Rajapaksa Approves Release of Former Sri Lankan Army Chief

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa approved the early release from a three-year jail sentence of Sarath Fonseka, the former army chief who became a leading political opponent.

The authorization will be sent to the Ministry of Justice today, Bandula Jayasekara, a presidential spokesman, said in a phone text message yesterday.

Fonseka, 61, led the island nation’s military as it ended a 26-year war with Tamil guerrillas in May 2009. The order to free the man the U.S. named in 2010 as a political prisoner came as Sri Lanka’s foreign minister met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington on May 18.

Fonseka’s release “will be viewed very positively as a correction of an injustice,” said Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council in Colombo. “It will also be seen as determined by external pressure, and if Fonseka is free to do politics, it may bring about a reinvigoration of the opposition.”

Fonseka challenged Rajapaksa in elections in January 2010 after the president moved him to a ceremonial post and said he was plotting a coup. Troops ringed Fonseka’s poll headquarters in a Colombo hotel as votes were counted in a ballot that re-elected Rajapaksa with the strongest mandate in 16 years.

The former army chief was arrested a month later, a move that prompted opposition protests and accusations the government intended to prevent Fonseka from participating in parliamentary elections scheduled for April that year. Fonseka’s arrest followed reports he was prepared to testify in an international court on war crimes charges against the Sri Lankan government, Amnesty International said after his detention.

‘Dabbling in Politics’

The government denied Fonseka’s confinement was an act of political vengeance. In August and September 2010, he was convicted separately by courts martial for “dabbling in politics” and taking part in “corrupt deals.”

The ex-military leader was recently transferred to a private hospital in Colombo “for treatment for bronchial complications,” according to the Daily Mirror newspaper. Fonseka suffered injuries in an April 2006 attack in the capital by a female suicide bomber.

The United Nations Human Rights Council in March voted in favor of a U.S.-sponsored resolution calling on Sri Lanka to again investigate alleged abuses during the war, stepping up pressure on the government in Colombo. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2010 called on Rajapaksa to ensure the due process of law in Fonseka’s case.

‘No Healing’

The resolution passed in Geneva urged Sri Lanka to begin another probe into claims its army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam committed war crimes during the conflict. Both sides were probably responsible for violations of international law in the final stages of fighting that killed as many as 40,000 civilians, a UN report released in April 2011 said.

“Although lives have improved for all people in terms of security and development, there is no sense of healing of the wounds of war,” the Peace Council’s Perera said. “There is no clarity on what happened to missing people and there’s been no compensation for the massive loss of personal property.”

The war finished with a bloody offensive by the Sri Lankan army that ended the rebels’ fight for a separate Tamil homeland in the north and east of the island.

The government’s efforts at bringing accountability for alleged crimes were “deeply flawed” and “not in accordance with international standards,” according to the UN report.

Tourism, Investment

Peace in Sri Lanka has spurred a pickup in tourism and investment and prompted record government spending on roads, ports and power plants.

The military on May 19 commemorated the third anniversary of the defeat of the LTTE with a victory parade in Colombo.

Rajapaksa, in an address to the nation two days ago, said the government won’t abandon its responsibilities toward reconciliation in the country. The report of the country’s commission on reconciliation mustn’t be used to create divisions among people, he said.

“We have not forgotten the help and assistance given to us by our neighbors and other countries of the international community to defeat terrorism,” the president said, according to a transcript on the Sri Lankan government’s website. “Similarly, what we expect from them today is cooperation in our moves for rapid development of the country.”

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