Sri Lanka’s former president Sirisena ordered to pay victims of 2019 bombings

The scene of the bombing at St. Sebastian's Church (left), and former Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena. PHOTOS: NEW YORK TIMES

COLOMBO – Sri Lanka’s top court has ordered the country’s former president and several of his senior officials to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation to the families of the victims of terrorist attacks on Easter Sunday in 2019, a small victory in an island nation that has long suffered from a culture of rampant impunity.

The Supreme Court, ruling on Thursday on a petition filed by families of the victims as well as church leaders and activists, said Maithripala Sirisena, the president of Sri Lanka from 2015 to 2019, and his top security officials had failed to prevent the carnage despite detailed intelligence reports suggesting such attacks had been imminent.

A series of coordinated suicide attacks by Islamic State-inspired assailants ripped through several churches and hotels in and around the capital, Colombo, killing more than 200 people. The attacks shattered a decade of relative peace in Sri Lanka, which was trying to emerge from a long, scarring civil war.

The devastating security breach was made possible by a coalition government paralysed by infighting among its leaders. After the attacks, the crucial tourism sector dried up, and anti-Muslim mob violence spread across the country. The Easter Sunday carnage proved to be the first in a cascade of blows that left the island nation in the worst economic crisis in its recent history.

“I filed the case on the grounds that these officials failed in their duties, and the court gave its verdict that they had failed in their duties starting from the president at the very top,” said Saman Nandana Sirimanne, one of the petitioners, who lost his 19-year-old son and 21-year-old daughter in one of the bombed churches, St. Anthony’s in Colombo. “I knew in my heart that the state had failed us, and they were responsible for the deaths of my children.”

Mr Sirimanne said that although the ruling brought some solace, it had fallen short of a jail term for the officials, which was what he was hoping for. “There is no court in the world that can compensate me,” he said. “I will never get my children back.”

The Supreme Court was scathing in its ruling about what it said was the “reckless failure on the part of the executive branch of the government.”

It detailed lapses of governance and security: The main perpetrator of the attacks, Zahran Hashim, had been on the state’s watchlist for several years. Security officials had received repeated intelligence in the days leading up to the bombings that he and his cohorts were planning large-scale bombings probably targeting churches, hotels and the Indian High Commission.

“This court cannot get away from an irresistible conclusion that the churches lay vulnerable and exposed to imminent attacks,” the judges said.

The court ordered the creation of a victims fund using nearly US$850,000 (S$1.13 million) in compensation to be paid from “personal funds” of Mr Sirisena and his top four security and intelligence officials. Mr Sirisena has yet to respond in public to the ruling.

Lawyers in the case said they first had to overcome a major hurdle: Mr Sirisena, who had also held the position of defence minister at the time, tried to seek presidential immunity.

His attempt was overturned by the court, a decision that rights activists said could give new impetus to breaking an entrenched culture of immunity for mismanagement and abuses by political leaders. Many political leaders have ensured that they don’t face justice by maintaining positions of power, or by striking deals with those in power.

“This is a significant development that shows that accountability is possible even after they leave office,” said Bhavani Fonseka, a constitutional lawyer and researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives, which is based in Colombo and advocates democratic governance.

Mr Sirisena came to power in 2015 promising reform, having toppled strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had ended the civil war through a brutal military campaign.

He promised accountability on rights abuses during the war, with Mr Rajapaksa’s government – particularly the former president’s younger brother and defense secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa – accused of overseeing indiscriminate violence against Tamil civilians as the military crushed a separatist Tamil insurgency.

Instead, Mr Sirisena and his coalition partner, then-Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, remained at each other’s throats during their four years in government. Mr Wickremesinghe, whom Mr Sirisena largely sought to exclude from security matters, is now Sri Lanka’s president, a role that has put him beyond the scope of Thursday’s ruling. NYTIMES

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