Attorney General Dappula De Livera of Sri Lanka ordered the arrests of the nation’s former defense minister and police chief Tuesday on charges of gross negligence in relation to the Islamic State attack on Christian churches and hotels on Easter Sunday.
De Livera has suggested on Monday that the two former officials, former Defense Secretary Hemasiri Fernando and former Inspector General of Police (IGP) Pujith Jayasundara may also be guilty of crimes against humanity – an international crime – for having information suggesting that jihadists were planning a series of terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka shortly before the Easter attacks and not acting on it.
The attacks killed over 250 people, including many children. Witnesses say the suicide bombers, who targeted three hotels serving Easter brunch and three churches, appeared to attempt to detonate as close to as many children as possible.
The Islamic State took credit for the attacks and police identified an imam named Zahran Hashim, head of the fundamentalist National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) Muslim group, as the mastermind of the attacks. Shortly after police identified Hashim, federal officials began accusing each other of having intelligence that may have prevented the attacks.
President Maithripala Sirisena ordered Fernando and Jayasundara to resign after a letter surfaced from Indian intelligence agents warning of an attack on Easter. Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and other senior officials claimed that intelligence leaders did not inform them of the warnings.
In a dramatic 24 hours for the country, Fernando and Jayasundara both checked into a Colombo hospital following De Livera’s comments on Monday. Police entered the hospital and arrested them despite their alleged medical issues.
Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror reported Tuesday that De Livera had instructed the current acting IGP to arrest the two men last week on charges of gross criminal negligence and carelessness and bring them to magistrate court. After the AGP refused to act, De Livera reportedly sent him a letter Monday asking why he had not yet arrested the two former officials.
On Tuesday morning, the Colombo Telegraph reported that Fernando and Jayasundara both checked into the Colombo National Hospital complaining of heart problems, settling into the hospital’s cardiac unit. The newspaper did not offer details on what symptoms the men claimed to present or any medical details of their check-in, nor if they had a prior history of cardiovascular disease. Sri Lanka’s New First outlet contradicted this report, stating that only Fernando checked in at the Colombo hospital, while Jayasundara visited the Narahenpita Police Hospital.
The Telegraph reported that the two men are facing charges of murder and “could face death penalty and up to 52 years in jail as a result of the charges brought against them.”
It remains unclear if De Livera will pursue prosecution against the men for crimes against humanity at the international level, which typically occurs at the International Criminal Court at the Hague. De Livera expressed an interest in prosecuting them for these crimes on Monday.
“The two officials should be brought before a magistrate for their criminal negligence to prevent the April 21 attacks,” de Livera said in the letter sent to the interim IGP last week. “Their negligence amounts to what is known under international law to be grave crimes against humanity.”
The bombings, which killed over 250 and injured more than 500, occurred amid a bitter political struggle between President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe. Almost immediately after the bombings, Wickremesinghe’s cabinet began accusing Sirisena of blocking them out of key intelligence meetings, where officials had reason to know about the impending attacks and could have acted to stop them.
“Some intelligence officers were aware of this incidence,” Minister of Telecommunications, Foreign Employment & Sports Harin Fernando wrote on Twitter, publishing photos of documents detailing the potential of a jihadist attack on Easter.
Sirisena claimed that his officials left him in the dark, as well, and accused Hemasiri Fernando and Jayasundara in particular of withholding the information. Shortly before his forced resignation, Fernando claimed that, even if he did know the attack was coming, there was nothing he could do about it.
“It was quite impossible to protect a large number of Churches last Sunday despite receiving prior information on these attacks,” Fernando claimed. The hotels, meanwhile, “are conducting private businesses. They have to ensure their own security. Usually the star class hotels employ top military personnel in their security divisions. Hence, they are more than capable of ensuring their own protection.”
Colombo’s swift dispatching of security to mosques following the attacks – to protect against mob raids by the angry Buddhist majority – appeared to contradict Fernando’s statement that Sri Lanka’s government could not protect houses of worship from impending attack.
State Intelligence Service (SIS) head Sisira Mendis confirmed to the nation’s legislature at a hearing on the ISIS bombings in May that some intelligence agents were aware of the plot against Christians and that they took no action to prevent it. He said he received a letter from a foreign intelligence service warning of an attack on Easter.
“I had placed the letter I received on April 7 in front of me when I sat for the meeting. Since it was not brought up, when the meeting was about to close, I brought it up. I informed them that the gravity of this information can only be gauged by SIS Director,” he said, but the threat “was never a main point for discussion.”