Sri Lanka ex-general goes on trial; supporters protest

Tue Mar 16, 2010 11:16am GMT

By Ranga Sirilal

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Former Sri Lankan army chief Sarath Fonseka appeared before a military court on Tuesday on charges of engaging in politics while in uniform, officials said, as hundreds of his supporters protested near the capital.

The court martial held at the navy headquarters in Colombo was adjourned until next month after lawyers for the army commander challenged the legitimacy of the court and opposed the choice of the members of the military tribunal.

Fonseka, who lost a presidential election to incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa earlier this year, was arrested last month following allegations that he was plotting a coup against the government.

The former army commander has denied the allegations and said these were political motivated and aimed at denying him the chance to run in parliamentary elections next month.

"The general said that he is neither pleading guilty or not guilty because the court has no power to hear and try these charges," Nalin Ladduwahetti, one of eight lawyers appearing on his behalf, said.

Hundreds of Fonseka supporters protested against what they said was his "illegal" arrest and court martial, blocking traffic on a street in Panadura, a town 27 km (17 mile) south of Colombo.

Police used tear gas to disperse the crowd and arrested 10 people, a spokesman said. The protest took place despite the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peremuna (JVP), an ally of the army general, calling off a planned protest. It gave no reason.

Prolonged street protests, strikes and labour unrest could have a ripple impact on Sri Lanka's $40 billion (26 billion pounds) economy, which is forecast to grow more than 6 percent this year following the end of the 25-year war against Tamil Tiger separatists last year.   Continued...

<p>Members of the opposition Democratic National Alliance hold a silent protest against the arrest of defeated presidential candidate General Sarath Fonseka in Colombo, 15 March, 2010. REUTERS/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds</p>
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