Mahinda Rajapaksa poised to free jailed political rival in bid to quell international criticism over country’s human rights record.
Jailed former army general Sarath Fonseka is to be freed on Monday after the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, signed orders releasing his high-profile political rival.
Fonseka, widely condemned for his role in atrocities during the 2009 battles against the Tamil Tigers that ended the 25-year civil war, was imprisoned on graft charges more than two years ago after challenging Rajapaksa for the presidency. A second conviction was for launching a political career before leaving the military.
The move, confirmed by government spokesmen, is an apparent attempt to quell international criticism of the government’s human rights record before a series of key visits by foreign officials and trips by the president over the summer, including to the London Olympics.
A previous trip to the UK ended in controversy when Rajapaksa was forced into a hasty departure after activists sought an arrest warrant for him. The authorisation for Fonseka’s release will be sent to the justice ministry a spokesman told Reuters news agency.
Although many Sri Lankans regard the former general as a hero, Fonseka’s case has gained prominence as international scrutiny of the Rajapaksa administration’s human rights record has intensified. He and his supporters maintain he is the victim of a political vendetta.
The United States regards Fonseka as a political prisoner and has repeatedly said he should be freed. At a meeting in Washington on Friday, the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, called on Sri Lanka’s foreign minister to address human rights issues. She also told foreign minister Gamini Peiris that Sri Lanka should demilitarise the former Tamil Tigers’ strongholds in the north of the country.
In March, the US sponsored a UN resolution calling on Sri Lanka to investigate abuses alleged to have taken place in the final months of the war, a move that strained ties between the countries.
Rajapaksa has repeatedly rejected UN and US criticism on human rights issues and their recommendation that a greater degree of autonomy be granted to the areas of the island where the Tamil minority is concentrated.
Some analysts suspect political manoeuvring behind the release. The popularity Rajapaksa won among the Sinhalese majority after the victory over the Tamil Tigers has faded.
A second element in the president’s previous victories has been development in rural areas. But rocketing food prices has dented the government’s popularity in the runup to local elections this year and poor economic management has slowed development.
The release of Fonseka, who leads a party with seven seats in the 225-member parliament, could further divide an already fragmented opposition.
New elections are not due before 2016.