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Central & South Asia
Sri Lanka to free jailed ex-army chief
President Rajapaksa orders release of Sarath Fonseka, his former electoral rival in prison since beginning of 2010.
Last Modified: 20 May 2012 10:08
Fonseka was arrested two weeks after he failed to unseat Rajapaksa in the January 2010 elections [EPA]

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has ordered the release of his jailed former electoral rival and ex-army chief Sarath Fonseka.

The former four-star general is expected to be able to leave prison after formalities are completed on Monday, said Bandula Jayasekera, the presidential spokesman, on Sunday. Sri Lanka's cabinet had already formally backed Rajapaksa's move to free Fonseka.

Fonseka was arrested two weeks after he failed to unseat Rajapaksa in January 2010 elections and was later stripped of his rank.

But he is still revered by many as a hero for his role as a senior soldier in ending Sri Lanka's 25-year civil war against Tamil separatist rebels.

Outspoken critic

Fonseka leads the Democratic National Alliance, which has seven seats in a 225-member legislature. Some legislators from other opposition parties have said they are ready to back him due to his popularity and outspoken criticism against Rajapaksa.

He trailed Rajapaksa by 17 points in the last presidential election and with the next one not due until 2016, he is not seen as an immediate political threat. His health has deteriorated in prison, increasing pressure on Rajapaksa to release him.

Economic woes pushing up the cost of living have dented the government's popularity with local elections due later this year, and some analysts see Rajapaksa's decision to release his rival as a move to increase his party's chances by dividing the bickering opposition.

Fonseka is being treated in hospital for respiratory problems arising from a 2006 assassination attempt by a Tamil suicide bomber.

His wife said she met Rajapaksa on Wednesday and he informed her of the pending release.

"The president said the general will be released unconditionally," Anoma Fonseka said. "The president told me that he will be releasing the general very soon and wanted the pending issues to be sorted out."

Coup plot allegations

Fonseka and Rajapksa's brother, defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, led the army to victory in the final stages of the war, but they fell out after the war ended. The general complained he was sidelined by the president, who grew concerned Fonseka was plotting a coup.

The career infantry officer was prosecuted for an interview he gave to the Sunday Leader newspaper in December 2009 in which he said he was informed that Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered troops to kill surrendering rebel leaders.

A US-backed resolution at the UN Human Rights Council last month urged Sri Lanka to investigate alleged abuses during the last months of the war.

Rights groups say both the former army chief and the president are implicated in shooting fighters as they sought to surrender. In recent months, rights workers and journalists have been targeted by a government media campaign against "traitors" it says helped the defeated guerrillas.

Source:
Agencies
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