24 June, 2024


Fonseka Released From Jail, But At What Price?

By R. K. Radhakrishnan –

R. K. Radhakrishnan

Sri Lanka: Former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka has been released from jail, but at what price?

THE war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended in an emphatic victory for the Sri Lankan forces in May 2009 at Nandikadal, a narrow stretch of land in north-eastern Sri Lanka. But the main hero of that effort, Army Commander Sarath Fonseka, had to keep on fighting a different battle in various courts in Sri Lanka to reclaim his liberty and rights. He walked out of the high-security Welikada Prison at 5 p.m. on May 21 into a crowd of waiting supporters, but his political future is full of uncertainties.

With President Mahinda Rajapaksa signing an order on May 18 pardoning him, the long-awaited freedom was at hand. “President Mahinda Rajapaksa signed the papers on the 18th evening and handed over the papers to Chief of Staff Gamini Senerath before leaving for Qatar to enable the release of Sarath Fonseka. Papers will be sent to the Ministry of Justice on Monday,” Bandula Jayasekara, presidential spokesman, said on May 20, setting at rest speculation on the processes that would follow the government’s decision to release the former Army Commander. It is a well-known fact that the way out of Welikada Prison was through Temple Trees (the official residence of the Sri Lankan President). The Sri Lankan Constitution vests with its executive President an array of powers. Under Article 34 (1), the “President may, in the case of any offender, convicted of any offence in any court within the Republic of Sri Lanka (a) grant pardon, either free or subject to lawful conditions; (b) grant any respite, either indefinite for such period as the President may think fit, of the execution of any sentence passed on such offender; (c) substitute a less severe form of punishment for any punishment imposed on such offender; or (d) remit whole or any part of any punishment imposed or of any penalty or forfeiture otherwise due to the Republic on account of such offence.”

The Hindu broke the story on his release after speaking to the President on the sidelines of a function held in the third week of May to launch a book, Gota’s War. Jayasekara said there was no international pressure to release Fonseka. The first formality ahead of the release was a Cabinet approval. This came on May 17. The next day, the Colombo High Court granted bail to Fonseka in one case, relating to harbouring Army deserters.

It is significant that Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris was in Washington, D.C., holding talks with State Department officials ahead of Fonseka’s release. While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke on general issues in Sri Lanka, including the need to demilitarise the north, Assistant Secretaries of State Robert O. Blake (South and Central Asian Affairs) and Mike Posner (Democracy, Human Rights and Labour) are reported to have taken up point by point issues that the United States was concerned about. One of them apparently was Fonseka’s liberty. The U.S. had held that Fonseka was a political prisoner and had been demanding his release.

The victory and the aftermath

The victory in the war had made Fonseka and Rajapaksa larger-than-life individuals across the Sinhalese parts of Sri Lanka. The hero worship blinded Fonseka, who, after he was kicked upstairs as Chief of Defence Staff, chose to resign. Like many people who rise to the top, he cultivated sycophants and they made him believe that Sri Lanka was rightfully his. Hindsight would prove that he paid with his liberty for over two years for his one act of folly – taking on the mighty Rajapaksa, the man from little-known Hambantota who had conquered Colombo.

Fonseka, who was appointed Army Commander in 2005 by Rajapaksa, was made Chief of Defence Staff in July 2009. In November that year, Fonseka resigned the position and decided to contest the presidential election, a decision that put him in direct confrontation with the more politically savvy Rajapaksa. Although most of the diplomatic corps and foreign observers in Colombo predicted a victory for Fonseka in the election, he trailed Rajapaksa by 17 points.

Fonseka, who was sure he would win, lost the election on January 26, 2010. He was arrested on February 8, 2010, by the military police and subjected to a court martial on “military offences”.

The General’s cases

Fonseka had five cases against him in the civilian courts and two in the military courts. In one case in a military court, he was cashiered and all his benefits were taken away. But in September 2010, he was sentenced in another case, involving a firm called Hicorp, in connection with army procurement during this tenure as Army chief.

The Hicorp case came up again in a civilian court since the government felt that this was also an offence under the relevant laws. But the Colombo High Court, holding that the former Army chief could not be tried twice for the same offence, acquitted him of all charges in the case.

