Fonseka convicted in Sri Lanka amid delayed inquiry over Tamil Tigers war

Former Sri Lanka Army chief Sarath Fonseka was convicted today of meddling in politics while on duty. Fonseka has said war crimes may have been committed during the civil war with the Tamil Tigers.

Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters/File
Former army chief and parliamentarian General Sarath Fonseka waves as he leaves after a media conference at the parliament in Colombo July 8. A Sri Lanka military court today convicted Fonseka of meddling in politics while on duty.

A Sri Lanka military court today convicted former Army chief Sarath Fonseka of meddling in politics while on duty, raising concerns that the government is trying to silence a retired general who has hinted that the government may have committed war crimes during its 25-year civil war with the Tamil Tigers.

General Fonseka, a hero to many Sri Lankans for his role in defeating the Tamil rebellion, has said senior government officials may have issued orders that could amount to war crimes. He also charged that the defense secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is a brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, ordered the execution of Tamil leaders despite promises of protection.

“Certainly one of our concerns is the need for criminal investigation into war crimes by both sides, which have not occurred,” says James Ross, the legal and policy director at Human Rights Watch in New York. “And the fact that the government may, in part, be going after him because of these allegations is a concern.”

A three-member panel found Fonseka guilty of talking with opposition parliamentarians in October and November 2009 to secure himself a slot on the party ticket for the January presidential election. He retired as chief of defense staff Nov. 16, and two weeks later announced his candidacy.

President Rajapaksa beat him in the Jan. 26 election and the military arrested Fonseka Feb. 8 on allegations of political meddling and corruption. The latter charge is still pending, and he now also faces accusations in civilian court of inciting unrest.

His conviction must now be ratified by the Army's commander-in-chief, a title held by Rajapaksa. It carries no prison term, but would strip Fonseka of his title and medals.

Part of a power struggle

The two men were allies during the civil war, but a rivalry grew as Fonseka developed political aspirations.

“I see this as part of a power struggle between politicians,” says Asoka Bandarage of the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. “There should be due process of law and a legitimate inquiry. Whether the charges are legitimate can only come out in a proper hearing.”

His conviction comes on the heels of a US State Department report that found the Sri Lankan government has made no progress investigating crimes committed during the civil war.

In a longer October 2009 report, the State Department detailed more than 300 incidents of abuse, including allegations of forcible recruitment and unlawful use of children in armed conflict; killing of captives or combatants seeking to surrender; and the denial of food and medical supplies to civilians. The International Crisis Group issued a report in May that also found violations of international humanitarian law.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner urged Sri Lanka to show “greater transparency and accountability as they move forward.”

The State Department report shows that “real progress on justice demands an international investigation," Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

“The government has shown absolutely no interest in investigating possible war crimes,” adds HRW’s James Ross, speaking by telephone. “It was clear in the final months of the fighting that there were crimes by both government forces and the Tamil Tigers.”

A broader signal, or sideshow to reconciliation?

Mr. Ross says Fonseka’s conviction today sends a broad signal to the Sri Lankan public not to participate in the war crimes investigation.

Fonseka has openly expressed interest in seeing the incidents investigated. “I will go out of my way to expose anyone who has committed war crimes,” Fonseka told reporters in May. “I will not protect anyone, from the very top to the bottom.”

Professor Bandarage, author of the 2008 book “The Separatist Conflict in Sri Lanka: Terrorism, Ethnicity, Political Economy,” says the trial of Fonseka is a sideshow to the greater task of reconciliation in the war-torn nation.

“The losers are the country as a whole,” she says in a telephone interview. “Ordinary people want to move forward, to put terrorism behind them, to have reconciliation, to have reconstruction. But this issue actually gets in the way.”

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