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Sri Lanka arrests top Muslim leader over 2019 Easter terror attacks

Colombo: Sri Lankan police on Saturday arrested a prominent Muslim lawmaker and his brother over suspected connections to the Easter Sunday suicide bombings in 2019 that killed 269 people.

Rishad Bathiudeen is a former Cabinet minister who currently leads an opposition party in Sri Lanka’s Parliament. He and his brother, Reyaj Bathiudeen, were arrested in the capital for “aiding and abetting the suicide bombers who committed the Easter Sunday carnage,” said police spokesman Ajith Rohana.

The bomb’s destruction at St Sebastian’s Church in Negombo, north of Colombo, Sri Lanka.Credit:AP

He said the brothers have not yet been officially charged but were arrested based on direct evidence, as well as what he called circumstantial and “scientific” evidence.

Two local Muslim groups that had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group have been blamed for the six near-simultaneous blasts at two Roman Catholic churches, a Protestant church and three tourist hotels. Both Muslims and Catholics are minorities in Sri Lanka, where Buddhists make up 70% of the population.

Before his arrest on Saturday, Bathiudeen wrote on Facebook that police were standing outside his house “since 1:30am attempting to arrest me without a charge. … They have already arrested my brother. I have been in Parliament, and have cooperated with all lawful authorities until now. This is unjust.”

The arrests came amid growing demands for justice by Sri Lanka’s Catholic leaders and community, including during a commemoration held on Wednesday on the second anniversary of the attacks. Last month, Sri Lankan Catholics also attended Mass dressed in black and held placards in a silent “Black Sunday” protest.

Most of the people connected to the groups accused of carrying out the attacks have been arrested, but Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith has insisted the bombings couldn’t have been planned by the leader who committed suicide in one of the attacks.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, archbishop of Colombo, center, observes two minute silence for the victims of 2019 Easter Sunday attacks during a service last week.Credit:

The government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who came to power later in 2019 after promising to determine the truth behind the attacks, is under pressure to find the mastermind.

His government accused an Islamic cleric arrested soon after the attacks of being the organiser, but the claim has not been accepted by the Catholic Church, which suspects there was larger foreign involvement.

Ranjith, the archbishop, has said a presidential commission that investigated the attacks focused on failures by those in political power at the time to prevent the bombings, instead of on finding the people who were directly responsible.

A power struggle between the then-president and prime minister, which led to a communications breakdown and a resulting lapse in security coordination, is said to have enabled the attacks, which occurred despite prior foreign intelligence warnings.

The Muslim community in Sri Lanka has disowned the attackers and did not allow their bodies to be buried in its cemeteries to show their actions are not part of Islam.

Reuters

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