COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - Sri Lanka's top Buddhist monks urged the president Sunday to release his main election rival, who was detained on allegations of conspiring to overthrow the government while serving as army chief.
In a joint letter to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the heads of four top Buddhist chapters condemned the arrest of Sarath Fonseka after his election defeat.
The chief monks are highly respected in the predominantly Buddhist nation, and their intervention could affect the government's plan to try Fonseka in a military court.
"We wish to stress that we do not under any circumstance approve of the arrest of former army commander Gen. Sarath Fonseka who risked his life for the country's unity," the monks wrote.
Buddhist Sinhalese make up more than 70 per cent of Sri Lanka's 20 million people and the clergy enjoy a prime place in society. Political leaders traditionally seek the blessings and advice of the chief priests.
The monks asked Rajapaksa to use his presidential powers to clear Fonseka of all allegations.
After wiping out Tamil Tiger rebels in the battlefield last year, Rajapaksa and Fonseka were feted as heroes by the Sinhalese majority for ending the country's quarter-century civil war.
Months later, the two fell out and ran against each other in last month's election. Rajapaksa secured a wide victory, while Fonseka rejected the results.
Last Monday, the military arrested Fonseka and threatened to court martial him on still undisclosed sedition charges. The government says the former army chief was intent on a coup and would have brought a military dictatorship if elected, charges denied by Fonseka.
The opposition describes Fonseka's arrest as revenge for daring to challenge Rajapaksa.
Opponents took to the streets to protest the arrest last week and the Supreme Court said it will hear a case filed by Fonseka's wife, Anoma, demanding his release.
On Sunday, Anoma joined saffron-robbed monks at a temple in Kotte, just outside Colombo, in a public prayer service for Fonseka's release. Hundreds of people lit oil lamps and incense sticks and sang hymns with their hands clasped in prayer.
Waturuwila Siri Sujatha, a monk who lead the prayers, said he hopes Rajapaksa will hear their voices and release Fonseka.
"Fonseka is a man who brought 30 years of bloodshed to an end," Sujatha said. "Whoever loves the country cannot jail him."