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Sri Lanka`s ex-army chief convicted by court martial

International Desk |
Update: 2010-08-13 00:19:20
Sri Lanka`s ex-army chief convicted by court martial

COLOMBO: A court martial convicted Sri Lanka`s former army chief Sarath Fonseka on Friday of meddling in politics while on active service and stripped him of his rank and medals.

"The guilty verdict was read out to General Fonseka at the court martial a short while ago," a senior military source told AFP. "The president as commander-in-chief must now ratify the decision."

Fonseka`s hearing before the three-member tribunal began five months ago despite protests from his party and rights groups that the process was seriously flawed.

"The court (martial) has ruled that he should be cashiered," the military source said. "So he will be stripped of his rank and all the medals he had earned during his 40-year career."

Fonseka, 59, was accused of trying to secure a place in a political party following talks with an opposition MP between October and November last year, just before he quit as Chief of Defence Staff.

Leaked intelligence reports said Fonseka had tried to stage a military coup, an allegation he has denied.

Although Friday`s ruling carried no prison term, Fonseka will remain in military custody.

A separate court martial is still hearing charges that he engaged in corrupt deals. He also faces civilian charges of employing army deserters, an offence that carries a 20-year jail term.

As the battlefield architect of the military victory over Tamil Tiger rebels in May last year, Fonseka had seemingly secured his legacy as the commander who crushed the 37-year insurgency for an independent Tamil homeland.

But it was his bid to translate that success into political power that was to prove his undoing as he took on his former ally, President Mahinda Rajapakse, at the ballot box in elections in January.

The two men fell out soon after the defeat of the Tigers and both sought to take credit for the victory in what became an extremely acrimonious, and at times violent, battle for the presidency.

It was a showdown that Rajapakse eventually won with ease, routing his challenger who, as a relative political novice, was left isolated and vulnerable.

Two weeks after the election, Fonseka was arrested.

Despite being in military custody, he managed to win a seat in parliament in April. He was briefly released for parliament`s opening on April 22 and vowed he would use the floor of the House to campaign for freedom and democracy.

Fonseka has also angered the government by saying he would willingly testify before any international war crimes tribunal. Rajapakse has vowed to prevent any such probe.

Fonseka`s arrest and detention drew angry protests at the time, but have since fizzled out. His political allies during the presidential election campaign have also split and weakened the country`s opposition.

His Democratic National Alliance (DNA) party rejected Friday`s guilty verdict and argued that the court martial was illegally constituted.

"Our position was that he could not be charged before a court martial after he retired from the army," DNA lawmaker and party spokesman Anura Kumara Dissanayake said.

"General Fonseka`s lawyers were not present when the court martial concluded its work today and some of the witnesses were called at a time when defence lawyers were not present. This is not justice," Dissanayake said.

Fonseka has filed several cases in both the appeal court and the supreme court to challenge legality of his arrest.

He has also petitioned the Supreme Court to challenge Rajapakse`s re-election, alleging the vote was rigged -- a charge the government denies.

Rajapakse, who has a firm grip on power in Sri Lanka, has been accused by political opponents and international human rights groups of suppressing dissent since his resounding re-election.

The government has also purged the security forces of senior officers thought to have been loyal to Fonseka.

BDST: 1205 HRS, August 13, 2010

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