Sri Lanka's Rajapaksa asserts power with Sarath Fonseka's court martial

Sarath Fonseka, Sri Lanka's former military commander turned political challenger turned prisoner, appeared at a closed-door court martial on Tuesday. Protesters calling for his release were dispersed with tear gas.

Eranga Jayawardena/AP
Supporters of Sri Lanka's former military commander turned political challenger Sarath Fonseka and members of People's Liberation Front carry placards and black flags during a protest in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Tuesday. Fonseka appeared before a military court Tuesday as a prisoner.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Fonseka's road to arrest

The retired general who ended Sri Lanka's civil war appeared before a military court Tuesday as a prisoner, a fall from grace widely seen as an effort by a freshly reelected government to marginalize its opposition.

Former military chief Sarath Fonseka lost January's presidential elections to incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa by an 18-point margin. The military arrested him soon after, and he now faces charges that he engaged in politics while still in uniform and violated military procurement rules. The proceedings are closed to the public and press.

The case has triggered street protests, including one on Tuesday in which police used tear gas to disperse Mr. Fonseka’s supporters. But even if Fonseka is found guilty, analysts do not expect significant unrest in the streets given the government's strong hand – backed by a popular vote – on the levers of power.

"My feeling is that there wouldn't be overt protests, but that there would be a feeling that a great injustice has been done," says Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, a non-government organization. "The consequences would come later on, when this present government loses its stranglehold on power."

Opposition fractures

In the short term, however, Ms. Perera expects the government to avoid rendering a verdict until after the parliamentary vote set for April 8, thereby removing Fonseka from the contest. Mr. Rajapaksa's rivals have fractured since Fonseka's arrest, with the main opposition party and Fonseka's party deciding to contest elections separately. The disarray could help Rajapaksa win a two-thirds parliamentary supermajority.

As the government airs its side of the case, Fonseka's reputation has taken a hit, says Perera. "Nevertheless, even with all his faults, most people will feel that a man who did so much for his country [by defeating the 26-year rebellion] should not be treated this way."

Legal rights?

Fonseka denies the charges against him. His supporters are pinning some hope that the Supreme Court, which plans in late April to hear challenges to his detention, could nullify the court-martial. Sri Lanka's former chief justice and a prominent Fonseka backer, Sarath Silva, has argued that because the general left the military in November he can now only be tried in a civilian court.

"I don't understand why the Supreme Court is taking so long to hear the case,” Mr. Silva said, “but it has the power to override any findings of the court martial."

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