Three years from the Easter Sunday attacks, we are still grappling with the impact on families affected by the bombings, the empty promises for justice, and the continued misuse of the PTA to target and harass minorities.
Story & Analysis by Amalini De Sayrah Edited by Aisha Nazim Translated by Fairooz Mohamed and Nishadi Gunatilake
Tied to the fence along the edge of the Port City, directly facing the Presidential Secretariat, is a dark blue poster painted with what appears to be crosses that are dripping blood.
‘Owunge lé swargaye mora denneya - numba polothalaya matha saapa laddhek wewa’ — ‘their blood cries out in heaven - on earth, may you be cursed’.
Justice for the victims of the Easter Sunday attacks take a central role in the calls for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his family to ‘go home’, after their continued failure to protect the country from multiple crises; including the economic crisis, the electricity crisis, and the health sector crisis.
Three years on, we take a look at where things are now, across two fronts. Firstly, the victims of the attack, and the justice that was promised to them by this government. Secondly, the Muslims arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), often for baseless allegations, and to shift responsibility away from the state that failed to protect its people.
At the front of *Veena’s house, a small shop front remains closed. Between the income she makes from this business and her husband’s government job, she says they are fairly stable, financially at least.
She lost her youngest child, an eight year old boy, to the bombings. His face adorns every wall of the house, with a tall funeral poster still tacked up at the end of the long verandah.
The impact of the attack lingers in a different way too, in the shrapnel lodged in her second daughter’s cheek. While some of the invasive material was removed during initial operations, what she calls a ‘cycle ball’ remains embedded in her upper jaw. She has been through several operations but will require more to have it completely removed.
As a result, the young girl, now 16, harbours a lot of anger towards her mother, perceiving her to be responsible for the family. During her visits to various medical professionals, she asks them if they can give her what she needs — which is, to have her brother back. She took her brother to church that day, and couldn’t even go to his funeral while her injuries were being treated.
Veena and her elder son no longer attend church. “I asked for help that day and no one responded - I can’t go back there.” That son is no longer talking to his father, as he was the one who would ensure they went to church; he remains angry at God, the church and congregation, and with his family.
People used to tell her that she was lucky she still had children left after losing the one son, that she had something that could still bring her happiness - but her reality is far from that. On most days, Veena can't concentrate and can't sleep. She has taken medication for these conditions, but everytime she remembers the day, she begins to cry. “When I cry, my children scold me, they ask why I am upset, and this makes me sadder, so I try to stay quiet.”
Her memory of April 21st remains very vivid. She has to have her four children fed and ready before 7AM, and have lunch cooked so they can eat when they returned. Her youngest had quite an appetite, and she expected that he’d be hungry again by about 9.30AM, so she carried a small container of juice in her handbag. He loved his meals, and had asked her to prepare a special lunch for them: rice, chicken curry, dhal and carrot sambol. If the service ran late through lunch, he said he would make up a story for the pastor, so he could leave to go home and enjoy his meal.
The Saturday before the bomb, he had gotten angry when she asked him to take a shower, and refused to sleep next to her. She forgot to kiss him the next day before he left to church with his siblings. If she were to return to church, she knows the weight of all these memories will overwhelm her.
Her son used to say that when he grew up, he would earn enough to take care of her, and she wouldn’t have to worry about money. The boy would have been 12 years old this year.
She harbours no anger towards Muslims, she says, because she knows they are not responsible for what happened. She has had a long relationship with Muslim suppliers from Kattankudy, who help stock her shop, and has always been treated with respect. Her only anger is towards Zahran, the man behind the bombings.
No one came from the government to look into her family’s needs, despite all the press conferences promising justice for people lost in the bombings. “My child is dead, how can there ever be justice?” she asks.
Once you pass the neon and LEDs of the main business strip, the small lanes of Kattankudy lie dark in a power cut. *Rasheeda’s home is lit with a single candle. She has spent a large chunk of the last three years travelling from here to the Monaragala prison — 150kms away — to where her husband is detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).
He was among a group of 60+ arrested on a single charge sheet. The group had been offered a free trip to Nuwara Eliya by a religious figure in their area, during which they would travel there, see some sights and attend prayers. One day as they were gathered for a meal, Zahran Hashim had appeared at the same place, and they were all caught unawares.
The group were then told that if they informed anyone of his presence there that evening, there could be a threat to the safety of their families. The charge sheet against them was for attending a bayaan (Islamic religious sermon and training) organised by Zahran.
During this interview, she noted that her husband’s next court date was in one week. She was used to these hearings, where he’d be brought from prison for the day, the case would be delayed due to a missing document or approval, and they would have to wait for another six months for another equally unfruitful hearing.
