Police in Sri Lanka have arrested five people including a key figure from an extremist Buddhist organization blamed for a series of hate crimes against Muslims that has drawn international censure.
The 32-year-old man from the radical Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), or Buddhist Force, is one of the first suspects to be arrested in connection with arson attacks against Muslims that have stoked religious tensions.
“The police was able to arrest a 32-year-old person who is directly related to four (arson) attacks,” police spokesman Priyantha Jayakody told reporters adding that all four businesses were owned by Muslims.
The arrests come a week after diplomats condemned violence against Muslims in Sri Lanka and urged the government to uphold minority rights and freedom of religion. Earlier, legislators blamed the government for failing to stop a spate of attacks on minority Muslims.
More than 20 attacks on Muslims have been recorded since April 17, including arson at Muslim-owned businesses and petrol-bomb attacks on mosques while the police said at least 16 such cases had been reported since April.
Police spokesman Priyantha Jayakody said investigations were continuing into the “major incidents” of arson that hit Muslim homes, businesses, mosques and a cemetery.
“We are taking a tough stand against such crimes,” he told reporters.
Police were criticized for failing to bring the radical Buddhist group to heel by capturing its fugitive ringleader Galagodaatte Gnanasara, as the minority Muslim community endured attacks with stones and petrol bombs.
Jayakody said the detained suspect is a close associate of Gnanasara, an extremist monk who has gone underground since late May when police ordered he turn himself in for questioning. Four specialist teams were hunting the BBS mastermind, he added.
The militant Buddhist outfit says its leader is in hiding out of fear for his life. It has also denied orchestrating the latest violence against Muslims, who make up 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s mainly Buddhist population.
The BBS was accused of instigating religious riots in mid-2014 that left four people dead but escaped prosecution under the then-strongman president Mahinda Rajapakse.
Rajapakse’s brother Gotabhaya, a former defense secretary, was said to be close to the hardline Buddhist group.
The latest failure to arrest Gnanasara and stop a renewed outbreak of religious violence has seen the European Union and foreign envoys urge Sri Lanka to take action.
The European Union delegation chief in Colombo, Tung-Lai Margue, has said it was crucial there was “no impunity for hate crimes” and that the perpetrators are swiftly brought to justice.
President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe have ordered police to uphold the law, but the violence against Muslims has not ended.
Muslims, who account for around 9 percent of Sri Lanka’s population of 21 million, have blamed the attacks on Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) or the “Buddhist Power Force.” The organization says spread of Islam is a threat to Buddhism as the dominant religion. It denies any involvement.
Churches also have faced similar attacks in the past.