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It has been over a year since the losing presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka was detained by the incumbent, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Marking the day in February, around 3000 people took part in a rally in the capital Colombo in protest of the war-hero’s treatment and calling for his release. The one-hour rally was according to the BBC attended by a variety of different parties and went relatively peaceful under heavy security. Supporters of the left win People’s Liberation Front (JVP) chanted anti-governmental slogans and carried placards in support of Mr Fonseka who is currently imprisoned after being sentenced to 30 months in jail with hard labour for breaching arms procurement guidelines. Other court cases are still pending.
During his military career, General Sarath Fonseka was known as the most high-profile and arguably the most tactical successful army officer in Sri Lanka. He made his career fighting the Tamil Tigers and was nearly assassinated by a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber in 2006. Over the years, he acquired a tough reputation as battlefield commander, often fighting alongside his troops. He was wounded in action in 1993.
After a fall out with the president over who should get credit for the 2009 military victory over the Tamil Tigers, the general retired from his post and went into the 2010 election hoping to capitalize on his status and win over government. However, the incumbent President Rajapaksa beat him for a second term and 12 days later Mr Fonseka was taken into custody. Despite this, the retired general was elected an opposition MP and had been attending parliament since April 2010 under a military escort. Then in August 2010, Mr Fonseka was found guilty of engaging in politics while in active service and a court martial sentenced him to be stripped of his rank and medals. His subsequent prison sentence is related to the charge of corruption in arms procurement deals. The sentence was a huge blow to Mr Fonseka because it lost him the seat in parliament and took away his voting rights for six years.
Following the court martial’s decision, Sri Lanka’s main opposition United National Party (UNP) dismissed the court as “illegal” according to the BBC, and Fonseka and his lawyers petitioned for an appeal – which was later denied.
The general and his supporters maintain that the charges and imprisonment are politically motivated on behalf of President Rajapaksa. BBC reported that Fonseka accused the incumbent for creating a ‘climate of intimidation and violence’ during the election campaign and seeing that both men are ardent Sinhalese nationalists, the election fight was described as intensely bitter. Supporters of Fonseka say that the general was removed because he dared to challenge Mr Rajapaksa at the polls. The opposition has stated that his fate reflects the government’s intolerance of dissent.
Mr Fonseka has so far only been convicted of two charges. Pending cases involve accusation of fraud, condoning fraud, plotting against the government, creating unrest within the army and keeping army deserters under his protection. He is also suspected of violating and condoning the violation of foreign exchange laws under the Exchange Control Act and for allegedly employing military deserters during his presidential campaign.