In July 2010, the Attorney General indicted Fonseka and two others on 21 charges on the Hicorp military procurement issue. The other accused included Fonseka’s son-in-law Danuna Tilakaratne and Wellington T. Dehoedt. Dehoedt had allegedly produced fraudulent documents without any authority and agreed to supply 30 generators and 250 compasses. But only 234 compasses were supplied to the Army. This case was heard by the Mount Lavinia Chief Magistrate. The Attorney General later transferred the case to the Colombo High Court.

In September 2010, an Army tribunal pronounced Fonseka guilty of charges in the Hicorp case and sentenced him to a jail term of 30 months. He appealed against the decision unsuccessfully. In November 2011, he was again convicted. This time, it was for three years, in what has come to be known as the “white flag case”.

In December 2009, Fonseka told a Sri Lankan English newspaper, The Sunday Leader, that the LTTE men who were surrendering in May 2009 – bearing a white flag, and hence the name of the case – were ordered to be shot dead by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The Colombo High Court found him guilty of “spreading disaffection” and sentenced him to three years in prison.

In his defence, Fonseka claimed that he had been misquoted in the article. Fonseka was found guilty on the first count – that of violating emergency regulations that were in force at that time. The main charge was that he made a false statement to a weekend newspaper. He was acquitted of the second and third charges – arousing communal feelings directly or indirectly by making those statements and arousing anti-government feelings.

The first court martial, which began in March 2010, ordered that he be discharged dishonourably in May 2010. The second court martial on the Hicorp deal resulted in a 30-month sentence. in September 2010.

Though Fonseka had won the April 2010 general election from Colombo district, he was unseated from Parliament in October the same year. He served more than two years in prison and was convicted for another three years last November. He appealed against the convictions in the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.

No challenger

Fonseka leads the Democratic National Alliance, which has seven seats in the 225-member House. The next presidential election is due in 2016. He has a variety of health concerns, including respiratory problems, arising from an aborted suicide bomb attack on him. Fonseka suffers from a lung condition, and the dust inside the prison along with the cold weather proved to be disastrous for his health. He also complained of shoulder and knee pain often.

The opposition United National Party (UNP) and other politicians, notably from his own Democratic National Alliance (DNA), assert that Fonseka is the only person who can challenge the present regime. They claim that he still has his Sinhala rural base intact. This is also the strong point of Rajapaksa. While the government might not consider him a war hero, the people and at least a section of the Army that directly interacted at some point with him believes otherwise. In his present position, posing a challenge to Rajapaksa is easier said than done. Looking at the past record, too, Fonseka does not seem the kind of challenger that the opposition wants him to be.

Rajapaksa won the last election by a margin of 1.8 million votes. And, throughout the campaign Fonseka was a public relations nightmare, while Rajapaksa worked his way into the minds of the people. However, the long incarceration of the war hero might just provide some kind of focus to the decimated opposition.

The presidential pardon comes at a price: Fonseka’s civil rights will remain suspended for seven years from May 21, the date of pardon. “He cannot vote, nor can he contest elections,” said Tiren Alles, a Member of Parliament of the DNA, who has been acting as a go-between with President Rajapaksa. Neither can he go out of the country. But Alles is confident that it would be possible to find exceptions to these provisions.

In a late night interview at his residence, Fonseka, however, seemed unaware of the trade-off. He said: “What deal with the President? There was no deal. If I wanted to make a deal, I would have made it long ago.”

Courtesy Frontline India

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Latest comments

  • 0

    If you read Sarath Fonseka´s interview published today in Virakesari there is no significant differences in terms of human rights, war crimes, political solution etc., between SF and Mahinda Rajapakse.
    He would fight corruption, this chorus we, especially from South Asia, we hear from every new politician


    We had a different impression about his political line before he was sent to jail

    He will be another representative of the sinhala chauvinism, one more or less it doesn´t make any difference.

    Why should people vote for someone who is similar to the present candidate?

