Jailed opposition leader uses day in parliament to attack President

Andrew Buncombe,Asia Correspondent
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:02

Sri Lanka's former army chief made a dramatic appearance before the country's parliament yesterday after being released from a military jail. The newly elected MP delivered a scathing speech in which he claimed the government was trying to block his "fight for democracy".

Retired General Sarath Fonseka, who won a seat in recent parliamentary elections, was briefly freed from detention to address the new assembly. He used the opportunity to demand his immediate release. "The protection of democracy must begin here in parliament," he declared. "The freedom of citizens is utmost. [The parliament must safeguard] justice, freedom of expression, freedom to hold different political opinions and freedom from illegal detention."

Later, Mr Fonseka warned that he would continue to campaign against the government in the weeks ahead. He told the Agence France-Presse: "Today I was restrained because of the ceremonial occasion, but I will make use of the parliament to fight for democracy and to protect the constitution."

The former military leader, who oversaw last year's successful operation to crush Tamil rebels and end a bloody civil war that had raged for more than three decades, was arrested and detained earlier this year after he unsuccessfully challenged President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the polls.

Despite his comfortable victory and purported desire to work towards unity, Mr Rajapaksa embarked on a fresh crackdown on his political opponents and the media. Mr Fonseka, who had once been close to the President, was charged with military misconduct and brought before a court martial on two separate charges. The former senior soldier has denied the charges and has claimed that he is being persecuted for political reasons. Despite a reasonable showing in the presidential election, Mr Fonseka's Democratic National Alliance won only seven seats in the first post-war parliamentary elections early this month. Instead, the polls gave a huge majority to Mr Rajapaksa's United People's Freedom Alliance with 144 seats in the 225-member parliament.

Escorted to the parliament by guards, Mr Fonseka seized on the opportunity to speak out when he was given the chance to offer his congratulations to the assembly's new speaker, Chamal Rajapaksa, one of the President's brothers.

"At this moment it is very important to have the freedom of the people," said the former general. "I'm also a victim of these injustices, and I'm grateful I was able to raise these issues when I entered parliament for the first time."

Although the ruling party is in the strongest position in parliament for at least a decade, Mr Rajapaksa's coalition fell six seats short of the two-thirds majority required to change the constitution and alter regulations that limit a president to two terms. Yet, his desire to further cement the position of his family within the political establishment was granted.

Two of the President's brothers, Basil and Chamal, won seats in the parliament, while a third brother, Gotabaya, is the head of the powerful defence ministry. Charu Lata Hogg, a regional expert at Chatham House, said: "Like previous political dynasties in Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa is tightening his family's hold over state governance."

Meanwhile, Mr Fonseka, whose trial has been adjourned for two weeks, declared that he had achieved a significant win. "They are trying to keep me away from my political activities and since we have managed to come to parliament, overcoming all the barriers," he told Reuters. "I have recorded a victory here which is of course a humiliation for the government."

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