Sarath Fonseka, the former army chief in Sri Lanka, was released on Monday 21th of May after the necessary formalities to give him the pardon were completed and the order to the prison authorities given.
As Commander of the Army in 2009 he is considered, alongside President Rajapaksa, as one of the principal architects of the Sri Lankan Government’s victory against the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). Thus they are responsible for ending three decades of war but also for the thousands of civilians killed in the last months of fighting.
After a public disagreement with Mahinda Rajapaksa he resigned from the army and formally announced his candidature in the 2010 Sri Lankan Presidential election. He was arrested two weeks after his defeat, on the 8th of February 2010.
, war cHe appeared before a court martial on charges of corruption relating to military procurements and conspiracy against the Government, the latter charge being linked to his alleged seeking of elected office while still in uniform – a crime under now abolished emergency legislation. He was sentenced to thirty months in jail and consecutively stripped of his title of general and deprived of his pension.
The following November Fonseka was sentenced to three more years in jail, again under emergency legislation, for “propagating a false rumour”. This was a reference to the so called “white flag” interview, in which Fonseka told a Sri Lankan newspaper that the Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered surrendering leaders of the Tamil Tigers to be shot.
The jailing of Fonseka was highly criticized in Western countries, with the USA in particular insisting he was a political prisoner. Fonseka was released three days after a meeting between the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, Gamini Lakshman Peiris, and the American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Clearly therefore the release can be seen as an attempt to appease the USA following the tensions created by the USA’s Human Rights Council resolution. As such it can be seen as proof of the efficacy of the international community’s recent slightly more robust Sri Lankan foreign policy.
The Government may also be of the, perhaps correct, view that Fonseka’s release will also further fragment the deeply divided opposition – although Fonseka is theoretically suspended from public life for five years. It may also be part of the Government’s eternal game of cat and mouse with Fonseka. Clearly it was previously thought he knew too much to be put on trial and knew too much to be released. And given his army ties, it was harder for them to try to permanently silence him as they have others. And so they have attempted to balance carrots and sticks to just the right degree to ensure his continued silence. Now that Fonseka is out, it remains to be seen if we will learn more about the horrific crimes perpetrated against civilians in the final stages of the war or if the Government have once again got the balance right.
But amidst the general euphoria surrounding his release it appears many, although by no means all, of those who oppose the Rajapaksas (both in Sri Lanka and abroad) are making the same mistake they made in 2010, and are turning an uncritical eye towards Fonseka’s own past: the enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend, particularly not when they are one of the world’s most brutal war criminals. Of course all victims of rights violations should be treated equally, but it would be a shame if it becomes apparent that the USA has spent a disproportionate amount of political capital on one of the Government of Sri Lanka’s most secure, and least sympathetic, victims.
As we said at the time, “Fonseka led the Sri Lankan army during the final offensive of 2009 and had direct command responsibility over the troops filmed by Channel 4 engaging in a number of war crimes. He has also been linked to a number of murders of civilians, including the journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga. While he was behind bars for the wrong reasons, it is certainly not to Sri Lanka’s credit that the tally of those responsible for war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan army who are currently in jail has fallen from one to zero.”