Opposition growls over poster ban

Tuesday, 5 October 2010 23:55 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka’s opposition on Tuesday said police have been ordered to arrest activists who put up posters criticising President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s backing of a prison term for a former army chief who ran against him.

However, police said the order was intended to prevent posters being placed in prohibited areas.

Rajapaksa last week upheld a court-martial finding Sarath Fonseka guilty of corruption while serving as army commander, which means the ex-general will lose the parliamentary seat he won after failing in his presidential bid.

Fonseka will serve 30 months of hard labour in a civilian prison where he was moved from military custody last week, marking a low point for a soldier who last year was glorified as a national hero for defeating the Tamil Tiger separatists.

The general’s Democratic National Alliance (DNA), backed by the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) party, have urged the public to protest Fonseka’s sentence, saying his service in winning the quarter-century-long war merits a reprieve.

“This is an extension of the dictatorship, arresting the people who are opposing and dissenting,” DNA secretary-general and legislator Vijitha Herath told Reuters.

Sri Lanka’s laws did not permit police to arrest people for democratic political expression, he said.

“This is illegal and we will go to courts against this action of the police officers.”

Police spokesman Prishantha Jayakody said the order was to remove any poster put up in illegal places to prevent pollution. He said the local media had misconstrued the order.

The island nation’s Criminal Investigation Department questioned opposition legislator Mangala Samaraweera last week over the printing of posters depicting Rajapaksa as the former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. The printing press owner was arrested.

Rajapaksa and Fonseka basked together in their victory in the civil war in May 2009, but quickly fell out and the general quit the military to run unsuccessfully against his former commander-in-chief in a January presidential election.

Fonseka was already stripped of his rank — after Rajapaksa made him the only serving four-star general in Sri Lankan history — and pension by another court-martial that found him guilty of engaging in politics while in uniform.