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World News

Top Muslim leader arrested over 2019 Easter attacks in Sri Lanka

by Press Association

Sri Lankan police have arrested a prominent Muslim politician and his brother over suspected connections to the Easter Sunday suicide bombings in 2019 that killed 269 people.

Rishad Bathiudeen, a former cabinet minister who currently leads an opposition party in Sri Lanka’s parliament, was arrested in the capital Colombo along with his brother, Reyaj Bathiudeen, for “aiding and abetting the suicide bombers who committed the Easter Sunday carnage”, police said.

A spokesman added that the brothers have not yet been officially charged.

Two local Muslim groups who had pledged allegiance to the so-called 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 Saturday, Bathiudeen wrote on Facebook that police were standing outside his house “since 1.30am today 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, which were repeated during a commemoration on Wednesday to mark 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 could not have been planned by the leader, who took his own life in one of the attacks.

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 person responsible.

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.

Archbishop Ranjith said a presidential commission that investigated the attacks focused on failures by those in political power at the time to prevent the bombings, rather than 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 disowned the attackers and did not allow their bodies to be buried in its cemeteries, to show their actions are not part of Islam.

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