Prominent rival of Sri Lanka president walks free
COLOMBO, May 21 – Sri Lanka’s former army chief walked free from jail today with a pardon from President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who appears to have bowed to international demands for the release of his high-profile rival while erasing the image of him as a victim.
Ex-General Sarath Fonseka kissed his hands and raised them to 2,000 supporters who cheered “Victory to our leader! Our next president!”, and lit firecrackers outside the maximum security prison.
Some waved the national flag, emblazoned with a lion and a sword, as Fonseka released a symbolic white dove from the back of an open taxi.
Hailed by many as a hero for helping end Sri Lanka’s 25-year civil war against Tamil Tiger rebels, Fonseka fell out with the government and was imprisoned after a failed presidential bid two years ago against Rajapaksa, his former friend.
Arrested by soldiers who had been under his command, he was stripped of his rank as a four-star general.
He trailed Rajapaksa by 17 points in the last presidential election and, with the next poll not due until 2016, he is not seen as a political threat. His health has deteriorated since he was jailed in 2010.
One of the president’s powerful brothers, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, said Fonseka would not be barred from returning to politics.
But the ex-general’s release could splinter an already bickering opposition, improving the chances of the ruling party in forthcoming local elections, despite rising prices and other economic woes that have dented the government’s popularity.
“He became a hero for the opposition when he was inside,” Basil Rajapaksa said in an interview with Reuters. “For the opposition now, one slogan has been dropped.”
Kusal Perera, a government critic and director of the Centre for Social Democracy, said this was a “tactical” move by Rajapaksa, deflecting public attention from anxiety about the shape of the economy and law and order problems.
“This is a good platform for him to hide all the chaos in the country and switching the whole nation to an election mood,” he said, predicting fresh divisions within the opposition.
The United States had long called for Fonseka’s release, calling him a political prisoner. It has also pressed the government to make more progress in post-war reconciliation with the Tamil people, address human rights issues and respect press freedoms.
But, when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called, at a meeting with her Sri Lankan counterpart last week, for the demilitarisation of former Tiger strongholds in the north of the country, Rajapaksa responded by saying he would not be dictated to on matters of national security.
Last week, news of Fonseka’s impending release was welcomed by investors who hoped it would improve Sri Lanka’s international image and prompt more foreign inflows.
The European Union stripped Sri Lanka of duty-free export privileges for thousands of products after it failed to implement three human rights conventions.
Fonseka and another brother of the president, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, led the army to victory in the final stages of the war, but fell out in peacetime. The general complained he was sidelined by the president, who grew concerned Fonseka was plotting a coup.
Rights groups say both Fonseka and the president are implicated in the shooting of Tamil fighters as they tried to surrender. In recent months, rights workers and journalists have been targeted by a government media campaign against “traitors” it says helped the defeated guerrillas. – Reuters