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Suspects face more than 23,000 charges over Easter Sunday attacks as trial begins in Sri Lanka

The trial has begun of the 25 men accused of planning the 2019 Easter bombings in Sri Lanka, which killed nearly 270 people and injured about 500 people when churches and luxury hotels were targeted by members of National Thowheed Jamath -(NTJ), a homegrown extremist Islamic group.

The suspects are facing over 23,000 charges in total.

Lawyers involved in the trial in the capital, Colombo, warned that the sheer scale of charges, and the thousands of witnesses listed in the case, could mean it drags on for up to a decade. The case will be heard before a special panel of judges, The Guardian reports.

The attacks, which took place on 21 April 2019, killed 269 people, including 45 foreign nationals. In the aftermath of the attacks, a state of emergency was imposed on the country for four months and hundreds of Muslims have since been arrested, including a Muslim member of parliament. However, in recent months senior members of the church accused the police and the government of dragging their feet over bringing the case to trial.

A press statement released by the archdiocese of Colombo in August said: “It is clear from this procedure that after such a long time the government has no interest in finding out the truth about the attack and they are going to cover it up and wash their hands.”, the Guardian reports.

They accused the government, led by strongman president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, of capitalising on the Easter attacks to come to power at the end of 2019 on a mandate of security but have since failed to live up to their promises. Members of the Catholic community also allege they are now being harassed for their actions demanding justice.

Fr Cyril Gamini, director of the National Catholic Centre for Social Communications who has accused the authorities of complicity with the attackers, was recently subjected to three days of questioning by Sri Lanka’s central intelligence department. Alleged government connections to the NTJ have been made public, with senior Sri Lankan MP's stating that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the real "master" behind the attacks, furthermore, a Sri Lankan parliamentarian claimed the former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa gave the National Thawheed Jammath (NTJ) land for an office in Colombo, amidst claims the organisation was on the Sri Lankan intelligence payroll.

The head of the Catholic church in Sri Lanka, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith said last week that the families of victims were struggling to move on while they felt that justice had not been served. “We are not here to take revenge upon anyone, nor have we called for anyone’s blood. But we need justice,” he said. On Sunday, members of the Catholic community held large demonstrations pushing for faster action.

Months after the attacks, Sri Lanka’s own Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) report said the security forces may have allowed the bombings to proceed in order to “create chaos and instil fear” ahead of the presidential elections that took place in 2019. The report highlights that Sri Lanka’s intelligence officials had known the names of five of the 6 suicide bombers but failed to act to prevent the atrocities.

The report said that “further investigations will be needed to understand whether those with vested interests did not act on intelligence so as to create chaos and instil fear and uncertainty in the country in the lead up to the Presidential Election”.

It went on to state,

“Such a situation would then lead to the call for a change of regime to contain such acts of terrorism. Coincidently or not so coincidentally, the security situation and fear would be unleashed months away from the Presidential Election… These are extremely serious observations that can impact the democratic governance, electoral processes and security of Sri Lanka and must require urgent attention.”

The report also questions whether Zahran Hashim, leader of the National Thowheed Jamaath, and the alleged mastermind behind the attacks “had the support and patronage of some politicians and intelligence”. 

Read more here: Remembering the blasts – 2 years on from the Easter Sunday attack

The trial is one of three that will be held in connection with the attacks. On Monday, the trial began for several senior officials accused of criminal negligence for failing to act on intelligence information that could have prevented the bombings. Sri Lanka’s former police chief Pujith Jayasundera and former defence secretary Hemasiri Fernando are among those who will stand trial, with Jayasundera alone facing a total of 855 charges.

Read more at The Guardian and Reuters

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