Govt can 'act tough' if need be: SL Prez warns critics

Rajapaksa asks critics to be careful in demanding swift action against perpetrators of Easter attacks

He said the judicial proceedings were underway and his government will not interfere in them

Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Credit: Reuters file photo

Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has asked his detractors to be careful while demanding quick action against the perpetrators of the deadly 2019 Easter Sunday terror attacks, warning that his government can "act tough" on the critics if the need arises.

Nine suicide bombers, belonging to local Islamist extremist group National Thawheed Jamaat (NTJ) linked to ISIS, carried out coordinated blasts that tore through three churches and as many luxury hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday in 2019, killing over 270 people, including 11 Indians, and injuring over 500.

“If they want rapid action, we could move Parliament to take away the civic rights of those responsible,” he said while addressing a public gathering here on Wednesday and alleging that his predecessor Maithripala Sirisena neglected national security matters.

He said the judicial proceedings were underway and his government will not interfere in them.

Read | Lankan President blames previous govt for Easter blasts

President Rajapaksa is the younger brother of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. The two brothers led a decisive campaign that helped end the island nation's three decade long civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

However, the brother-duo were accused of condoning sexual violence and extrajudicial killings allegedly by Lankan security forces during the civil war, which ended in May 2009 with the death of LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran.

The Rajapaksa family has dominated Sri Lankan politics for two decades. Basil Rajapaksa, the youngest of Rajapaksa brothers, was in July sworn in as Sri Lanka’s Minister of Finance, becoming the fourth Rajapaksa brother and fifth member of the first family to enter the Cabinet.

The eldest of the brothers, Chamal Rajapaksa, is a Cabinet Minister, as is Namal Rajapaksa, son of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Chamal’s son Shasheendra Rajapaksa is a non-cabinet minister.

Blaming the previous government for neglecting national security, President Rajapaksa said they had destroyed the intelligence system set up by him before 2015.

“They destroyed national security. The commission report has clearly said the former President, Prime Minister and the Cabinet were responsible for the attacks,” Rajapaksa said, referring to the report of the panel appointed by his predecessor Sirisena.

During his tenure, Sirisena formed a presidential panel to probe the attacks. In its report, the panel said Sirisena and a host of other top defence officials, including former defence secretaries, former IGPs and intelligence chiefs, were guilty of ignoring prior intelligence. The panel report recommended criminal action against them.

The panel had recommended that findings against Sirisena and the then police top brass be referred to the Attorney General for necessary legal action.

Sirisena has publicly denied receiving any prior information on the attacks.

Sirisena is the current chair of the ruling SLPP coalition and any action against him could cause a split within the government ranks.

The Buddhist-majority nation was about to mark a decade since ending a 37-year-long Tamil separatist war in May 2009 when the suicide bombings in 2019 rocked the country.

The attacks caused a political storm as the then government headed by president Sirisena and prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was blamed for its inability to prevent the deadly attacks despite the prior intelligence made available on the impending terror strikes.

Wickremesinghe was also accused of turning a blind eye to the rising extremism in order to appease his Muslim minority political allies.

Head of the Catholic Church Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, who presses Rajapaksa to act on the findings of the probe panel, accuses the government of covering up the investigations for political purposes.

The government denies it, saying the police and judicial proceedings are taking their own time.