Over the last three years, she has gotten calls from the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) and the Terrorism Investigations Division (TID) in Colombo, asking her to come to the headquarters to give statements on her husband’s past activity. She politely told the officers giving the summons that she couldn’t come; “My children can only eat if I work. All my loans, will you pay them if I need to come to Colombo for the day?”
One day after the interview, she heard from connections at the court that her husband’s name was on a list of people set to be granted bail by the judge. On the court date, the TID, who had informed her on countless occasions that it had completed the investigation on the case, did not submit the final report required for his release.
She cares for three school-going children, including spending a lot on tuition for their subjects, some which can cost unto Rs. 500 per session. Thankfully, some of the teachers, knowing about their family situation, allow the kids to attend the classes for free.
“Our neighbours won’t help us because they think we are ’ISIS’, and worry that by reaching out to us, they could also be implicated in whatever my husband has been accused of”. They queitly tell her that they know her husband is innocent; “in that case, why are you scared to help us?” she asks of them.
One day, while she was speaking to her husband during his allocated phone call, he told her ‘neengal ameipilla’. ‘Ameippilla’ in Tamil closely translates to ‘labeemak’ in Sinhala or ‘providence’ in English. In this case, he meant that he and his family just couldn’t catch a break. The Tamil-speaking officer sitting next to him in prison mistranslated this conversation and reported it to the authorities. The phrase is commonly used among Muslims in the Eastern Province; however the officer understood it as ‘ameippu’ — ‘organization’ or ‘movement’ — instead of ameippilla. This reference increased suspicion on her husband, further delaying his next court date.
Rasheeda highlights how mistranslation plays into the discrimination against them. The B report on her husband’s case had also been mistranslated, and it was her attorney who pointed out to her how it was laced with hatred towards Catholics and manipulating the court into believing her husband was a hateful man.
The CID came to visit her house once, as they do regularly to the families of PTA detainees. The two officers assumed she didn’t speak Sinhala, and as she turned around to bring some documents for them to see, she heard one man say “mewa okkoma boru sir, egollonta loku gewal thiyenawa, Zahran deepu salli walin gaththa” (this is a ruse sir, they have large houses built with the money Zahran has given them).
She turned around and told the man in perfect Sinhala that the Grama Sevaka would tell him how poor she and her family were, and that this tiny abode was in fact their only home.
Rasheeda earns Rs. 5,000 a week from house-cleaning and doing other domestic work around her village. With this, she needs to find a way to educate her kids, including additional tuition where needed. She grew up an orphan, and does not want her kids to go through the hardships she underwent when growing up. Her husband’s photograph — passport size, just barely visible from across the room — is tacked to the mirror; her daughter pauses before it on her way out to school everyday.
She asks for forgiveness from the families of those killed in the attacks. “Whether the courts pronounce them guilty or not, if the families do not forgive us, God will not forgive us."
PTA - arresting innocents as a diversion
The number of Muslims arrested under the PTA following the Easter Sunday attacks is not fully known. Shreen Saroor, an activist and human rights defender who worked closely with the families, remembers sending lawyers to various parts of the country to appear for close to 2000 Muslims arrested in the immediate aftermath, across the island. The government, through occasional press conferences at the Government Information Department, announces arbitrary numbers. On April 12th, they said:
‘196 persons among 735 individuals who were arrested over the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks are still in remand custody.
27 cases have been filed against 79 of them under 25,653 charges.
Cases have also been filed against 81 individuals while 493 have been released on bail.’
Saroor notes that batches of detained Muslims have been released on bail in the past few months. These are most often cases where the person was not charged during their time in detention, and authorities are worried that people might initiate cases to sue them for the unfair treatment. She, along with lawyers who represented families in these cases - and have been working on PTA cases for a long time - advise caution when considering the numbers released by the government.
This darkness around those arrested is built into the Act itself: suspects can be arrested by every law enforcement and security authority, and anything can constitute a detention site.
Ermiza Tegal is a human rights lawyer who has also represented several of the people detained under the PTA, following Easter 2019. “As of now, we know that small numbers of people have been released. In some cases where there is a lack of evidence, people were discharged. Others were granted bail.”
Rasheeda’s husband’s case is a unique one, Tegal says, in that his is one name on a charge sheet of 60 who were collectively charged for the visit to Nuwara Eliya. She says these ‘group cases’ are done for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a matter of convenience as authorities can investigate one person, and then generalise their findings to the ‘collective’. It saves them the time and resources of investigating 60 people. Secondly, it is a matter of perception - 60 names on a chargesheet plays into the idea that there are gangs of possibly extremist individuals working together. Of those arrested, one or two might have actual cause for suspicion, and the others are simply tacked on.
