Sri Lanka’s top court on Thursday 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 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 paralyzed 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, Zaharan Hashim, had been on the state’s watch list 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 $850,000 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 defense 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 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 Center for Policy Alternatives, which is based in Colombo and advocates democratic governance.
Mr. Sirisena came to power in 2015 promising reform, having toppled the 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, the 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.
The two leaders’ back-stabbing and the security failure of the Easter Sunday attacks ensured the return of Rajapaksas to power, with Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former army colonel and American citizen, pitching himself as the strongman the wounded nation needed and winning elections that same year to become president.
He quickly turned the government into a family business, appointing his older brother as prime minister and several other family members to key positions of the government. After his mismanagement — which included massive tax cuts and a sudden ban on chemical fertilizer — ran an economy already feeling the brunt of Covid pandemic into the ground, the younger Mr. Rajapaksa was forced to resign as president and briefly flee the country last year.
The family’s political party still controls much of the power through a majority in the Parliament, and helped propel an ally, Mr. Wickremesinghe, into the presidency as Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s replacement. But the younger Mr. Rajapaksa’s loss of presidential impunity — and of his American citizenship, which he had to give up to run for president — has revived efforts to seek justice for wartime abuses. The Rajapaksas have denied wrongdoing, placing blame on brutal tactics by the insurgency.
Earlier this week, the Canadian government imposed targeted sanctions against the two Rajapaksa brothers and two of their senior military officers for what it described as “gross and systematic violations of human rights” during the civil war, which ended in 2009.