreign intelligence, but “did nothing.”

“In fact, the Government seems to have done its best to prevent the arrest of the attackers. There are indications that the authorities wanted the attacks to be carried out,” the cardinal said during the March 14 press conference organized by Aid to the Church in Need. 

The coordinated suicide bombings on three churches, four hotels, and one housing complex on April 21, 2019, Easter Sunday, took place while Masses and religious services were held. The suicide bombers are believed to have been members of radical Islamist groups with ties to the Islamic State. It was the first major terrorist attack in Sri Lanka since the end of the country’s civil war in 2009. 

The cardinal said further investigations will be needed “to understand whether those with vested interests did not act on intelligence so as to create chaos and instill fear and uncertainty in the lead up to the presidential election to be held later that same year.”

“There is a sense of frustration people are experiencing. We have many questions, and the entire public is asking for answers. Why is it that those who were recommended for prosecution are not being prosecuted by the legal authorities? There are some areas indicated in the Parliament Committee report for further investigation, but they are not being investigated, why?” the cardinal asked. 

Cardinal Ranjith said there are many survivors who still carry the scars, both physical and emotional, of the terrorist attacks.

“A man who lost his wife committed suicide three months ago, leaving his three daughters orphans. Another man who lost his wife and three children was living with his mother-in-law, but he had to leave and he went and slept in the cemetery, where his family is buried. Another woman was a dance teacher, but the explosion left her bedridden. She has a small child, but meanwhile her husband left her. The suffering she is going through is tremendous.”

Cardinal Ranjith, who met with Pope Francis at the Vatican in late February, has consistently been critical of the government's handling of information prior to the bombing, and of its investigations since.

Maithripala Sirisena, who was president of Sri Lanka at the time of the attacks, created a five-person commission to investigate the attacks. The commission’s final report was presented to current President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in February 2021, but its contents were not shared with the Church or with the attorney general. 

The refusal to release the contents of the report has led to criticism, with fears that corruption or negligence have prevented the prosecution of collaborators in the attack. 

The trial of 25 of the men currently accused of masterminding the attacks began in November 2021, and could last for years. In October 2020, five suspects arrested in connection with the attacks were released by the government, on the stated grounds of lack of evidence.

In a July 2021 letter, the country’s Catholic leaders criticized the “lethargic pace” of a government inquiry into the terrorist attacks on churches, and questioned why recommendations brought by the official inquiry into the attacks have not yet been acted upon.

In September 2021, the cardinal reiterated his call for a “transparent investigation, which ascertains instigators and responsibility for the Easter attacks.” He said, “the Church and the entire nation, shocked by terrorism, have the right to know the truth, have the right to receive justice.”

Cardinal Ranjith said he fears that the government “does not want to find out the truth about the attack,” adding that “it wants to cover up everything and wash its hands.”

Last month, a Sri Lankan court acquitted two former security officials who had been charged with negligence relating to the bombings. Pujith Jayasundara, who was Inspector General of Police, and Hemasiri Fernando, who was permanent secretary to the Ministry of Defense, had been accused of failing to act on warnings of an imminent attack given by foreign intelligence agencies. 

After being arrested in July 2019, the two officials were cleared of the charges against them in Sri Lanka‘s High Court Feb. 18. The former security officials have said that former president Sirisena didn’t follow protocol in responding to national security threats, and was dismissive of the warnings.