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General Sarath Fonseka on hunger strike after being refused a telephone

[Times Online UK, Monday, 8 March 2010 09:09 No Comment]

General Sarath Fonseka, the former Sri Lankan army chief arrested on coup charges, has begun a hunger strike after being barred from using a telephone, his political campaign office announced today.

The announcement came a day after Sri Lanka’s Government angrily rejected a decision by Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, to establish an expert panel to look into alleged rights abuses during the island’s 26-year civil war.

General Fonseka, who led the army to victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels last year, was arrested by military police last month after he was defeated in a presidential election by Mahinda Rajapaksa, the incumbent.

Officials have said that he will face trial in military and civil courts on various charges, including conspiracy to overthrow the Government and receiving kickbacks on arms deals while he was still army chief.

But the General’s supporters say that he was arrested as punishment for challenging Mr Rajapaksa in the January 25 presidential election, and to hinder him from doing so again in parliamentary elections due on April 8.

General Fonseka, 59, and Mr Rajapaksa, 64, were both hailed as heroes by Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese ethnic majority after the war’s end, but they fell out soon afterwards and the General resigned from the army in November.

He is now being held at the naval headquarters in Colombo and can only be visited by his wife, his lawyer and doctors.

His office issued a statement saying that a court had granted him permission to use a telephone brought to him by his wife, Anoma.

However, the army had told her on her last visit on Saturday that the right to use the phones had been withdrawn, according to the statement.

The General’s allies say that he will remain on hunger strike until he is allowed to telephone his two daughters, who are both living in the United States.

Prasad Samarasinghe, a military spokesman, said that the right to use a telephone could be granted only by Lt General Jagath Jayasuriya, the current army commander, and not by a court.

Analysts say that the Government is afraid that General Fonseka could use a telephone to provide evidence of alleged war crimes in the last stages of the war, when UN officials say that as many as 20,000 civilians may have been killed.

Sri Lanka blocked the United Nations from launching a war crimes inquiry last year thanks to support from China, Russia and India, but is now suffering the political fallout of its refusal to address international concerns over the conduct of the war.

In October, the US State Department published a damning report on alleged war crimes by both sides, such as government troops shelling civilians, and rebels using civilians as human shields.

Last month, the European Commission announced that it was suspending trade benefits to Sri Lanka because the island’s Government had violated human rights agreements linked to the scheme.

Navi Pillay, the UN human rights chief, criticised Sri Lanka on Thursday for failing to investigate alleged rights abuses during the war.

The UN Secretary-General then telephoned Mr Rajapaksa on Friday to say that he planned to appoint a panel of experts to advise the Sri Lankan Government on "accountability issues" relating to possible rights abuses.

Mr Rajapaksa told Mr Ban that the move was "totally uncalled for and unwarranted", according a statement from the President’s office.

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