Judges postpone hearing on 1 charge Sri Lanka’s ex-army chief faces in court-martial

By Bharatha Mallawarachi, AP
Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Hearing in court-martial of Sri Lankan postponed

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Judges presiding over the court-martial of Sri Lanka’s defeated presidential candidate indefinitely postponed a hearing into one allegation against him Wednesday, a defense attorney said, but proceedings will continue on another charge.

Sarath Fonseka, who as army chief led Sri Lanka to victory in its decades-long civil war but then fell out of favor after unsuccessfully challenging President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s re-election bid, appeared before the court-martial Tuesday on accusations he prepared the groundwork for his run while still in uniform.

A hearing was supposed to open Wednesday into a second charge — related to alleged breaches in the purchase of military hardware — but defense attorney Nuwan Bopage said the panel of three army officers postponed it. They want to ask Rajapaksa if another panel should handle the second charge.

Reporters are barred from the court-martial, which will continue in April on the first charge.

Fonseka has questioned the impartiality of the judges, saying the panel included two men whom Fonseka had disciplined when he ran the army. The panel’s third member was a close relative of the current army commander who initiated the court-martial, Fonseka’s lawyers said.

Fonseka, a former four-star general, also argued that his case can’t be heard by low-ranking officers, according to law. He pleaded not guilty to the charges filed Tuesday, Dissanayake said.

The lawyer said the postponement shows that the tribunal is “fraudulent.”

The panel of judges “was not appointed overnight. They should have addressed this with the president earlier and got it sorted out,” Dissanayake said.

Government officials have also accused Fonseka of plotting to assassinate Rajapaksa and capture power, but those are not among the official charges.

Fonseka’s supporters say 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 parliamentary seat.

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, the leaders quickly turned on each other.

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