COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – A court granted bail for Sri Lanka's ex-army chief on Friday, a move seen as a step toward a full pardon for the man credited with ending the country's long civil war but who later was jailed after challenging the president in elections.
Sri Lanka's High Court set Sarath Fonseka's bail at $8,000 in a case where he is accused of harboring army deserters. His lawyer, Saliya Peiris, said that Fonseka was also asked to surrender his passport.
The court's decision comes ahead of a meeting between Sri Lanka's foreign minister and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday in Washington in which human rights issues in the island nation are expected to be discussed. The U.S. has called Fonseka a political prisoner.
However, Fonseka will not be freed immediately because he is serving a 30-month jail term after a court martial found him guilty of planning his political career while still in the military and of committing fraud in purchasing military equipment.
Separately, in November 2011, he was sentenced to an additional three-year prison term for implicating the defense secretary and president's brother Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in war crimes during Sri Lanka's civil war. He has appealed the conviction.
Fonseka has said the cases are a political vendetta launched to persecute him for daring to run against incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2010 election. The government has denied any political motive for the legal action.
Government spokesmen over the past days have been hinting that Fonseka will be given a full pardon. President Rajapaksa also got approval from his Cabinet for Fonseka's release, a government website reported Friday.
Fonseka was hailed as a war hero in 2009 after he led Sri Lanka's army to victory in its 26-year civil war with separatist Tamil Tiger rebels, and both he and Rajapaksa were immensely popular among the Sinhalese majority for defeating a rebel group that had seemed invincible for decades.
But the two men had a falling out months after the war ended, and their relationship deteriorated further after the general challenged Rajapaksa in the Jan. 26, 2010, election. Fonseka was arrested Feb. 8.
Later that year, one court-martial found him guilty of planning his political career while still in the military and stripped him of his title, medals, pension and other honors in addition to dishonorably discharging him from the army.
While in detention, Fonseka had won a parliamentary seat on the opposition ticket in April 2010, but he was disqualified from holding office after the court-martial.