Families of those arrested have already taken legal steps to push for their release. They have made Petitions to the Advisory Board and Fundamental Rights petitions, in addition to the cases filed against some under the PTA. For some, pro-bono lawyers have stepped in to help with their cases.
On March 2022, while the country was struggling with the ongoing economic crisis, the Parliament passed amendments to the PTA. Amendments that have come under criticism from lawyers and activists because they do little to improve on a law that is fundamentally bad. The definition for terrorism is as broad as it was before - in that, there was barely a definition - and the period for which a suspect can be kept in detention without being presented before a magistrate has been reduced from 18 months to 12 months. Some families have therefore started working on cases to the Court of Appeal, when the Amendment is now effective, if the status of their relatives’ cases have not changed in the span of a year.
For families like Rasheeda’s, cases filed under PTA are an uncertain waiting game. Tegal tells of a particular case where the suspect was diagnosed with cancer shortly after being remanded. Lawyers cited his rapidly deteriorating condition to press the judge for trial at a closer date. They were given a date two months away, months that lawyers aren’t sure he will have, given his health. ‘It’s really the insensitivity of the whole system’ she says, imagining that if the process is closed off to someone with a severe medical condition, how much less thought is given to average arrestees.
Two of the more high-profile arrests were those of lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah and poet Ahnaf Jazeem. Hizbullah was detained without a charge for 10 months, and later charged under the PTA based on one testimony from a child, who was coerced into saying that Hizbullah preached extremism to them. The main charge against him was for being involved in the planning of the Easter attack. Jazeem was arrested because authorities mistranslated his Tamil work ‘Navarasam’ as having extremist content. Authorities tried to link him to Hizbullah, using him to frame the lawyer.
‘While the State delays accountability for those actually at fault, it collectively punishes the Muslim community at large with zero due process guarantees’ Tegal said.
Easter Sunday - justice promised and forgotten
To say that the tide has changed with regard to the narrative of the attacks would be an understatement.
In the immediate weeks and months following the bombings, the knowledge that the acts were carried out by Islamist fundamentalists resulted in a particularly virulent spate of anti-Muslim racism.
And on April 26th 2019, less than a week after the attacks, Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced his intention to run for President.
In the days leading upto the polls, majority-Catholic residential areas were plastered with posters that read ‘mathakada 21/4?’ (remember 21/4?).
A few months after his election victory, however, posts emerged on social media — as images, statuses or the occasional ‘forwarded as received’ WhatsApp message — asking people to think about who benefitted from the attacks.
October 2019 saw the Parliamentary Select Committee report tabled before the chamber. It very explicitly states that ‘questions must be asked as to objectives and impact of these developments and the end result’, before going on to state the following;
Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected President one month after the report’s release. To this day, none of the recommendations made in this report have been implemented, especially those that refer to the responsibility of politicians and higher authorities in preventing the attacks.
It’s also important to note that the reconstruction of the Zion Church was halted after this change in government. While the two Catholic churches in Kochchikade and Katuwapitiya were reconstructed within months of the attack, the damaged structure of the evangelical church in Batticaloa still remains. The congregation held a memorial service within those premises on April 21st this year.
The church appealed to donors and well-wishers and has since built a newer space in a different location.
One of the key mechanisms to address the extremism that caused the attacks was supposed to be the one laid out in what’s referred to as the ‘deradicalisation gazette’. Declared as an addition to the PTA, De-radicalization from holding violent extremist religious ideology) Regulations No. 01 of 2021 was gazetted in March 2021. Ambika Satkunanathan, former Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, writes that given Sri Lanka’s history with ‘rehabilitation’ for LTTE fighters after the war, this new legislation was cause for concern. She and several others filed Fundamental Rights petitions on the grounds that the gazette was unconstitutional, and it has been suspended to allow for these cases to be heard in the Supreme Court.
In October 2021, Reverend Father Cyril Gamini Fernando made a statement on an online forum that the State Intelligence Service (SIS) and other intelligence entities provided financial and other types of assistance to Zahran Hashim. The allegations are not entirely out of the blue, when considering the PSC Report’s claims that that there were shortfalls in investigation of the suspects, who had been brought to the attention of law enforcement officers years prior. However, SIS DG Maj. Gen. Suresh Sallay filed a complaint against the priest at the CID for the ‘malicious statements’ made against him. Following several long interrogations at the CID, the Rev. Fernando filed an FR petition to prevent his arrest.
