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Asia-pacific

Former army chief Fonseka faces court martial for 'military offence'

Text by Nandita VIJ

Latest update : 2010-02-13

Sri Lanka's most decorated officer Sarath Fonseka, who lost January's presidential poll, faces a court martial on charges of sharing defence secrets with the opposition and conspiring to topple the government.

It’s a dramatic fall for Sri Lanka’s national hero General Sarath Fonseka – the four-star former military chief who spearheaded a massive operation in 2009 to wipe out Tamil Tiger rebels. 

“General Fonseka faces various charges. He committed a military offence by divulging military secrets to the opposition and attempting to topple the government while he was serving as chief of defence staff,” Laxman Hullugale, Sri Lanka’s director-general of the Media Centre for National Security, told FRANCE 24 in a telephone interview on Tuesday.

Fonseka was being held by the military at an undisclosed location on Tuesday, a day after troops dragged him out from of his office while he was in a meeting with Sri Lanka’s main opposition leaders.

In a press conference on Tuesday, a tearful Anoma Fonseka, General Fonseka’s wife, appealed for her husband’s release and accused the government of abducting her husband and treating him like an animal rather than a war hero. Sri Lankan opposition parties have called for nationwide protests on Wednesday to press the authorities to release Fonseka.

A bitter clampdown

Fonseka was arrested shortly after telling reporters on Monday that he would testify at any probe into alleged war crimes committed by his troops in the final stages of the crackdown on Tamil rebels.

According to United Nations, nearly 7,000 Tamil civilians were killed and thousands more were displaced in the last few weeks of the war in May 2009. Sri Lankan authorities have repeatedly dismissed international calls for an investigation, amid charges that senior defence officials ordered the execution of surrendering rebel leaders.

For Charu Lata Hogg, an associate fellow at the UK-based think-tank Chatham House

"The arrest was expected. This is part of a regular clamp down on anyone who challenges the government.”

"Fonseka’s arrest is yet another instance of the government clamping down on opponents," says Hogg.  "The allegation that war crimes were committed during the last few weeks of the military operation in 2009 and rules of war were violated by both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan army, raises the spectre of accountability the Rajapakse regime."

"Fonseka, even though he was the executor of the military campaign, realises the potential damage any honest investigation could cause to the political leadership. His public statements about holding an inquiry should be seen as an exercise in political opportunism and not as any genuine commitment to human rights," Hogg told FRANCE 24 in a telephone interview. 

 

Challenging authority

After the insurgency, General Fonseka and Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa fell out over who should get credit for the operation’s success.  Fonseka quit the military in November 2009 after nearly 40 years of service saying Rajapaksa had falsely accused him of plotting a coup.

The rift between the two deepened on a violent campaign trail in the lead-up to January’s presidential poll, which the incumbent won with a comfortable margin of 1.8 million votes.

Sri Lankan authorities further tightened the net around Fonseka shortly after polls closed on election day. Troops surrounded the hotel where Fonseka and his supporters spent the night after the poll.

At the time, the government said it suspected some former military men close to Fonseka were plotting a coup and arrested them, but not the retired general.

At least 37 ex-military men allied to Fonseka are in custody on charges of plotting a coup and 14 senior army officers were forced to retire for showing support to his candidacy.

Date created : 2010-02-09

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