Sri Lanka's deposed president Gotabaya Rajapaksa was driven in a security convoy to a new official residence in the capital provided to him by the government of his successor

Deposed leader of Sri Lanka faces arrest calls upon return

Deposed Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was flown in a security convoy to a new official residence in the capital provided to him by his successor government – Copyright AFP Ishara S. KODIKARA

Amal JAYASINGHE

Ousted Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa faced calls for his arrest on Saturday after returning home from self-imposed exile under the protection of his successor government.

Rajapaksa fled the island nation under a military escort in July after a huge crowd stormed his official residence after months of demonstrations sparked by an unprecedented economic crisis.

The 73-year-old man announced his departure from Singapore and spent several weeks under virtual house arrest in a Bangkok hotel before returning late Friday night.

Leaders of the protest campaign that toppled his government said Rajapaksa, who lost his presidential immunity after leaving office, must now face trial.

“Gotabaya has returned because no country is willing to accept him, he has nowhere to hide,” Joseph Stalin, a teacher union leader who helped mobilize the demonstrators, told AFP.

“He should be arrested immediately for causing such suffering to 22 million Sri Lankans,” he added. “He can’t live freely like nothing happened.”

The Rajapaksa government was accused of chaotic mismanagement as Sri Lanka’s economy plunged into a precipitous decline.

The crisis was accompanied by severe food shortages, extended power outages and long queues at gas stations due to scarce fuel supplies after the country ran out of foreign currency to pay for vital imports.

Sri Lanka’s main opposition alliance, Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), has yet to comment on the return of Rajapaksa, but a former minister from the bloc said the ousted leader must be held accountable.

“Gothabaya must be held accountable for his crimes before and during his presidency,” Ajit Perera told reporters in Colombo.

Ministers and high-ranking politicians decorated Rajapaksa with flowers after disembarking from their flight to Colombo.

He was taken in a security convoy to a new official residence in the capital, provided to him by the government of President Ranil Wickremesinghe, his successor.

Wickremesinghe is dependent on Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party for governance and on Friday passed an austerity budget – a precondition for International Monetary Fund bailouts – with the group’s backing.

“Gothabai’s return demonstrates that the SLPP is still strong despite the humiliation it has endured,” Hasit Kandaudaheva, a senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Colombo, told AFP.

But Kandaudaheva said the return of the deeply unpopular Rajapaksa could undermine his successor.

Witnesses said Rajapaksa began hosting guests at his new home on Saturday, along with his older brother – former President Mahinda Rajapaksa – one of the first to visit.

Mahinda was prime minister in his brother’s administration when he, too, was evicted from his home by a mob angered by an attack on protesting government supporters.

– “Submit to court” –

Human rights activists have vowed to push for Gotabay’s prosecution on a range of charges, including his alleged role in the 2009 murder of prominent newspaper editor Lasanta Wikrematunge.

“We welcome his decision to return so that we can hold him accountable for the crimes he committed,” Tharindu Jayavardhana, spokesman for the Sri Lanka Young Journalists Association, said on Friday.

Several corruption cases brought against Rajapaksa stalled after he was elected president.

Rajapaksa is also facing charges in a US court over the murder of Vikrematung and the torture of Tamil prisoners at the end of the island’s civil war in 2009.

– “Prosperity and splendor” –

Rajapaksa won a landslide election in 2019 with the promise of “prosperity and splendor”, but his popularity plummeted as the country’s crisis escalated.

His government was accused of unjustified tax cuts, which led to an increase in public debt and exacerbated the country’s economic problems.

The coronavirus pandemic has also dealt a devastating blow to the island’s tourism industry and reduced remittances from Sri Lankans working abroad, a key source of foreign exchange earnings.

Wickremesinghe was elected by Parliament until the end of Rajapaksa’s term. Since then, he has cracked down on street protests and arrested leading activists.

The government defaulted on its $51 billion foreign debt in April, and the central bank is projecting a record eight percent contraction in GDP this year.

After months of negotiations, the International Monetary Fund on Thursday agreed to a $2.9 billion conditional aid package to restore Sri Lanka’s faltering financial position.

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