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Sri Lanka Easter bombings investigation calls for former President to be prosecuted

An investigation into the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka has called for the country’s former President as well as senior police and intelligence officials to be prosecuted.

The commission of inquiry said Wednesday that “criminal proceedings” should be brought against former President Maithripala Sirisena, who left office in November 2019, for “criminal liability on his part” over the attacks.

On April 21, 2019, suicide bombers launched a coordinated series of attacks on three Catholic churches and three luxury hotels across Sri Lanka, killing 270 people and injuring 500 more.

Shortly after the attacks, the Sri Lankan government admitted that it failed to act on multiple warnings from intelligence agencies, including from India and the United States.

Set up by Sirisena five months after the attacks, the commission found that the former President knew of a possible terrorist threat but “proceeded to India and then Singapore from April 16 to April 21 without making any acting appointment for the post of Minister of Defense.”

In its 472-page report, which was handed to Parliament, the commission said that “there is a criminal liability on his part” and recommends the attorney general “consider instituting criminal proceedings against President Sirisena under any suitable provision in the Penal Code.”

It also said then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had a “lax approach” towards Islamic extremism, which “was one of the primary reasons for the failure.”

“Even after his appointment as Prime Minister in December 2018, he was not invited by President Sirisena for any National Security Council meetings,” the report said.

In addition to the former President, the commission recommended criminal proceedings against the former Defense Secretary Hemasiri Fernando, the former Police Chief Pujith Jayasundera, former Chief of National Intelligence Sisira Mendia, and other senior police officers.

Nishara Jayaratne, coordinating secretary and spokesperson for Attorney General Dappula de Livera, told CNN, “the Attorney General will initiate action no sooner a copy of the report is received.”

Sirisena did not respond to repeated calls made to his Colombo residence by CNN. A staffer who answered his phone said, “he is very busy today and will not take calls.”

The former President at the time acknowledged that he was abroad “for a personal holiday” when intelligence memos warning of a potential terrorist act were sent to Sri Lankan defense ministry and police chiefs. But he said that he had “not been updated or notified with the information that they received about the possibility of such a severe attack on our soil.”

In the days following the attacks, Sri Lankan intelligence services said they believed the Easter Sunday suicide bombers had clear links to ISIS.

One of the warnings received before the attacks referred to National Tawheed Jamath, or NTJ, a little-known local Islamist group. But officials at the time didn’t believe they could have acted alone.

Reports followed that the perpetrators came from the top levels of Sri Lankan society. Several were educated overseas, and at least two had links to one of the richest families in Colombo, with multiple expensive properties and successful businesses. Two of the suicide bombers belonged to a family of spice traders.

The alleged mentor and ringleader, Zahran Hashim was a radical Islamist preacher, known to the authorities and local Muslim community. Weeks before the bombings, India’s intelligence service warned its Sri Lankan counterpart that Zahran was planning an attack on churches and hotels.

The commission found that Zahran, who blew himself up in the Shangri-La hotel in Colombo, “was in fact the leader and that he had informed his group members about his intention to personally take part in the suicide attack.”

“The report states that Zahran had believed that he was following the footsteps of Tamim Ahmed Chowdhury, who was alleged to be the Emir of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Bangladesh. Chowdhury, a Bangladeshi Canadian allegedly masterminded the July 2015 Dhaka attack at the Gulchand Café which killed 29 people,” the commission said.

This story has been updated to correct the death toll from the Easter bombings in Sri Lanka.

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