Imprisoned Sri Lanka war hero gets 3-year sentence

AP News
Posted: Nov 18, 2011 6:03 AM
Imprisoned Sri Lanka war hero gets 3-year sentence

Sri Lanka's jailed former army chief was sentenced Friday to three more years in prison for reportedly implicating the defense secretary in war crimes at the end of the country's civil war.

Two judges of a three-member High Court bench ruled Sarath Fonseka's reported comments to a newspaper in 2009 breached the harsh emergency laws in place during and after the 26-year civil war. He claimed at his trial he was misquoted.

Fonseka rejected the verdict as unjust but said he was not surprised because Sri Lankan authorities did not want him active in politics. Attorney Nalin Ladduwahetty said Fonseka would appeal the sentence. The court's third judge ruled to acquit him.

"I reject this decision with disgust," Fonseka said in a statement in open court. "I believe that the fair-minded people will correct this mistake one day, otherwise it will remain a black mark in the history of our judiciary."

He said prosecuting an opposition presidential candidate based on a newspaper interview only happens in dictatorships.

Fonseka was regaled as a war hero after he led Sri Lanka's army to victory in its 26-year civil war with separatist Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009, and he and President Mahinda Rajapaksa were immensely popular among the Sinhalese majority for defeating a rebel group that had seemed invincible for decades.

He challenged the president in last year's election and days after Rajapaksa's victory, Fonseka was arrested and a court martial found him guilty of planning his political career while still in the military and of fraud in purchasing military ware. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison and stripped of his rank and medals.

Friday's sentence means Fonseka will have to spend three more years in jail when he finishes serving his first sentence in February 2013.

After the verdict, Fonseka's supporters shouted anti-government slogans in the court premises and tried to block the vehicle taking him to prison. Later, several dozens of people marched, demanding Fonseka's release.

Opposition lawmaker Ranjan Ramanayake called the verdict a "cruel revenge."

"This man is none other than our presidential candidate who received millions of votes."

The verdict also assumed a political color Friday coinciding with Rajapaksa's 66th birthday and the first anniversary of his taking office for a second term. Large banners were hung around the city with birthday greetings, and some protesters removed them crushed and burnt them.

International human rights groups have long accused Sri Lanka's government of committing war crimes in the final stages of the war.

Ethnic Tamil activists say in the face of defeat several Tamil Tiger political leaders including its political wing head Balasingham Nadesan tried to surrender and approached a military sentry holding white flags, but they were shot dead. The government denied that and said the rebels were killed in combat.

According to prosecutors, Fonseka told the Sunday Leader newspaper on December 13, 2009, he was informed that Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa ordered ground soldiers not to accommodate any surrendees. He said he was misquoted.

The defense secretary is the president's younger brother.

The emergency laws curbed civil and political liberties for most of the past 30 years in Sri Lanka but lapsed in August with the president saying they were no longer needed. The laws were still effective for pending cases, such as Fonseka's.