Former Sri Lankan army chief Fonseka's court martial halted

Former Sri Lankan army chief's trial was postponed after lawyers raised objections to same tribunal handling two separate charges.

Newspapers carrying portraits of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, center right and Sri Lanka's former army chief Sarath Fonseka, center left and bottom are seen at a newspaper stand in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, March 17, 2010. Judges presiding over the court-martial of Sri Lanka's former army chief indefinitely postponed a hearing into one of two allegations against him Wednesday, a defense attorney said. Sarath Fonseka, who led Sri Lanka to victory in its decades-long civil war but then fell out of favor after unsuccessfully challenging President Mahinda Rajapaksa's re-election bid, is already facing charges he dabbled in opposition politics before retiring from the military last year. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena) *** Local Caption ***  DEL116_Sri_Lanka_Court_Martial_.jpg *** Local Caption ***  DEL116_Sri_Lanka_Court_Martial_.jpg

COLOMBO // A court martial of the former army commander Sarath Fonseka was adjourned indefinitely yesterday. The panel of three army officers did not give a reason for their decision not to go forward with a trial involving allegedly corrupt tender awards made by Mr Fonseka as army commander in favour of an arms company in which his son-in-law was involved.

The defence team had objected on Tuesday that the same panel hearing this case was also conducting the proceedings in another court martial in which Mr Fonseka has been charged with being involved in political activity while in the army - illegal in Sri Lanka. The hearing on that issue was postponed until April 6. The separate trials of Mr Fonseka had started on Monday amid much controversy and accusations of bias from the defence team, while the international community mounted a fresh attack on Sri Lanka's human rights record.

The trials of Mr Fonseka, who lost January's presidential elections to Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president, drew strong objections from his defence team on the grounds that the composition of the military tribunal is biased and that he should be tried in a civil court. The panel includes a brother-in-law of the present army commander, Lt Gen Jagath Jayasuriya, who was at loggerheads with Mr Fonseka when the latter was in charge.

"We objected to the composition of the panel and on the issue of jurisdiction," said a senior lawyer on the defence team. "The panel consisted of officers junior to Mr Fonseka, which is a violation of regulations governing a court martial. Furthermore we said he should be tried before a civil court not a military court." These objections on Monday were overruled by the panel of three majors general, all below Mr Fonseka's rank. Mr Fonseka was released from detention for the first time since his arrest on February 8, to be presented before the court martial on Monday and Tuesday. He refused to accept the charges, saying he should be tried in a civil court.

The former army commander, together with Mr Rajapaksa, led Sri Lanka's military to victory in May 2009 against a long revolt by Tamil separatist rebels. The two parted company in a confrontation over who was more responsible for the success. Opposition parties say the detention and trial of Mr Fonseka is politically motivated and filled with bias. Mr Fonseka can be jailed for up to 10 years if found guilty but the verdict can be challenged in civil courts. The government has also accused Mr Fonseka of a conspiring to kill the president and overthrow the government, although no charges on these issues have been filed.

The UN and international rights groups this week piled pressure on the president over a slew of human-rights issues. Mr Rajapaksa and his government are accused of being responsible for many civilian deaths during the latter stages of the conflict against the Tamil Tigers. They are also being criticised for suppression of the media in which about 30 journalists have fled the country. The government has repeatedly denied all charges.

On Tuesday, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, dismissed objections from the 120-strong Non Aligned Movement, which supported Colombo's call for him to abandon a move to appoint a special panel to advise him on human rights in Sri Lanka. In a separate development, Amnesty International urged the government to come clean with an alleged "hitlist" believed to have been compiled by Sri Lankan intelligence and containing the names of at least 35 leading journalists and NGO workers.

The NGO activists include top human rights defenders Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre of Policy Alternatives, and Chrisantha Weliamuna, the executive director of the Colombo office of Transparency International. Journalists on the list include Sunil Jayasekara and Chulawansa Sirilal, the secretary and convener of the Free Media Movement, Sri Lanka's biggest media watchdog. The organisation said 13 other members of its group were on the list who had been ranked "6 to 9" on a scale of 10 in terms of the threat they posed to the government.

The government this week rejected claims of a hit list and asked Amnesty to reveal it if it did exist. Separately on Tuesday, the human-rights minister Mahinda Samarasinghe told the local newspaper website TimesOnline that the government stood by its position that a UN panel to advise Mr Ban on rights in Sri Lanka was not necessary.