This trend of arresting whistleblowers continued into 2022, when activist Shehan Malaka Gamage was arrested in February for a statement he’d made condemning the political motives behind the attacks. He was taken away in a white van, and subsequently released on bail.
Merely days after this incident, two of the most high-ranking officials charged for their negligence during the period leading upto the attacks were acquitted of all charges. Former IGP Pujith Jayasundera and Former Defense Secretary Hemasiri Fernando were charged with murder for ‘grave crimes against humanity’ by the then chief prosecutor Dappula de Livera.
One day after those acquittals, the State’s failure is really put on display when former investigator and Director of the CID Shani Abeysekara submitted a Fundamental Rights petition. He had just spent 10 months in prison after being arrested over fabrication and concealing of evidence in a case against former Deputy Inspector General of Police Vaas Gunawardena, who is considered to be close to the President.
He sought an interim injunction against attempts to arrest or detain him in connection with a B report filed in the Kuliyapitiya Magistrate’s Court, that charged him with the failure to properly investigate Zahran Hashim. His petition to the Supreme Court however spares little in detailing that SIS and the Department of Military Intelligence (DMI) essentially protected Zahran and his group, the National Thoweed Jamaa’ath (NTJ).
Looking through the petition, Abeysekara alleges several instances where DMI and SIS officers refused to reveal to the CID links to the bombers. The CID was also blocked from questioning officers from the two intelligence agencies, all on the grounds of ‘national security’.
Abeysekara’s history with the CID happens to read like a laundry list of all high-profile murders, disappearances and torture linked to the past Rajapaksa regime: the Trinco 11, Prageeth Ekneligoda, Lasantha Wickrematunge, Keith Noyahr, Poddala Jayantha, Wasim Thajudeen, the shooting of protestors in Rathupaswala, and the Welikada Prison massacre.
The report by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the attacks is extensive, comprising of over 70,000 pages, according to a tweet posted by MP Harin Fernando. However, it has only been released as an executive summary with some key recommendations to date.
Recommendations that seem far from being implemented. For example, the report lists Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara as being a ‘contributory factor’ to the situation, noting that his words have pushed Muslim youth to extremism and joining figures like Zahran. It asked that the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) be proscribed, however we see Gnanasara Thera appointed as the Chair on the controversial ‘one country, one law’ task force initiated by the Rajapaksa government.
Three years on
Justice for the victims of the attacks has been a key feature and demand in the recent wave of protests taking place across the country. This narrative is seemingly being used with as much enthusiasm to demand Gotabaya Rajapaksa ‘go home’, as it was used in order to bring him into office.
A tent near the Presidential Secretariat bears a long banner ‘lé vilak madin balayata paminee Gota - balaya wenuwen sidhukala gaathana helaa dakimu’ - ‘Gota, you who came to power amidst a lake of blood - reveal the murders you did to gain power’. Posters in a recent march from Katuwapitiya to Kochchikade organised by the Catholic community, attended by families of those killed in the attack, said ‘ahinsaka janathavage lé mathin balaya gaththanam, eya bhukthi vindinna labenne naha’ - ‘if you gain power from the blood of innocent people, may you never enjoy it’.
On the 26th of April — three years to the day of Rajapaksa announcing his intention to run for President — a special mass was held at the Vatican, attended by families of those killed in the attacks. At it, Pope Francis appealed for justice: “Please, out of love for justice, out of love for your people, let it be made clear once and for all who were responsible for these events.”
This sustained focus on the attacks, and the key place they’ve come to take in calls for accountability for the Rajapaksas, is quite new. Yes, there had been increased understanding that they likely planned the attacks to come into power. However the fast-unravelling economic crisis and the month of protests that lead to Mirihana have opened the floodgates for the concerns we are seeing now.
Even as the ‘bigger picture’ simultaneously seems both chaotic and stagnant, life for these families affected carries on in uncertainty and continuous disappointment. They join the protests at Galle Face on different days.
From Kattankudy, a lady brings her grand-daughter who is about five years old. The child’s parents were both arrested under the PTA, because someone had sent them a link on WhatsApp to one of Zahran’s speeches. “We want to protest and be part of this, of course. However if we do it in our hometown, there are still people who will call us extremists and terrorists, and we cannot bear to hear those again.”
From Negombo, a family that lost their mother and young son join the protest at Galle Face. The young girl has had extensive surgery to repair her skull, and fragments of shrapnel remain inside.
“My birth certificate says that I am a Roman Catholic. I have resorted to looking towards Rome for justice, because I cannot expect to find it in Sri Lanka.”