    This is a very typical issue in SL, Once they sit in the opposition bench they promise everything, if they come to power they are scared of buddhist clergy and their political right wing, which makes in SL the 90% 0f the sinhalese population

    This is the same old story

  • 0

    General Fonseka has not changed and he is his usual self. However, putting in jail was for political jealousy and other reasons such as the “Truth about the White Flag murders” which the Rajapakses are terribly scared of.

    As for being a Presidential candidate, he should have the right to do so, but will not receive the votes of the minority on this occasion if and when there is an election in the next few years. Rajapakses hope that he will split the opposition votes in 2016 or before.

    Instead he should support the UNP. Well he is entitled to form his own party and test the political waters until such time, aided and abetted by the Rajapakses themselves. General Fonseka needs to win the trust of the opposition first and also be willing to tell the truth about the killings of 40 or 100,000 civilians, What weapons were used, How they got rid of all the bodies without a single bone being found, and the white flag incident details.

    All above are no more domestic issues but have now been internationalized, and also US issues with the 2 Rajapakses and he being US citizens and residents respectively.

    US is obligated to respect human rights and war crimes allegations perpetrated by their own citizens seriously. Looks like a dead tiger is a bigger problem than a living one for the GOSL. They see the Tiger ghost every where especially in the world capitals, and therefore justify the 1:6 soldier ration in the North and $2.2 Billion MOD budget the country can ill afford.

    General Fonseka’s policy on the military is neither here nor there now. He should take a firm position.

  • 0

    Does the price matter ???????
    You want him to remain behind bars or move ablout with freedom ?

    Politics is a past time. Freedom is for real.
    Fonseka was led up the gum tree by bankrupt politicians like Mangala & Anura Kumar and other visiuonless poloiticians who wanted to resurrect their careers at the expense of Fony’s achivements.
    Now, they have realised fony’s achievement were not good enough for them to capitalise.

    Now, Fonseka is left in the lurch & stupid fool talking politics immediately after his release as if though he was indispensible instead of taking a rest & quietly fading away.
    People have had enough of him.

    Country is suffering at the hands of diaspora & the west due to his bad mouthing on white flag issue blinded by the greed for that Throne.

    he has lost everything most of all his credibility.

  • 0

    Fonseka is no different from MR. He is a war criminal too. He was desperate to get out from prison and the pressure from other states with different agenda helped him. You will see thing unfolding in SL very soon.

  • 0

    Soldiers generally not responsible as the 70 000 estimate starvation plan had nothing to do with them.

    Fonseka here again has come to save the country (on this crucial war-crimes point)

    But, the ungrateful greedy thug family will again use him and throw him, then hog all glory

    Don’t forget though ever willing to accept personal responsibility, this never say die hero was out in Budhagaya and China while the worst was happening.

    He is not the same as the present lot, he is not responsible for white-vans and the current political culture.
    He has a small family, he is the best chance of addressing the corruption front and the SL political culture as he is no politician, but an administrator/disciplinarian.

    Importantly who else in the opposition can???

    Also, the bullet more powerful than the ballot now

    When the going gets tough, the though gets going

  • 0

    The release of Sarath Fonseka would have been the result of initial agreement. He will be able to gain all what he has lost by joining the MR Government. Policy wise, he does not differ much from that of HE Mahinda. Only question would be on “sharing the profits.” We will have to wait for some months to find out exactly what Sarath Fonseka would do in Lankan politics!!

  • 0

    If there is a common denominator between Gota and Sarath F it is that both semi-educated jackasses perform foolishly in front of TV cameras.
    One problem could well be both are poor in conveying their thoughts in good English. they will do better speaking in Sinhala with the aid of a translator. Sarath F is gradually losing his profile with the public since his release with his child-like utterances. He can only be an effective challenge to the Rajapakses in a future contest if learns to discipline his tongue – and come to terms he has much to learn. As someone commented elsewhere, this uncut diamond will do himself a favour if he gets a dental job done. He needs good speech therapy and to learn to speak simply instead of making a fool of himself as he did when he fumbled “I think I am very educated”
    He does not have the learning skills to differentiate between Hitler’s works or Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse-Donald Duck cartoons, which may well be his level.


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