Top Muslim political leader arrested for allegedly aiding 2019 Sri Lanka Easter bombings

Former cabinet member calls arrest 'unjust'

Sri Lankan officials inspect St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo, north of Colombo, after multiple explosions targeting churches and hotels across Sri Lanka on April 21, 2019, in Negombo, Sri Lanka.
Sri Lankan officials inspect St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo, north of Colombo, after multiple explosions targeting churches and hotels across Sri Lanka on April 21, 2019, in Negombo, Sri Lanka. | Getty Images/Stringer

A prominent Muslim political leader in Sri Lanka and his brother were arrested over the weekend due to their suspected connection to the 2019 Easter Sunday suicide bombings of three churches and three hotels in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa that killed over 269 people. 

Rishad Bathiudeen, a former cabinet minister and the leader of an opposition party in Parliament, and his brother, Reyaj Bathiudeen, were arrested in pre-dawn raids due to circumstantial and "scientific" evidence connecting them to the attacks, according to a police spokesperson. 

Police spokesperson Ajith Rohana said the brothers allegedly aided and abetted those “who committed the Easter Sunday carnage,” The Associated Press reports. 

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On April 23, Bathiudeen’s post on Facebook called the arrest unjust, saying his brother had already been arrested. 

“The CID has been standing outside my house in Boudhaloka Mawatha since [1:30 a.m.] today attempting to arrest me without a charge,” the leader of the All Ceylon Makkal Congress Party wrote. “... I have been in Parliament, and have cooperated with all lawful authorities until now. This is unjust.”

Bathiudeen’s lawyer, Rushdhie Habeeb, called the arrests politically motivated and said there was no reason given.

Habeeb argued that the purpose of the arrest was to “punish the political leadership of the Muslims, which had nothing to do with 21/4, for the dastardly acts of some Muslim youths who were widely alleged as having been used as pawns by foreign powers,” he said in a statement.

No one has been charged with the suicide bombings, though nearly 200 people were arrested in the days following the bombings by Islamic extremists, according to Agence France Presse. 

The arrests came three days after Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the head of Sri Lanka’s Roman Catholic Church, accused the government of allowing investigations of the attack to be stalled. 

During a commemoration of the second anniversary of the attacks on April 21, Ranjith joined with Catholic, Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim leaders at St. Anthony’s Shrine in Colombo, the location of the first bomb explosion during the Easter service, AP reported. 

The cardinal claimed players in global geopolitics use religious extremism as a way to achieve their goals. The Catholic Church suspects a larger foreign involvement is to blame. 

Sri Lankan Muslims have disowned the attackers and refused to allow the bodies of the suicide bombers to be buried in their cemeteries. 

President Gotobaya Rajapaksa’s government came to power in 2019 and faces pressure to find the mastermind responsible for the attack. 

“We are surprised that even after two years, answers to the questions of who and why and what of these attacks have not been found by the relevant authorities,” Ranjith was quoted as saying. “We often see that there are political reasons behind some of the investigations stalling.”

“Even though we wish to forgive all these things, we would like to know what really happened,” he continued. 

Nearly 300 lives were lost and over 500 were injured in the 2019 Easter morning suicide bombings. Of those killed, 39 were tourists, including five American nationals and a fifth-grade student from a Washington, D.C., private school. 

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the multiple, simultaneous bombings, one of the largest coordinated terrorist attacks since Sep. 11, 2001.

Days after the attack, the government announced Islamic terror cell Nations Thawahid Jaman was involved in the attacks and suggested the attackers likely had assistance from international terror organizations, such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, due to the sophistication of the attacks.  

Not long after the attack, Sri Lanka’s minister of defense said the attacks “were carried out in retaliation” for the shootings at two New Zealand mosques that killed 50 people a month before.

In January, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that three Sri Lankan citizens were charged with conspiring to provide material support to a group called “ISIS in Sri Lanka” that is believed to be responsible for the 2019 Easter attacks. The department announced that a total of five U.S. nationals were killed, including a Department of Commerce employee who traveled to Sri Lanka on official business.

“According to these charges, the defendants were committed supporters of ISIS, recruited others to ISIS’s violent cause, purchased materials for and made IEDs, helped to prepare and trained others who participated in the attacks, and murdered in the name of this deadly foreign terrorist organization,” a statement from the department reads. “They are in custody in Sri Lanka.”  

The Sri Lankan government was reportedly warned of possible attacks against Christians in early April, weeks before the bombings occurred through information received from foreign intelligence.

This has caused many to question why the attacks were not prevented if the government was warned weeks in advance. 

Violent attacks were common in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka during its Civil War, which lasted from 1983 to 2009. 

In recent years, there has been increased tension between Muslim groups and the majority Sinhalese, the largest ethnic group in Sri Lanka. 

Buddhists make up about 70% of the Sri Lankan population.

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