Sri Lanka’s opposition appeals defeat in court


Sri Lanka’s jailed and defeated opposition presidential candidate appealed to the country’s highest court Tuesday to overturn the results of last month’s election, a lawmaker said.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa secured a wide victory over his former army chief and main rival Sarath Fonseka in the Jan. 26 election, according to official results. But the opposition claims the poll was marred by widespread fraud and has rejected the result.

Lawyers for Fonseka — who was arrested last week after the government said he was planning a coup — have asked the Supreme Court to annul the results of the vote, said Tissa Attanayake, an opposition lawmaker. The appeal cites alleged government involvement in vote-rigging, use of state resources on behalf of Rajapaksa and other violations.

It was not clear when the court would consider the case.

The campaign between Rajapaksa and Fonseka was a bitter one. The two were allies when they worked together to defeat the Tamil Tiger rebels last year, but fell out after the war.

Fonseka denies plotting to stage a coup, and the opposition says he was arrested because he dared to challenge Rajapaksa.

The dispute has spilled over onto the streets and even into the Buddhist temples of the island nation off the southern coast of India. For the Sinhalese Buddhist clergy, both Rajapaksa and Fonseka are considered heroes for defeating the Tigers and ushering in a period of peace.

The country’s top Buddhist monks have urged Rajapaksa to release Fonseka immediately.

On Tuesday, thousands of opposition supporters paraded in Colombo demanding Fonseka’s freedom and accusing the government of undermining democracy.

Tuesday’s move by Fonseka’s lawyers comes as the country gears up for general elections scheduled for April 8 in which the ruling coalition hopes to further strengthen its grip on power.

There have been widespread accusations of harassment in the weeks after the presidential poll, with international human rights and media groups saying the government has put particular focus on journalists.

The editor of a pro-opposition newspaper who has been held by police for more than two weeks without charge petitioned the Supreme Court on Monday, saying his detention was arbitrary and he should be released immediately.

Police say Chandana Sirimalwatte, editor of the Lanka newspaper, is being detained under the country’s powerful emergency laws that allow authorities to detain suspects for 90 days without charge.

“The prevailing situation is very regrettable. So far, authorities have not filed charges against Sirimalwatte,” said Sunil Jayasekara, secretary of Free Media Movement, a local media rights group.

Police spokesman Prishantha Jayakody said an investigation was under way and Sirimalwatte would be presented before a court once it is finished. He did not elaborate.

Separately, the fate of another journalist remained unknown more than three weeks after his disappearance.

Jayakody said an investigation into the case of Prageeth Ekneligoda, a columnist for the news Web site Lanka e News and a critic of the president, continued but no progress had been made.

Media rights groups say Sri Lanka is among the most dangerous places for dissenting journalists. Amnesty International says at least 14 Sri Lankan media workers have been killed since the beginning of 2006.


Associated Press writer Fisnik Abrashi contributed to this report.