Government troops arrested Sri Lanka's defeated election candidate, former army chief Sarath Fonseka, yesterday amid allegations that he had plotted to carry out a military coup.
Scores of soldiers last night surrounded the office of General Fonseka, where he was meeting with members of his political coalition, and "dragged him away" for questioning in a move that will raise fresh questions about the conduct of the government led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The military was unavailable for comment but a presidential spokesman said General Fonseka had been arrested over allegations relating to his time as defence chief. "They want to question him in regard to certain actions carried out when he was chief of the defence staff," said the spokesman. "It is not related to the election. The election is over."
General Fonseka, 59, who was defeated in last month's presidential poll by almost 20 points, had previously claimed he was moved from his job as army chief to the more ceremonial position of chief of the defence staff because the president believed he was plotting a coup. He has always denied considering such actions, though it is understood that in recent days the government had been considering the options for bringing charges against him under military law.
But General Fonseka's supporters insisted such allegations were baseless and that he had been arrested because the government considered him a political threat. Mano Ganeshan, leader of the Democratic People's Front, one of the parties that had supported General Fonseka during the presidential campaign, was present when soldiers stormed into the office where they were meeting. Speaking last night from Colombo, he said: "We were discussing the upcoming general election and the results of the presidential election. When we were discussing this, military personnel entered the room and said they wanted to arrest Mr Fonseka. He protested."
He added: "He asked for the civilian police to be present but they said no. When Mr Fonseka protested they took him by his arms and legs – many army people. They want to take him away from the public eye. He has become the focal point."
In the aftermath of last month's presidential contest, General Fonseka, who oversaw the defeat of a Tamil separatist insurgency responsible for a three-decade civil war, and his supporters claimed that the government had rigged the polls. He said he intended to stand in parliamentary elections due to be held before April. He also claimed several times that the government was planning to kill him.
The move against General Fonseka, once considered a close friend of the president, comes amid growing concerns expressed by campaigners about a government crackdown on its opponents, especially those in the media. While Mr Rajapaksa has talked of working to bring about reconciliation in the country following his victory, his first step was to close several news websites critical of the government.
Government minister Keheliya Rambukwella told Reuters news agency that General Fonseka will be tried in a military court on charges of planning a coup. "When he was the army commander and chief of defence staff and member of the security council, he had direct contact with opposition political parties, which under the military law can amount to conspiracy," he said. "He's been plotting against the president while in the military ... with the idea of overthrowing the government."
A supporter of General Fonseka said: "Everyone knows there is nothing in [the allegations]. If he had wanted to overthrow the government he could have done that. There is no democracy in Sri Lanka."
General v President: The battle for power
*19 May: Sri Lanka formally declares an end to the civil war after the army – under the command of General Sarath Fonseka – takes control of the entire island and kills the leader of the Tamil Tigers.
*12 November: Fonseka resigns his army post abruptly, accusing the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, of sidelining him despite his contribution to the war victory. He had been appointed to the newly created post of Chief of Defence Staff, a hollow promotion in the eyes of many analysts.
*28 November: President Rajapaksa calls early elections to take advantage of popular support in the wake of the war victory.
*29 November: Fonseka announces his candidacy for president at the head of a coalition of opposition parties, putting himself in a head-to-head contest with his one-time ally.
*26 January: Rajapaksa wins presidential poll, roundly beating Fonseka by a margin of 18 points, or more than 1.8 million votes. The opposition cry foul, alleging the election was stolen.
*29 January: Commandos raid Fonseka's offices in Colombo and arrest 15 staff.
*30 January: Fonseka accuses the government of removing his personal security as part of "indirect assassination attempt".
*2 February: Sri Lanka's supreme court rules President Rajapaksa can begin his new term in November, rather than straight away, giving him an extra year in power.
*8 February: Fonseka is arrested at his office.Reuse content