Sri Lanka Struggles to Deliver Justice for Easter Sunday Terror Victims

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 11

Source: al Jazeera

On April 21, amid an unprecedented economic meltdown, political turmoil, and social unrest, Sri Lanka observed the third anniversary of the Islamic State (IS)-claimed Easter Sunday terror attacks. To mark the occasion, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa promised once again to punish those behind the carnage that killed 260 people and injured over 500, who were mostly Christian worshippers at Easter services, foreign nationals, and tourists in hotels. Rajapaksa reiterated his government’s commitment to ensure justice for all the victims of the Easter terror attacks. Despite these promises, Sri Lanka’s Catholic minority community has remained distraught in the face of government inaction and still suspects links between intelligence officials and the perpetrators of the violence (Times of India, July 15, 2021; Colombo Page, February 18).

On April 12, Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Kamal Gunaratne provided details about the status of the investigation to douse growing criticism against the government for the delay in holding a trial and prosecuting the perpetrators. According to the information he shared, 735 people have been taken into custody over the Easter attacks and among them, 196 people remain in custody. While 493 suspects were released on bail, court cases have been filed against 81 individuals. According to Gunaratne, 52 Sri Lankan expatriates were brought back to the country over their links to the Easter Sunday attack (Ministry of Defence, April 13). The probe also confirmed the role of Naufer Moulavi of National Thawheed Jamaath (NTJ) as the mastermind of the Easter violence. While he propagated IS ideology in the country, NTJ’s Zahran Hashim led the band of suicide bombers (Daily FT, April 21, 2021; Ada Derana, April 12). [1]

The Easter attacks targeted three churches in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa, three luxury hotels in Colombo, and several more places in Dehiwala and Dematagoda in a series of suicide bombings. These coordinated attacks were carried out by two local Islamist organizations, NTJ and Jamathei Millathu Ibrahim (JMI), which allied with IS and claimed responsibility for the attack through IS’s Amaq news agency (Terrorism Monitor, April 9, 2021). Weeks after the attack, on May 14, 2019, the government banned NTJ, JMI and another group, Wilayat as-Seylani (WAS), under emergency regulations (Twitter/MFA Sri Lanka, May 15, 2019). In August last year, Sri Lanka police filed over 23,270 charges against 25 accused, including Naufar Moulavi, the leader of the NTJ. The charges were filed under the country’s anti-terror law and the trial was scheduled for mid-May 2022. (Colombo Page, March 4).

The Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) into the Easter violence submitted its report to President Rajapaksa in February 2021 and then to the parliament in April 2021. This February, all 88 volumes, including those with evidence and related witness records, were submitted to the parliament for further action (The Island, February 23). Refuting the cover-up and conspiracy accusations from the church and civil society organizations, the government clarified that vital information and recommendations of the PCoI were earlier withheld only because of their direct bearing on the national security.

Growing Clamor for Justice

Despite repeated reassurances, the Rajapaksa government, which is often criticized for being autocratic, has received widespread criticism over the lack of action and delay in the legal proceedings. The Catholic Church remains at the forefront demanding justice for the victims and action against then-president Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for their failure to prevent the attacks during their tenure (News First July 12, 2021). The most scathing criticism came from the head of the Catholic Church, Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, who blamed current President Rajapaksa and his government for political conspiracy and exploiting the terror events in his favour. Cardinal Ranjith, for example, held Rajapaksa responsible for the Easter conspiracy that allegedly set the stage for his win in the subsequent November 2019 presidential election. Questions have also been raised about the intent of the incumbent government to protect former President Sirisena, who was blamed for his lackadaisical approach and negligence in preventing the Easter violence during his tenure as president (The Morning, April 22).

Cardinal Ranjith further sought international intervention and met with Pope Francis in the Vatican in April with a 60-member delegation, including victims of the Easter attack (Vatican News, April 27). Pope Francis urged the Rajapaksa government to reveal the truth behind the Easter bombings in his address. Earlier, in March, Cardinal Ranjith briefed Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, on the sidelines of the 49th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) to request its member states put pressure on the Buddhist-dominated Sri Lankan government for an impartial investigation (Colombo Gazette, March 2). The UNHCR and other international rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, have already expressed reservations about the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and called for a moratorium on its use (Tamil Guardian, March 3).

In the wake of Easter violence, the Sri Lankan authorities introduced new legislation under the PTA to detain suspects involved in violence that creates religious, racial, or communal disharmony and to force them to undergo rehabilitation for up to a year. Other measures, such as banning the face veil (burqa) and cracking down on Islamic seminaries, have also invited international criticism and generated pressure on the government to introduce amendments to the law (The Hindu, April 27, 2021; Indian Express, March 22). The amendments included provisions for reducing the detention period, providing legal access to PTA detainees, facilitating communications for detainees with relatives, and allowing bail for detainees (News First, January 28). However, these amendments were opposed by nationalist Buddhist groups who came out in support of the PTA in its current form and cited the threat of transnational jihad reaching the shores of Sri Lanka.


After months of economic uncertainty and social unrest, Sri Lanka is limping back to normalcy with new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe back at the helm. As the country expects political stability and economic recovery in the coming months, justice for the Easter terror victims will remain a priority for the new administration. If the government continues to leave the Easter terror case unresolved, it may alienate the minority Catholic community and further embolden the covert Islamist networks in the country supporting jihadist ideals.