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INTERVIEW – Sri Lanka’s jailed general reaches parliament

[Reuters, Friday, 23 April 2010 09:10 No Comment]

Sri Lanka’s former army chief said his swearing-in as a member of parliament on Thursday was a "humiliation" to President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government, which he said had jailed him illegally to crush his political career.

It was the second victory for General Sarath Fonseka in 11 months, after he as army commander announced to the nation last May that the separatist Tamil Tigers had been destroyed and the Indian Ocean island nation’s quarter-century war had been won.

Then, he and Rajapaksa had stood together as war heroes, but quickly fell out over what Fonseka said were false coup allegations and his sidelining to a job with no real powers.

That culminated with his quitting the army to challenge Rajapaksa in the Jan. 26 presidential election, which he lost by 1.8 million votes. As votes were being counted, troops surrounded his hotel on suspicion he was plotting a coup.

He was arrested two weeks later and subsequently charged with illegal procurement and politicking in uniform, part of Sri Lanka’s military code taken from British military law that makes it illegal for soldiers to engage in politics.

"They are trying to keep me away from my political activities and since we have managed to come to parliament, overcoming all the barriers, I have recorded a victory here which is of course a humiliation for the government," Fonseka told Reuters by phone.

The former army commander won a seat in this month’s parliament election while in military custody facing court-martial.

As a parliamentarian, he has the privilege to attend sessions in the legislature and his appearance on Thursday was the first time he has spoken publicly since his arrest in February. He was returned afterward to custody at Navy headquarters.

"We have realised that this government will not look after the interests of the people and the country, violating all the principles of democracy," he said. "So we are all united to defeat this government.

DEFENDER OF HUMAN RIGHTS ?

Fonseka campaigned as a defender of human rights and joined Western governments and rights groups who routinely criticise the government for arbitrary arrests, rights abuses and failing to prosecuting those who have hurt or killed journalists.

The general was criticised at home and abroad for his policy of win-at-any-cost when he was army commander during an offensive that saw thousands of civilians killed. He was also criticised for branding journalists critical of the war as traitors.

"Certain statements were detrimental to the progress of the war and the security of the country," he said. "The particular statement made by me at that time was that those statements are traitorous, but I didn’t say or brand everybody as traitor."

Fonseka won a seat in the capital Colombo as head of the Democratic National Alliance, which includes the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna. The wider opposition coalition that backed him for the presidential poll split after his defeat.

Journalists were not allowed to bring their telephones into the parliament nor were they allowed to move freely after the session as is ordinarily the case for accredited media.

Fonseka is Sri Lanka’s only four-star general, after a 40-year career in which he was twice wounded.

[Full Coverage]

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