COLOMBO - The arrest on Monday of Sri Lanka's former army commander and
defeated presidential candidate General Sarath Fonseka by military police on
vague charges of "committing military offences" removes a challenger to the
government before parliamentary elections this April at which Fonseka was
planning to emerge as a rallying figure for the opposition.
Thousands of Fonseka's supporters clashed violently with police in the capital,
Colombo, this week as they demanded his immediate release. Police used tear
gas, batons and water cannons to disperse protests attended by several
legislators of the main opposition United National Party and the leftist party
JVP, or the People's Liberation Front.
United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon is said to be
"following developments in Sri Lanka with concern" and has urged Colombo
authorities "to follow the due process of law and provide all necessary
protections [for Fonseka] and guarantee his safety". Ban personally telephoned
President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Wednesday night expressing concern over the
Fonseka challenged Rajapaksa in the presidential election held on January 26
after resigning as army chief last November and refusing the president's offer
of a ceremonial post. Both Rajapaksa and Fonseka claim the credit for Colombo's
victory last May over the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)
that ended the island's 26-year civil war.
After a bruising campaign marked by violence, electoral irregularities and
personal attacks between the two candidates, Rajapaksa soundly defeated the
former general with a majority of over 1.8 million votes. Though election
observers said there was no evidence of significant fraud by the government,
Fonseka has refused to accept defeat, threatening to take his allegations of
electoral fraud to the Supreme Court.
The opposition says Fonseka's arrest is part of a wider campaign of repression
against it ahead of parliamentary elections to be held this year. At least 37
former members of the military connected to Fonseka have been arrested in the
past two weeks, while 14 senior army officers who openly supported him have
been forced to retire since the presidential vote.
Rajapaksa dissolved parliament a day after Fonseka's arrest, announcing that
parliamentary elections scheduled for as late as June would now take place in
early April. Analysts say he aims to secure a two-thirds majority - or 150
seats in the 225-member parliament - for the ruling coalition United People's
Fonseka had been in talks with leaders from several opposition parties to form
an alliance and contest the parliamentary polls.
After Fonseka was seized by troops at his office in Colombo on Monday night,
the Defense Ministry announced that he would be court-martialed on charges of
conspiring against the government. The government accused Fonseka of plotting a
coup to oust the president and assassinate Rajapaksa shortly after the poll,
charges Fonseka denied.
"The broader charges were that he engaged with political leaders and political
parties that were working against the government," senior cabinet minister and
government defense spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella told reporters on Tuesday.
"He shall be tried and punished for that offense by a court martial."
The United States and several other European nations have voiced concern over
the arrest and warned the move could worsen divisions as the island recovers
"We are following the situation closely, and we have concerns that any action
be in accord with Sri Lankan law," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley
told Agence France-Presse. "It's an unusual action to take right on the heels
of an election," Crowley said of the arrest. Fonseka holds US residency.
Amnesty International in a statement accused the Sri Lankan government of
stepping up a "crackdown on political opposition".
War crimes card
In defending its arrest of Fonseka, the government has said that comments
Fonseka made to the BBC in which he vowed to testify in a international
war-crimes trial against the government proved his "disloyalty" and
"willingness to divulge state secrets".
The government may have feared that Fonseka's testimony would result in serious
international repercussions to the Rajapaksa-led government. At least 7,000
civilians died in the final assault against the Tamil Tigers. The real number
is unknown, and no credible investigations have been held.
Just weeks before the presidential election, Fonseka had alleged that Defence
Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa ordered the killing of several senior Tamil
rebels who had tried to surrender to the military during the final days of the
Amnesty maintains that the president, instead of steering the country toward a
better human-rights record following his re-election, has become even less
tolerant of criticism. Journalists with the state media suspected of supporting
the opposition candidate have faced threats and violence, according to
India media, including the Hindu, have pressed in editorials for the release of
Fonseka. India's government has in general has been seen as pro-Rajapaksa, but
the arrest has made it "uncomfortable", said sources from New Delhi.
Sri Lanka's opposition leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, has called Fonseka's
arrest a blow to democracy. "There is no basis for his arrest. After the
[presidential] election, he [Fonseka] has been victimized," said
Wickremesinghe, who cut short a visit to India over the political crisis. He
said that if Fonseka had committed any offence he had to be charged in court.
The government insists there is tangible evidence to prove the allegations
against Fonseka, and Sri Lankan military spokesman Major General Prasad
Samarasinghe has said the arrest relates to offences committed during Fonseka's
time in the army.
Any military official can be charged for cases even six months after his
retirement, and this applied to Fonseka, Samarasinghe said. "A summary of
evidence that will be collected will be put before army lawyers, who after
consultation will then forward it to the attorney general for a final decision
on whether it warranted a court martial."
Defence spokesman Rambukwella said Fonseka had been arrested under Section 58
(1) of the Army Act. "While he was holding membership of the Security Council
he had many connections and links dealing with various political parties and
leaders who have been working against the government, and that could amount to
The government announced that Fonseka's family had been granted full access to
him and that full medical assistance as required had also been offered to him.
But opposition parties in a joint statement said the former army chief's life
was at risk. "We have good reason to believe that the extra-judicial arrest of
General Fonseka may be followed up with assassination while in custody," they
said on Wednesday.
Fonseka's wife, Anoma, told the BBC that she had been allowed to visit her
husband at navy headquarters in Colombo, where he is being held. She said her
husband trusted no one there and had therefore not eaten or drunk anything
until she had taken him a meal.
The general's wife has filed a fundamental rights violation petition in the
Supreme Court challenging the alleged arbitrary arrest and detention of her
husband. The petition was filed for the alleged infringement of his fundamental
rights as guaranteed in the constitution.