By The Australian –
SRILanka’s ex-army chief Sarath Fonseka was released from prison last night after he was jailed following his unsuccessful bid to unseat the president in 2010.
“I am free. I will devote my life for my people,” General Fonseka shouted to thousands of supporters as he emerged from Welikada prison in Colombo, after receiving a pardon ordered last week by President Mahinda Rajapakse.
“I will not betray the people who stood behind me. I will save the country. The people will correct the injustice caused to me . . . I was a victim of a vendetta,” he said, referring to his incarceration of more than two years.
Thousands gathered outside the prison to greet the general as he emerged wearing white national dress, and carrying a loud-hailer to address them.
General Fonseka led Sri Lankan troops to victory over the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009, but then fell out with Mr Rajapakse over who deserved most credit for the military campaign, and ran against the president in a January 2010 election.
The government has not said why it freed General Fonseka, but his Democratic National Alliance party has said it was negotiating for his release from prison for five months.
General Fonseka was regarded by Washington as a political prisoner and US officials had repeatedly called for him to be released.
Mr Rajapakse on Friday ordered an official pardon for General Fonseka, 61, who was discharged from hospital back to jail after two weeks of treatment for a respiratory ailment.
He issued the release order after Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Gamini Lakshman Peiris met US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington on Friday for talks on the island’s human rights record.
Mrs Clinton said Sri Lanka had put forward “a very serious” plan for reconciliation after its civil war, and urged the government to move forward on protecting human rights, the State Department said.
Mrs Clinton also asked Sri Lanka to “de-militarise” the former war zone, but Mr Rajapakse on Saturday insisted that there would be no troop withdrawal.
Two weeks after his poll defeat by Mr Rajapakse in early 2010, General Fonseka was detained on a charge of corruption relating to military procurements. He was given a 30-month jail sentence in September 2010.
In November 2011, General Fonseka was sentenced to three more years in jail for saying that Tiger rebels who surrendered had been killed on the orders of the president’s brother, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse.
General Fonseka has also angered Mr Rajapakse by saying he would testify before any international tribunal probing possible war crimes charges after the UN said thousands of civilians were killed in the last months of fighting. General Fonseka’s DNA party, which he founded to contest the 2010 election, has just three seats in the 225-member parliament. It was unclear last night if he would be able to take a seat in parliament.
Sources said the pardon only cancels out the sentence and General Fonseka may not have his civic rights to participate in elections for seven years from the time he walked out of jail. The pardon does not extend to allegations that he employed army deserters as his bodyguards, a charge that carries a 20-year jail term. His passport has already been impounded.