Sri Lankan president approves former army chief's dishonorable discharge

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka's president approved the dishonorable discharge of his former army chief and political rival Saturday, a day after a military court convicted the general of involvement in politics while in service.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa confirmed that Gen. Sarath Fonseka would be stripped of his rank, medals and other military honors, a government statement said.

Fonseka's lawyer said he would challenge the verdict in a civil court.

Fonseka led Sri Lanka's army in its victory last year against ethnic Tamil rebels, ending a quarter-century civil war that killed 80,000 to 100,000 people.

One-time allies, the president and army chief were both considered heroes by the Sinhalese majority for crushing the Tamil rebels. However, their relationship deteriorated after the hostilities ended and Fonseka challenged Rajapaksa in a presidential election.

Fonseka lost the election to Rajapaksa in January and was arrested weeks later. He was accused of planning his political career while still in uniform and breaching regulations for purchasing military hardware.

Fonseka has been detained since then. His supporters have called the charges baseless, and accuse Rajapaksa of persecuting the general for daring to challenge him at the polls.

In its verdict Friday, the military court recommended a dishonorable discharge for Fonseka subject to Rajapaksa's approval.

"I thought the president would make use of this opportunity to show himself as a benevolent leader," said Jehan Perera, head of the National Peace Council, an independent group that promotes ethnic reconciliation, human rights and democracy. "However, the political conflict between the two is being fought to its bitter end."

Fonseka also faces a second court martial for allegedly making corrupt deals while in the army. It was unclear when that verdict will be announced.

If found guilty on the second count, he could face three months to five years in jail, a military officer said on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the case.

While in detention, Fonseka also contested parliamentary elections in April and won a seat.

In June, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed a three-member panel to advise him on ensuring accountability for alleged abuses during Sri Lanka's war. The Sri Lankan government has opposed the panel.

The United Nations says at least 7,000 civilians were killed in the last five months before the war ended in May 2009. The Tigers had fought for an independent Tamil state after decades of discrimination by the Sinhalese majority.