By Devin Watkins
“We consider that finding justice and revealing the truth is a national service that we can do to our country, because we are a minority religion in Sri Lanka.”
Fr. Julian Patrick Perera, a secretary to the legal team of the Archdiocese of Colombo, offered that assessment of the local Church’s efforts to find and prosecute the perpetrators of the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings.
On 21 April 2019, terrorist bombers attacked two Catholic churches, an evangelical Christian church, and three luxury hotels, as well as a housing complex and a guest house.
The eight suicide bombers, whom the government alleged were linked to the so-called Islamic State, killed 261 people in the coordinated attacks.
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo, has questioned the government’s narrative of attacks and has consistently called for an international investigation.
Allegations of a cover up
In an interview with Vatican News to mark the fourth anniversary of the tragedy, Fr. Perera lamented the lack of justice for the Easter Sunday bombings, saying there has been “no proper investigation completed on the whole issue”.
He noted there appears to be evidence of a cover-up, pointing to the removal of several key investigators from the case.
“There is also a kind of an eyewash lawsuit that has been brought against about 25 members of the so-called terrorist movement. But those charges are very surface level,” said Fr. Perera, adding that law experts believe that a case consisting of 23,000 charges can never be credibly brought to trial.
“How can you bring 23,000 charges into question and cross-examine so many hundreds of people?” he wondered. “So, you can see that there is a very clear cover up in the first place.”
However, noted Fr. Perera, some progress was made in mid-January this year when Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court issued a civil conviction of negligence against former president Maithripala Sirisena and four top security officials for failing to act on intelligence pointing to a possible terrorist attack in the run-up to the Easter Sunday bombings. They were also forced to pay 100 million rupees (273,000 USD) in compensation to the families of the victims.
The Supreme Court’s conviction opens up further civil litigation in courts in other countries, since there were 45 foreign nationals who were killed in the attacks. Fr. Perera said the families of these victims can sue Sri Lankan officials for compensation in their home countries on the basis of this conviction.
The Church is also pursuing the additional legal option of requesting a UN-backed international investigation.
Fr. Perera recently presented the Sri Lankan Church’s case at the 52nd United Nations Human Rights Council, which was held in Geneva from 27 February to 4 April.
Speaking as a representative of Franciscan International, an NGO with general Consultative Status at the UN, Fr. Perera said Sri Lankan courts have delivered no criminal convictions for the masterminds of the attacks, and he called on the UN to invoke universal jurisdiction in the case to investigate the bombings.
In the interview, he admitted the difficulty of gathering evidence and contacting witnesses.
“Winning a case is a job and a half,” said Fr. Perera. “Then again, at international level it will be even more difficult. But I think this is our Christian calling. And in our prophetic role, I believe that we have to do it.”
Church pursuing justice
The Catholic Church, added Fr. Perera, is one of the few institutions that has “the wherewithal” to take on the power of the Sri Lankan government in pursuit of justice.
“We will willingly take this chance, because who else will do this kind of thing at the international level, if not for us?” he said.
Fr. Perera noted that violence frequently precedes elections in Sri Lanka, alleging that politicians take advantage of killings to fire up their base.
“In Sri Lanka this kind of thing—murders, people being killed—has happened all these years and they have been swept under the carpet,” he said. “Whenever there is an election, this kind of thing is part and parcel of the political campaigning.”
Forgiving real culprits
Fr. Perera pointed out that the Church is seeking justice not only for Catholics, but also for “the entire population of Sri Lankans, because unless and until we prove the real culprits, we will never be able to be a free country.”
Christians must forgive, and Sri Lankan Catholics want to forgive those who attacked them on Easter Sunday in 2019, affirmed the Sri Lankan priest.
“We are forgiving,” said Fr. Perera. “We want to forgive, but we should know whom to forgive… And by God’s grace, we have made a lot of progress, and we will continue to box on.”