Sri Lanka’s president confirmed a 30-month jail term for his ex-army chief Sarath Fonseka who led troops to victory over Tamil rebels and ended a decades-long civil war, officials said on Thursday.
Fonseka fell out with President Mahinda Rajapakse over who should take credit for defeating the Tamil Tigers in May last year, and unsuccessfully tried to unseat him in a January election.
Fonseka was found guilty at a court martial on four counts of making irregular purchases for the military when he was its commander at the height of fighting in island’s northeast.
Rajapakse approved the sentence of two-and-a-half years “rigorous imprisonment” on Wednesday, after returning from New York where he addressed the United Nations, Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said.
“The president as commander-in-chief has confirmed the court martial decision,” Rambukwella told reporters. “The sentence begins from today.”
Fonseka can appeal: Official
A senior official who declined to be named said Fonseka could appeal to a civilian court and could also seek bail pending a hearing.
“The court martial recommended up to three years in jail, but the president has decided he will be in prison for 30 months,” the official said.
Fonseka’s Democratic National Alliance (DNA) party said they did not accept the sentence and accused Rajapakse of leading a political vendetta.
“It is not the court martial which is responsible for jailing General Fonseka,” DNA lawmaker Tiran Alles told AFP. “It is the president who today jailed his main political opponent.”
Alles said Rajapakse ordered the imprisonment of Fonseka despite appeals from the island’s influential Buddhist clergy as well as other religious leaders.
Hailed as ‘hero’
Fonseka was hailed as a hero in some quarters after soldiers under his command crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) last year. Tamil separatist leaders were killed while pinned down on the coast after a massive military offensive.
The Tigers’ defeat ended nearly forty years of separatist conflict in Sri Lanka, but rights groups says thousands of civilians were killed in the final onslaught and that Tamils remain badly discriminated against.
The conviction of Fonseka on September 17 came after he was stripped of his rank and pension following another court martial that found him guilty last month of dabbling in politics while in uniform.
Fonseka was arrested two weeks after his defeat in the elections and has remained in military custody since. However, he won a seat in parliamentary elections in April allowing him to attend the legislature.
The ex-army chief has said the government is seeking revenge for his decision to stand against the president and wants to keep him from speaking in parliament which is controlled by Rajapakse loyalists.
He also faces civilian charges of employing army deserters and revealing state secrets – offences that carry a 20-year jail term.
Fonseka has angered the government by publicly declaring that he was ready to go before any international tribunal to answer charges of alleged war crimes while crushing the Tamil Tigers.
The United Nations estimates that at least 7000 ethnic Tamil civilians were killed in the final months of fighting between government troops and the Tamil Tigers, but Colombo has said no civilians were killed and refused to allow any independent probe.