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Catapults and mortar pieces

Days after President Mahinda Rajapaksa, with a magnificent presidential election victory under his belt, declared in his Independence Day address in Kandy that the country was entering a ``golden era’’ in our international relations after ``a period of some controversy,’’ we have once again attracted negative foreign attention by the Sarath Fonseka arrest. Several countries, including India, the United States and the European Union have called for due process and asked that democracy is not undermined. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon telephoned the president last week and expressed concern about the situation here. The EU foreign ministers will this week endorse the suspension of GSP+ facilities and although privileged entry to EU markets for our exports will continue for six more months and a window of opportunity to reverse the decision remains open, the latest happenings are by no means propitious for Sri Lanka’s cause.

Friday’s decision of a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court, overruling what seemed to have been a technical objection by the State, permitting Mrs. Anoma Fonseka’s fundamental rights application to proceed sent out the right signal that the judicial bulwark against infringement of citizens’ rights is intact. This is all to the good. So also the president’s meeting with the leader of the opposition when he assured that the general would be released if it is established that he had not infringed the law. Of course it is up to the State to prove to the satisfaction of a competent court that there has been a violation before Fonseka can be punished. If not he must be released and that is a matter for the court and not any executive authority.

There is no doubt a perception in the country and overseas that there has been an overreaction on the part of the government, no doubt influenced by belligerent platform statements made by the general that sent shivers down the spines of many who believed they risked being targeted if he emerged the winner. There is also the possibility that Fonseka has prepared for an eventuality of being prevented from assuming office had he been elected and such arrangements, if he had made them, may well be interpreted as preparations for a coup. But the fact remains that the general, running as a common candidate of many opposition parties including the UNP, JVP, TNA and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress was not just defeated but trounced. In such a scenario anything he may have attempted to do after the result was declared would have been akin to a small boy armed with a catapult taking on a mortar piece! The display of military muscle, first at the Cinnamon Lakeside Hotel in Colombo where Fonseka, his family and staff were billeted as the votes were being counted, and thereafter his arrest by military police at his campaign office can well be misinterpreted. Judging by the foreign reactions, this may have indeed been the case. What is said between the lines of diplomatically worded formal statements are often more eloquent than their language.

Given that Sri Lanka is awaiting a resurgence of tourism, television pictures on the military ``siege’’ outside the Cinnamon Lakeside Hotel, ostensibly to seize military deserters who were alleged to be with Fonseka as well as those of the tear gassing and water cannoning of protestors in Hultsdorf last week after an attack on them by elements the police failed to arrest, is not the best message to send to prospective holidaymakers here. Thursday’s incident provoked some plain speaking by a Colombo magistrate who asked the police not to twist fact and protect political thugs. We don’t know yet whether Fonseka will be tried by court martial or whether he will be subject to normal civil process if the evidence against him warrants indictment. However, on a previous occasion in the middle sixties when General Richard Udugama, a former army commander, was unsuccessfully charged with plotting a coup, the then government chose a non-military route of prosecution. That general later sat in parliament as an elected MP.

During court proceedings on Friday, the general’s lawyers claimed that no formal charges had been presented to him as required under the Army Act although the State contended that they were read out. If that was the case, the court will have to decide whether a mere reading rather than a formal presentation of a document was adequate and that, no doubt, will be done. It was submitted that the summary of evidence is being prepared and would be quickly finalized. President Rajapaksa has assured Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe that investigations would be expedited. While all this should mollify those who believe that Fonseka, well known to have been a rough and tough individual, is being too roughly handled, it is necessary for the country’s image that all matters related to this matter is quickly clarified and the suspect dealt with by due process preferably by a normal rather than military court.

The fact that Fonseka challenged Rajapaksa at a bruising election days before his arrest – although it was the contender rather than the incumbent who finished black and blue – and that a general election has been called for April cannot be isolated from the general’s arrest. The Wall Street Journal said in an editorial last week that ``even if charges of some sort are eventually proven (against Fonseka), politics is the best explanation for why this is happening now.’’ The Hindu, highly respected both here and in India, saying that while Fonseka had ``been provocative beyond normal limits’’ hurling all kinds of allegations, advocated that such excesses be treated ``as acts of political folly born of failure and frustration’’ and asked that he be set free. Such calls, of course, are made in ignorance of what the actual charges could be. If they are substantial and provable, it is best that a civilian rather than military procedure be adopted because however threadbare the cliché, it is nevertheless true that justice must not only be done but be seen to be done.

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