Military trial for ex-army chief who took on President

Sri Lankan 'war hero' accused of breaking election rules says: I will never give up
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The Independent Online

The former army chief who incurred the wrath of Sri Lanka's President by challenging him in a bitterly fought election has been brought before a secret court martial and charged with breaking military regulations.

Sarath Fonseka, who less than a year ago was hailed a hero by the country's Sinhala majority after overseeing the defeat of Tamil rebels, was charged with engaging in politics while still in military uniform. Many independent observers believe the allegations against him are politically motivated and that the government wants to discredit a potential challenger ahead of parliamentary elections.

"This is very bad. This is the first time in Sri Lanka's history that an army commander has been court-martialled," Mr Fonseka's wife, Anoma, told The Independent last night from Colombo. "A year ago he was the most popular army commander in the world and now [they say he is] just like a terrorist."

In the aftermath of last year's defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – the rebels who had fought a bloody three-decade insurgency against the government – the 59-year former military leader was feted by President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Yet the relationship quickly soured. Mr Fonseka suggested he had not received sufficient credit for beating the rebels, while the government would later claim the army chief was planning a coup. He was then moved sideways before announcing his resignation and his plan to stand as the main opposition candidate in January's presidential election.

Mr Fonseka lost the election to Mr Rajapaksa by 18 points, but the former army chief claimed the vote had been rigged against him. Though Mr Rajapaksa initially spoke of the need for national unity and reconciliation in the aftermath of the poll, analysts said he launched a swift crackdown on political opponents and dissidents – particularly in the media.

Amid widespread allegations that he was plotting against the government – allegations he adamantly denied – Mr Fonseka was arrested last month. Parliamentary polls, in which Mr Fonseka intended to stand, are to be held in early April.

"Sarath Fonseka's arrest continues the Rajapaksa government's post-election crackdown on political opposition," said Sam Zarifi of Amnesty International.

The former army commander is being held at the country's naval headquarters, where yesterday's court martial took place before a panel of three military officers. The media was denied access and military officials refused to provide any but the most basic details.

In handwritten answers to questions from Channel 4 news that were smuggled out of the naval HQ yesterday, General Fonseka inssted that "none of the accusations are true." And of President Rajapaksa, he said: "He is jealous of me as I got more votes than him although he rigged [the election] he knows that I can challenge him... but I will never give up."

Military spokesman Major General Prasad Samarasinghe said Mr Fonseka was accused of preparing the groundwork for his presidential campaign while still in uniform. That hearing was adjourned until next month after the former officer said the trial panel could be biased because two of the three military judges had been previously disciplined by him.

The panel's third member, meanwhile, was a close relative of the current army commander who initiated the court martial.

"The general said that he is neither pleading guilty or not guilty because the court has no power to hear and try these charges," Nalin Ladduwahetti, one of a number of lawyers working for Mr Fonseka, told Reuters.

A second charge, that the former general violated regulations in purchasing military equipment, will be taken up later today.

The move to proceed with a trial of Mr Fonseka comes after Sri Lanka's President clashed with the UN secretary general over establishing an inquiry into possible war crimes at the conclusion of last year's fighting, when up to 10,000 civilians lost their lives.

Ban Ki-moon spoke with Mr Rajapaksa and suggested the establishment of a panel to examine the allegations. "He also explained that such a panel would advise him on the way forward on accountability issues related to Sri Lanka," said a UN spokesman. In a statement, Mr Rajapaksa called the suggestion "unwarranted".