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Protests after Sri Lankan dissident arrested

Protesters demand the release of former military commander Sarath Fonseka, as the president moves to consolidate his power.

COLUMBO // The arrest of the former military commander who unsuccessfully contested last month's presidential election has raised fears of growing unrest on Sri Lanka's streets, with opposition groups calling for his immediate release. At least 2,000 opposition supporters clashed with tear-gas-firing policemen and pro-government supporters in protests that are continuing in many towns and cities, according to organisers.

Dayasiri Jayasekera, an opposition legislator from the United National Party, who was present at yesterday's protest outside the country's main courts complex in Colombo, said a series of protests are planned for the coming days and weeks to demand the immediate release of Sarath Fonseka, who lost the presidential race to the incumbent, Mahinda Rajapaksa. "This is an illegal arrest, which can only be done by the military police. It is a sort of abduction," Mr Jayasekera said, adding: "Democracy has hit a new low in Sri Lanka."

As the post-election clampdown continues with a wave of arrests and transfers of top officers in the army and police - all of whom were perceived as being close to the Mr Fonseka - Sri Lanka's media were also bracing for curbs on reporting. "Democracy - what democracy? There is no law and order. The law and order situation in Sri Lanka is in peril," said Wijedasa Rajapaksa, Mr Fonseka's lawyer. He, along with Anoma Fonseka, Mr Fonseka's wife, has twice visited him at a naval safe house since his arrest on Monday night.

Wijedasa Rajapaksa said the detainee was being treated well by the military at a naval facility in the centre of Colombo but regretted that Mr Fonseka was "dragged down the stairs and taken in a vehicle in an inhuman way" during the arrest in Colombo. Mr Fonseka, the former army commander, and Mahinda Rajapaksa both claimed sole credit for the crushing victory over Tamil separatist rebels in May, and faced off in a presidential poll last month. The former army commander lost by 18 percentage points.

An opposition alliance, which Mr Fonseka represented as a common candidate, accused the government of rigging the vote and election fraud, a charge denied by the government and the elections commissioner. Mr Fonseka's arrest shocked the public, human-rights groups and the international community. The strongest condemnation of the general's arrest came from Tibbotuwawe Sri Siddhartha Sumangala Thera, a an influential monk in the Buddhist-majority country, who said it was a crime to imprison a war hero who had done an immense service to Sri Lanka in its fight to eradicate terrorism.

The arrest and the reaction to it have become a new rallying call for the opposition ahead of parliamentary elections in April. On Tuesday, Mr Rajapaksa issued a presidential proclamation dissolving parliament, and the Daily Mirror newspaper said parliamentary elections are likely to be held on April 8. At the last poll in 2004, the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) secured victory by winning 105 seats in the 225-seat legislature. Political analysts say the ruling party is aiming for a much better showing this time around, given the president's success in ending what many thought was an unwinnable 30-year war against the Tamil rebels.

Mr Rajapaksa said his team of lawyers yesterday filed a fundamental rights petition in the Supreme Court calling for Mr Fonseka's immediate release. "There are no charges presented to him. This is just politics," he said. On Tuesday, government spokesmen explained that Mr Fonseka has been arrested on charges of conspiring against the government while he was still the army commander. The officials said he will be charged before a military court under the Army Act, which bars soldiers from political activity.

The developments also came as journalists braced for curbs on reporting. Fears were growing that the government planned to call for compulsory registration of all news websites with the intention of either blocking them or controlling the content via new regulations. "There is a move to control these websites," said a senior editor, who declined to be named for fear of repercussions. The director-general of the state-owned Telecommunications Regulatory Authority - Anusha Pelpita, who was appointed this week - said he was unaware of any such move.

Sunil Jayasekera, secretary of the Free Media Movement, Sri Lanka's best-known media rights group, said some journalists were in hiding after the elections while fresh curbs on reporting brought new threats to the media. "Reporters working for state media who were keen on fair reporting at the election are being harassed by the authorities," he said. On February 1, the government said military officers were barred from speaking to the media on certain matters relating to promotions and transfers unless permission was granted.