Sri Lanka's ex-army chief charged for politics in uniform

Last Updated: Thu, Mar 11, 2010 12:40 hrs

Sri Lanka's military Thursday announced court martial proceedings against its former chief Sarath Fonseka for engaging in politics while in uniform and violating military procurement laws.

Army spokesman Prasad Samarasinghe made no mention of the more serious conspiracy and assassination plot charges that some in the ruling party had levelled at Fonseka after his defeat in presidential elections in January.

The highly decorated ex-army commander will be charged on seven counts of breaking army rules, Samarasinghe said, adding that a court martial would start hearing the case on Tuesday at the navy headquarters in Colombo.

"There is no time frame to end the court martial proceedings," Samarasinghe said, adding that Fonseka, who is under military custody at a naval detention centre, could appeal to a civilian court after the military verdict.

Supporters of Fonseka say the court martial is an attempt to stop the 59-year-old campaigning in parliamentary elections due next month.

President Mahinda Rajapakse has been accused by rights groups and other critics of cracking down on the opposition and dissent since he defeated Fonseka, a former ally and now bitter enemy, in a poll in January.

Fonseka was arrested by the military on February 8, two weeks after he lost the presidential election.

Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse, who is the president's younger brother, had said that the government had clear evidence of Fonseka plotting a coup and planning to assassinate the president.

The defence secretary had speculated that the hearing against Fonseka could go on for at least six months and on conviction he could be sentenced to five years in prison.

Ruling party politicians had also accused Fonseka of planning to overthrow the government and had labelled him a "traitor" for standing against his former commander-in-chief at the presidential polls.

Spokesman Samarasinghe said he was unaware of "conspiracy charges" against Fonseka, but said an investigation was being carried out by the police Criminal Investigations Department too.

"The CID is doing a separate investigation on General Fonseka," Samarasinghe said. "It might be related to charges to overthrow the government. That is a civil matter. The military will limit itself to violations of the Army Act."

Samarsinghe said Fonseka said the seven counts related to two charges -- engaging in politics and wrongdoing in military procurements.

Fonseka is accused of "conduct unbecoming" an officer, as well as maintaining contacts with opposition politicians while being head of the army and unfairly granting an arms contract to a company run by his son-in-law.

The police have already mounted a search for Fonseka's son-in-law, whose bank accounts have been frozen by the authorities.

Fonseka has challenged his arrest in the Supreme Court, which has fixed a hearing for April 26.

Fonseka and Rajapakse were allies in the crushing of Tamil Tiger separatist rebels last May, which ended their 37-year struggle that left up to 100,000 people dead according to a UN estimate.

Fonseka later fell out with Rajapakse over who should claim credit for the victory.

Despite his detention, he still intends to contest the April 8 parliamentary elections, which Rajapakse is expected to win.



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