Fonseka out of prison for opening of parliament

Now a legislator, Sri Lanka's detained former army chief claims he is a victim of injustice as he calls on MPs to safeguard democracy.

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COLOMBO // The detained former army commander and now parliamentarian, Sarath Fonseka, emerged from custody yesterday to attend the opening of parliament and later said the government of his arch-rival, the president Mahinda Rajapaksa, had jailed him illegally to keep him out of politics.

After leaving parliament, Mr Fonseka told Reuters news agency: "They are trying to keep me away from my political activities and since we have managed to come to parliament, overcoming all the barriers, I have recorded a victory here, which is of course a humiliation for the government." Mr Fonseka, who led his Democratic National Alliance campaign at the polls from a prison cell, has been in military custody since February 8 and faces charges of corruption, stemming from his time as the army chief, in military court. He has accused Mr Rajapaksa of using the charges as political revenge.

The former army commander parted ways with the president in a dispute over who should receive credit for ending the country's 26-year civil war and the defeat of the Tamil rebels in May 2009. Mr Fonseka ran in the January 26 presidential election, which Mr Rajapaksa comfortably won. Mr Fonseka was brought to parliament under tight security but allowed to move freely in the inner lobbies of parliament and the main chamber and talk with other parliamentarians, the first time he has been seen in public since his arrest.

Mr Fonseka welcomed the election of the parliamentary speaker, Chamal Rajapaksa, the elder brother of the president, and said the task of safeguarding democracy must start in parliament. He said that equal rights must be safeguarded, be it human rights, equality before the law, the freedom of expression or freedom from unlawful detention. "I was a victim of injustice," Mr Fonseka said, in the only reference to his imprisonment while in parliament. After the proceedings, many parliamentarians walked up to the former army commander and wished him well on his election to parliament. Journalists were kept away from Mr Fonseka by security guards. Police escorted reporters out of the legislative building after the morning's proceedings. The ruling United People's Freedom Alliance was the big winner in the April 8 general election, taking control of 144 of parliament's 225 seats.

The largest opposition group, the United National Front, controls 60 seats, while the Tamil National Alliance has 14 and Mr Fonseka's Democratic National Alliance holds seven. The United People's Freedom Alliance is close to acquiring 150 seats it needs to control two-thirds of parliament and push through crucial constitutional reforms, and some crossovers from the United National Front are expected, analysts said.

"As a priority I expect a spate of constitutional reforms, particularly in abolishing the executive presidential system or clipping the powers of the president," said Harim Peiris, who served as a press secretary with the former president Chandrika Kumaratunga. He said the appointment of the veteran politician DM Jayaratne as the new prime minister by Mr Rajapaksa on Wednesday was a stopgap appointment ahead of a bigger cabinet reshuffle in November, when the president's second term begins. The new cabinet is expected to be appointed today.

Peiris, who writes a political column for the local English-language newspaper Daily Mirror, said if the president chose to scrap the presidential system, he would return to parliament as prime minister. "But I don't see all this happening in the immediate future. It may take several months," he said. Under Sri Lanka's political system, which has been in place since 1978, the president has sweeping executive powers and does not have to answer to parliament. The system has drawn criticism over the years because of its lack of checks and balance.

Both the ruling party and the opposition have agreed in the past to revert to a parliamentary system similar to that in the UK - without an executive president - but little has been done to begin this process. Analysts said while constitutional reforms would dominate the first few months of the government, the other urgent issue of solving the ethnic conflict was likely to be on the backburner. "I don't think the political or national question will figure seriously in the government strategy in the next six to eight months," said SI Keethaponcalan, who heads the political science department at the University of Colombo. He said there were too many strong Sinhalese nationalist parties in the government that would not allow any discussion on devolution of power or a federal system of governance in areas where minority Tamils lived.

Tamil rebels were defeated in May 2009 after a long struggle to carve out a separate homeland in the north and the east for their Tamil brethren, representing about 13 per cent of the island's population. Now Tamils represented by the Tamil National Alliance are asking for a federal structure giving them power sharing in regions they dominated. "With such a commanding position in parliament, I don't think the president sees the rights of the Tamils as a priority issue," Mr Keethaponcalan said.