United Nations pushes justice for Sri Lanka's Easter victims

COLOMBO (AFP): The United Nations on Sunday urged Sri Lanka to bridge its "accountability deficit" and ensure justice as the country commemorated the 279 victims of its worst-ever attack against civilians five years ago.

The UN's top envoy to the country, Marc-Andre Franche, told a remembrance service in Colombo that there should be a "thorough and transparent investigation" to uncover those behind the Easter carnage in 2019.

Islamist bombers hit three churches and three hotels in the island's deadliest suicide attack aimed at civilians, but grieving families say they are still waiting for justice.

Among the dead were 45 foreigners, including tourists visiting the island a decade after the end of a brutal ethnic conflict that had claimed more than 100,000 lives since 1972.

"Sri Lanka suffers from a continuing accountability deficit, be it for alleged war crimes, more recent human rights violations, corruption or abuse of power, which must be addressed if the country is to move forward," Franche said.

He noted that victims were still seeking justice despite the country's Supreme Court holding the then president Maithripala Sirisena and his top officials responsible for failing to prevent the attack.

"Delivering justice for victims of these attacks should be part of addressing the systemic challenge," Franche said.

He said the UN Human Rights office has also called on Colombo to publish the complete findings of previous inquiries into the Easter Sunday bombings and to establish an independent investigation.

- 'Other forces' -

The leader of Sri Lanka's Catholic church, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, accused President Ranil Wickremesinghe's government of suppressing new evidence and protecting those behind the jihadists.

"It is clear that Islamist extremists carried out the attack, but there were other forces behind them," Ranjith said.

"We have to conclude that the current government too is trying to protect them."

He has previously alleged that military intelligence officers engineered the April 21, 2019 attack to help the political ambitions of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a retired army officer who campaigned on security. Seven months later he won the presidency.

Since coming to power, Rajapaksa had systematically protected those behind the bombings, the Cardinal said.

Rajapaksa was forced out of office in July 2022 following months of protests over an unprecedented economic crisis that caused shortages of food, fuel and medicines.

Thousands of Sri Lanka's Catholic minority staged a silent protest outside the capital after multi-faith services to bless the victims, who included more than 80 children.

Relatives carried photos of the dead and protested in the town of Negombo -- known as Sri Lanka's 'Little Rome' because of its heavy concentration of Catholics.

Military personnel armed with automatic assault rifles watched as the protesters marched to the nearby St Sebastian's church, where 114 people were killed in the coordinated suicide bombings.

Evidence tendered during a civil case brought by relatives of the victims showed that Indian intelligence officials warned Colombo of the bombings some 17 days earlier, but the authorities failed to act.

Then-president Sirisena and his officials have been ordered to pay 310 million rupees ($1 million) in compensation to victims and relatives.

But the ruling has yet to be fully implemented as Sirisena has appealed and a fresh hearing is scheduled for July. - AFP

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