The second court martial of Sarath Fonseka, Sri Lanka's former Army commander, has ended predictably with a verdict of guilty on the charge of violating procedures in military procurement. Last month, he was convicted of engaging in political activity while being in office. As punishment, the military court then handed down a dishonourable discharge, stripping him of his rank and all medals he had received in his 38-year career as a soldier. This time the court has recommended a three-year term in jail. Undeniably, there was a strong element of Bonapartism in many of Mr. Fonseka's actions during his final months in office. The success of the military campaign under his leadership against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam appeared to have gone to his head, as evident from his many transgressions of the red lines that govern civilian-military relations in a democratic set-up. As a military leader, Mr. Fonseka's action in contesting for presidentship as the candidate of the joint opposition against incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa was plainly adventurist. His entry into the political arena raised fears that the military would become politicised and Sri Lanka's civilian democracy would also be adversely affected.

However the inherently opaque nature of a military trial ensured that the government was never really able to dispel the cloud of political vendetta that hung over the proceedings. Indeed, the specifics of the charge that the retired general had violated tender rules were publicised only after the trial ended. Chellenging the trial on the grounds that as a retired officer, he should not be tried under Army law, Mr. Fonseka refused to testify before the tribunal. Given that there will always be questions about the fairness of a court martial, a trial in an open civilian court would have been less controversial. The recommended jail term now awaits confirmation by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. This is an opportunity for the Sri Lankan leader to display statesmanship and sagacity of a high order. Mr. Rajapaksa has emerged as Sri Lanka's politician numero uno after decisive victories in the presidential and parliamentary elections. The parliamentary strength of the ruling alliance has helped him consolidate his powers through constitutional changes that removed the two-term bar on the President. While there might be real doubts about Mr. Fonseka's integrity as a soldier, he remains a hero to large sections of Sri Lankans for his leading role in the nearly three-year-long military operation against the LTTE. Mr Rajapaksa stands to lose nothing by waiving the three-year jail sentence handed downto Mr. Fonseka. A pardon would only add to the president's political stature.

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