Sri Lanka’s defeated presidential candidate, ex-army chief appears before court-martial

By Krishan Francis, AP
Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sri Lankan opposition leader faces court-martial

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — The former Sri Lankan army chief who lost his opposition bid for the presidency objected Tuesday to his court-martial hearing, saying the panel formed to decide his fate was biased against him, an ally said.

The arrest of Gen. Sarath Fonseka has been condemned by the opposition and human rights groups, who accuse the government of retaliating against a man who dared challenge President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his re-election bid.

The court-martial Tuesday of Fonseka, considered one of the heroes of the government’s war against the Tamil Tiger rebels, has been shrouded in secrecy, with the military barring reporters from the event and refusing to release a detailed account of the proceedings.

Military spokesman Major General Prasad Samarasinghe said Fonseka, accompanied by his lawyer, appeared before a three-member panel at the country’s navy headquarters to face charges that he prepared the groundwork for his presidential campaign while still in military uniform.

A second charge that Fonseka violated regulations in purchasing military hardware will be taken up Wednesday, he said.

Fonseka objected Tuesday to the court-martial soon after it began Tuesday and said the presiding panel of three officers was biased because it included two men whom he had disciplined when he ran the army, said Anura Dissanayake a lawmaker and Fonseka ally. The panel’s third member was a close relative of the current army commander who initiated the court-martial, he said.

Fonseka also argued that an army commander cannot face a court-martial.

Many have been critical of the proceedings and expressed concerns that Rajapaksa is using all the levers of power to quash any opposition to his rule.

“Sarath Fonseka’s arrest continues the Rajapaksa government’s postelection crackdown on political opposition,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director.

Police used tear gas and batons to disperse a protest in support of Fonseka and arrested 14 people, according to Fonseka’s party, the Democratic National Alliance.

Police spokesman Prishantha Jayakody said the protesters blocked traffic and clashed with police leading to the arrests. All were released on bail, he said.

Fonseka’s wife, Anoma, said she opted not to attend the hearing because the charges against her husband were “a joke.”

Soon after Fonseka’s arrest on Feb. 8, government officials went public with various allegations against him, including that he plotted to assassinate Rajapaksa and capture power. But they are not among the official charges.

Fonseka’s supporters have denied the charges brought against him, saying the government is punishing the retired general for challenging Rajapaksa and is attempting to cow the opposition before April 8 parliamentary elections. Despite his detention Fonseka is running for a seat in the election.

Rajapaksa and Fonseka were once strong allies in their campaign to defeat the Tamil Tiger rebels and end their 25-year armed campaign for an independent state.

After routing the rebels last May, both were hailed as heroes by the country’s Sinhalese majority. But they quickly turned on each other. Fonseka quit the army, challenged Rajapaksa in the Jan. 26 election and lost by 18 percent.

Associated Press reporter Bharatha Mallawarachi contributed to this report.

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