President Mahinda Rajapaksa signed the papers for the release of former Army General on May 18 evening

A day after Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris met U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and officials in Washington DC, Sri Lanka announced that President Mahinda Rajapaksa signed the release papers of the jailed former Army General, Sarath Fonseka.

“President Mahinda Rajapaksa signed the papers on the 18th evening and handed over the papers to Chief of Staff Gamini Senerath before leaving for Qatar to enable the release of Mr. Sarath Fonseka. Papers will be sent to the Ministry of Justice on Monday,” Bandula Jayasekara, Presidential Spokesman, said early on Sunday, putting to rest speculation on the processes that follow the Sri Lankan government decision to release the former Army Commander.

Sri Lanka's executive President has vast powers under the repeatedly-amended Constitution. Part of an Article relates to pardoning convicted criminals. Under Article 34 (1), the “President may, in the case of any offender, convicted of any offence in any court within the Republic of Sri Lanka (a) grant pardon, either free of subject to lawful conditions; (b) grant any respite, either indefinite for such period as the President may think fit, of the execution of any sentence passed on such offender; (c) substitute a less severe form of punishment for any punishment imposed on such offender; or (d) remit whole or any part of any punishment imposed or of any penalty or forfeiture otherwise due to the Republic on account of such offence.”

Speculation on his release date began doing the rounds after The Hindu broke the story on his release, after speaking to the President on the sidelines of a function held here last week to launch a book, Gota’s War.

Mr. Jayasekara stated there was no international pressure to release the General, who led Sri Lanka to the historic war victory over the Tamil Tigers in May 2009. But in the meeting between Prof. Peiris and Mike Posner, Assistant Secretary of State, Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, in Washington DC, specific human rights abuse allegations had come up. The U.S. held that Gen. Fonseka was a political prisoner and demanded his release.

Depending on the length the processing of papers take, Mr. Fonseka, who is now in a hospital where he was shifted from a prison on April 25, is expected to walk free either on Monday evening or Tuesday.

The first formality ahead of the release was a Cabinet approval. This came last Thursday. The next day, the Colombo High Court granted bail to Mr. Fonseka in one case, relating to harbouring Army deserters.

Mr. Sarath Fonseka, who was appointed Army Commander in 2005 by Mr..Rajapakasa, oversaw the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009. He was ‘kicked upstairs' and made Chief of Defence Staff in July 2009. In November the same year, Mr. Fonseka resigned the position and decided to contest the polls, a decision that put him in direct confrontation with the more political savvy Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa. Even when most of the diplomatic corps and foreign observers in Colombo predicted a Fonseka victory in the Presidential polls, he trailed Rajapaksa by 17 points in the election.

Barely a fortnight after the defeat, he was arrested on February 8, 2010 by military police and subjected to a court martial on “military offences.”

The first court martial, which began in March 2010, ordered that he be discharged dishonourably in May 2010. The second court martial on Hi-Corp deal resulted in a three-year sentence in September 2010. Though he won from Colombo district in April 2010 general elections, he was unseated from Parliament in October the same year. In all, has served more than 2 years in prison and has also been convicted for another 3 years last November. He has appealed against convictions in the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.

Fonseka leads the Democratic National Alliance, which has seven seats in the 225 member House. The next Presidential elections are due in 2016. Fonseka has a variety of health concerns, including respiratory problems, and others, arising from an aborted suicide bomb attack on him.

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