Sri Lanka’s former army chief, now a sworn political enemy of President Mahinda Rajapakse, has faced a military court on controversial charges that could see him jailed for up to five years.


Sarath Fonseka, a war hero last year after helping end the Indian Ocean nation’s 37-year civil war, stepped down as military chief in November and unsuccessfully challenged Rajapakse in January elections.

He faced a three-member panel on Tuesday at the beginning of a court martial on a charge of illegally engaging in politics while serving in the military. He faces a parallel charge of making irregular military procurements.

“This must be important for people in authority but for us this is a joke,” Fonseka’s wife Anoma told reporters afterwards. “We can’t expect any justice from this court martial. They have brought trumped-up charges.”

Fonseka says the accusations are part of a vendetta designed to stop him campaigning for parliamentary elections due on April 8 — a claim strongly denied by the government.

President Rajapakse has been accused by political opponents and international human rights groups of suppressing dissent and tightening his grip on the opposition and media since his resounding re-election in January.

“The legal team raised preliminary objections to the panel because all three military judges were seen as biased against General Fonseka,” the 59-year-old’s spokesman Anura Kumara Dissanayake told AFP.

“We also argued that the court martial had no jurisdiction over the retired officer,” he said, adding that a hearing for the separate procurement charge would begin on Wednesday.

The proceedings Tuesday ended after nearly three hours with the panel fixing a further hearing for the charge of engaging in politics on April 6, two days before the parliamentary elections at which Fonseka is a candidate.

The military stepped up security in Colombo and dozens of Fonseka supporters were dispersed with tear-gas and batons as they tried to stage a demonstration at a city suburb, police said.

“There will be about 35 witnesses and the process can take a few weeks, if not months,” a defence source, who declined to be named, told AFP. “On conviction he could face a jail term ranging from two to five years.”

Fonseka was arrested after senior government figures declared that he was planning a military coup and had conspired to assassinate the president, but none of these more serious charges has been brought against him.

Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse, who is the president’s younger brother, has publicly denied that the prosecution of Fonseka is politically motivated.

“This has nothing to do with our political differences,” Rajapakse told the Straits Times of Singapore recently. “The main reason is whatever he has done in the military.”

On the eve of the court martial, a retired major general who had worked closely with Fonseka was arrested, police said, adding that it was linked to a separate criminal investigation against the ex-army chief.

Fonseka and Rajapakse crushed the Tamil Tiger separatist rebels last May ending the guerrillas’ nearly four-decade struggle for a Tamil homeland that left up to 100,000 people dead, according to a UN estimate.

At the time, Rajapakse called Fonseka the “best army commander in the world and a national hero”. In his resignation letter, Fonseka had said that Rajapakse suspected him of planning a military coup.

Tuesday’s court martial is the first against an army chief in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s former chief justice, Sarath Silva, on Monday accused the government of violating the constitution by prosecuting Fonseka under military law instead of using the normal legal system which allows open hearings.

Fonseka has challenged his arrest and detention in the Supreme Court, which has fixed a hearing for April 26.