Sri Lanka crackdown goes beyond arrest of Sarath Fonseka

The arrest of Sri Lanka’s former Army chief Sarath Fonseka, who challenged the president in recent elections, comes soon after the detention of former military members tied to him.

Eranga Jayawardena/AP
Anoma Fonseka, wife of the Sri Lanka's defeated presidential candidate and former military chief Sarath Fonseka, arrives to address the media at her home in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Tuesday. Sarath Fonseka has been arrested and will be court-martialed for allegedly planning to overthrow the government while serving as the head of the army.

The arrest of Gen. Sarath Fonseka, Sri Lanka’s recently defeated presidential candidate and former Army chief, has raised concerns that a wider repression of the country’s political opposition will follow.

Military police arrested Fonseka on Monday evening, reportedly on charges he had conspired against Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, back when he led the Army.

Fonseka quit the Army last November, six months after he led the its historic defeat of the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), to run as candidate of a disparate opposition alliance. President Rajapaksa was reelected on Jan. 26 with 58 percent of votes.

In recent days, the government has arrested at least 37 former members of the military connected to Fonseka, while a dozen senior Army officers who backed him have been forced into retirement. The government has also closed down two newspapers and arrested a number of journalists.

“After the military defeat of the LTTE and a major election victory, President Rajapaksa should steer the country toward a better human rights record,” Sam Zarifi, director of Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific program, said in a statement issued Tuesday. “Instead we’re seeing less and less tolerance for criticism.”

Fonseka was arrested shortly after he told reporters he would willingly provide evidence of war crimes committed by Sri Lankan troops in any international investigation. He was also in the middle of campaign planning for general parliamentary elections, scheduled for by April, with leaders of opposition parties including the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress.

He had been arrested “in connection with condemnation acts and other military offences committed by him,” said a statement on the defense ministry’s website. It did not give further details, but observers believe Fonseka will be court marshaled.

Bitter personal rivalry

During election campaigning, Rajapaksa and Fonseka, who had worked together as architects of the final, victorious phase of a 26-year war against the LTTE, hurled allegations of corruption and misconduct at one another. After the polls, Fonseka, who is the only serving Sri Lankan officer to be promoted to the rank of four-star general, accused Rajapaksa of rigging the vote; the president has claimed Fonseka planned to kill him.

Analysts and politicians say Fonseka’s arrest may be seen in the context of this bitter personal battle, but that it also appears to be part of a pattern of repression that has followed Rajapaksa’s election win.

“We are very concerned that this should have happened,” says Ranil Wickremsinghe, former prime minister and the leader of the United National Front party, the official opposition leader. “It should not have happened, and it is a very bad sign for democracy.”

He added that the whereabouts of Fonseka were not known. Witnesses told journalists that he had been handled roughly during his arrest.

Thousands of civilians were killed in the final months of the war, and there have been widespread calls for an investigation into alleged war crimes, which the government has resisted. Human rights campaigners say that Fonseka himself, as commander in charge during the fighting, should be investigated.

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