Army chief is jailed again for speaking out over war crimes

Sri Lankan general gets three years for alleging that atrocity was ordered by President's brother
  • @AndrewBuncombe

The former chief of Sri Lanka's army was sentenced to three years in prison yesterday after he was convicted of alleging the country's Defence Secretary was involved in war crimes in 2009 at the conclusion of the long conflict with Tamil rebels.

A three-judge bench of the High Court delivered a split verdict in a case relating to an interview Sarath Fonseka gave to a newspaper while campaigning for the presidency later that year. The court found his interview breached emergency laws that were in place.

"I reject this decision with disgust," Mr Fonseka said. "I believe that the fair-minded people will correct this mistake one day, otherwise it will remain a black mark in the history of our judiciary."

The allegations centred on a notorious episode, reported by The Independent, which came to be known as the "white flag incident". Supporters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), as well as human rights campaigners, claimed several LTTE members were shot dead while trying to surrender in the final hours of the conflict.

Informed of their desire to surrender, a senior Sri Lankan official had sent messages that they should approach troops slowly, their hands raised and carrying a white flag. Several were killed. The government has always denied it shot them and suggested they may have been killed by angry LTTE fighters.

In the aftermath of the war, Mr Fonseka was hailed a hero by much of the country, along with the Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, brother of the President, Mahinda. But soon afterwards, the brothers fell out with Mr Fonseka, who announced his intention to stand down from his post and run in the forthcoming election. He gave an interview to the Sunday Leader newspaper in which he claimed the Defence Secretary had given an order that no one should be taken alive. Mr Fonseka later said he was misquoted.

He failed to unseat Mr Rajapaksa in the presidential contest of January 2010. Shortly afterwards, the former general was detained and charged by a military court with running for a political post while still a soldier. He was sentenced to 30 months and stripped of his rank and medals.

Yesterday, Mr Fonseka's wife, Anoma, said he intended to appeal against the latest verdict. "If you know the case, you know they have just made up a story," she said. Mangala Samaraweera, a senior opposition member, said: "We were not very surprised by this, but we were surprised that at least one judge had the courage to give a dissenting view." A spokesman for President Rajapaksa, Lucien Rajakarunanayake, denied there had been pressure on the court. "Sri Lanka has an independent judiciary," he said.

Earlier this year, a report completed by a UN panel said there were "credible allegations" that both Sri Lankan troops and the LTTE committed war crimes in the final stages of the conflict.

It suggested tens of thousands of Tamil civilians had been killed and called for an independent inquiry. Sri Lanka has rejected such calls and is instead is holding its own inquiry.

Last night Suren Surendiran, of the Global Tamil Forum, said: "The fact that the army commander who led the war alleged that war crimes were committed itself warrants an international independent investigation."