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General indicted

Print edition : Sep 10, 2010 T+T-

A court martial convicts Sarath Fonseka for engaging in politics while in uniform and for disloyal conduct.

in Colombo

THE war hero of Sri Lanka General (retired) Sarath Fonseka, who led the military against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Eelam War IV, was indicted by a court martial on August 13 on charges of dabbling in politics while in uniform. The conviction has not come as a surprise to those who have been following the events in the island nation since the military defeat of the Tigers in May last year.

Within days of the military annihilation of the LTTE and the death of its leader Velupillai Prabakaran, the ambitious former Army chief fell out with the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. His controversial statement in an interview to a television channel that the strength of the Army should be raised from two lakh to three lakh soldiers in order to ensure that forces like the LTTE did not raise their heads once again brought the feud into the open.

Two months later, President Rajapaksa relieved Fonseka from the position of Army chief and shunted him to the office of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) under a new Act of Parliament, though he simultaneously elevated Fonseka to the position of the first four-star General of the country. The move only strengthened Fonseka's resolve to take Rajapaksa head on, and the opportunity came in October when the President chose to advance the presidential election by two years.

Rajapaksa called for an early presidential election on the assumption that the victory over the LTTE would win him an overwhelming support from the majority community. That was precisely the calculation of Fonseka, too. A fractious opposition was on the lookout for someone who could match the popularity of the President. It rallied behind Fonseka, whom it saw as the best bet, and he became its common opposition candidate for the January 2010 presidential election. The reckoning of the opposition and Fonseka proved wrong; Rajapaksa won the election with a massive margin of over 18 per cent of the vote.

On February 8, Fonseka was picked up by the military on several charges, including an alleged plot to destabilise the government. Rajapaksa constituted two courts martial in March to probe the charges. The August 13 indictment was by the first court martial. The former Army chief faces several cases in other courts, too.

In the first court martial, Fonseka faced two charges: Engaging in politics while in active service, and disloyal conduct. Jhonston Fernando, a former leader of the United National Party, the main Opposition party in Sri Lanka, and currently a Minister in the government, deposed before the military tribunal that Fonseka had approached him through an intermediary while in uniform asking if the party would support him as the common opposition candidate. Fonseka's lawyers argued in vain that the Minister's statement was politically motivated.

In his evidence, Fernando also alleged that Fonseka had told him that he would expose war crimes to the West and that the general had used language disloyal to the government.

Fonseka faces a separate case in the High Court, which arises from an interview he had given to a weekly newspaper alleging that the Sri Lankan troops had opened fire on some of the senior cadre of the LTTE who had come out of the war zone holding white flags and with the intention of surrendering to the military. Although he denied the statement, the weekly stood by its report.

The court martial verdict was subject to approval by the President in his capacity as the Supreme Commander of the armed forces. A statement by the Army on the indictment read, The first Court Martial today found General (Ret.) Sarath Fonseka guilty and sentenced him for a dishonourable discharge from rank pending approval of President as Commander-in-Chief, military officials said. When an officer is cashiered, he looses the rank and all the awards, honours received as a military officer.

Rajapaksa lost no time in putting his seal of approval on the judgment. A statement by the President's Secretariat on August 14 said:

The convening officer of the Court Martial-1, HE the President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Confirming Authority on Saturday (14 August) confirmed the accused, General G.S.C. Fonseka be cashiered from the Sri Lanka Army as recommended by the tribunal that probed the accused's involvement in politics on three separate charges.

In accordance with provisions in the Army Act under Section (124), the accused was charged on one count and under Section (102) on two counts;

1. Traitorous/Disloyal Word.

2. Neglect to obey garrison or other orders (two counts).

The tribunal comprises Major General H.L. Weerathunga (President), Major General A.L.R. Wijethunga and Major General D.R.A.B. Jayathilaka. Rear Admiral W.W.J.S. Fernando serves as Judge Advocate for both Court Martial-1 and Court Martial-2. Prosecution led evidence of four witnesses, including Minister Jhonston Fernando, Gamini Abeyrathna, parliamentarian Luxman Seneviratne and Major General A.W.J.C. De Silva. Rienzie Arsacularatne was the Defence Counsel for General Sarath Fonseka.

LOW-KEY REACTION

The reaction in Sri Lanka to the indictment was low-key. While the UNP has so far not deemed it necessary to respond to the development, the Democratic National Alliance (DNA), which Fonseka and his allies formed, did not contest the main charge that Fonseka was engaged in dealings with the opposition parties while in uniform. DNA Member of Parliament Anura Kumara Dissanayake told the media that his party would move the Court of Appeal against the court martial verdict that Fonseka be stripped of his rank. He contended that Fonseka had every right to have discussions with any party while in uniform.

In the second court martial, Fonseka faces charges on four counts relating to alleged irregularities in the procurement of military supplies from Hi Corp Private Limited. A court has already indicted him and his son-in-law, Danuna Tilakaratne, on 21 charges for the misuse of public funds during the procedure for floating tenders to procure military supplies from the company.

According to the charges brought forward, Danuna Tilakaratne, who is absconding from the court, is charged under the Public Property Act for theft of public funds worth $2,99,061.25 through Hi Corp Private Ltd between November 2006 and May 31, 2009. Tilakaratne is accused of submitting forged documents to the Sri Lanka Army in order to present himself as an agent of the British Borneo Defence Company in Australia.

It is alleged that he secured four tenders for the supply of military equipment using forged papers. Fonseka was the chairman of the technical evaluation committee during the said period. He has been charged with aiding and abetting the embezzlement of public funds. The court also confiscated Rs.15 million and $1,251 in seven accounts belonging to Danuna Tilakaratne.

In another case, a court has indicted Fonseka and his campaign secretary, Senaka Haripriya de Silva, under Sections 128 and 133 of the Penal Code for allegedly harbouring military deserters during the run-up to the election. The deserters in question are the soldiers of Fonseka's security detail who disobeyed orders from the top to return to barracks after the former Chief of Defence Staff's security was reduced on the instructions of the Defence Ministry following his retirement from the Army and his subsequent announcement that he would contest the election. Some soldiers stayed with the general and handed themselves over to the Army only after the presidential election.

Fonseka is not the first military officer in Sri Lanka to face trial. Richard Udugama, the commander of the army in the early 1960s, was tried in a civil court on charges that he planned to stage a coup in 1966. The charges were later dropped. Another former commander, Lt. Gen Cecil Waidyaratne, faced criminal proceedings for alleged misappropriation of funds allocated for military use.