Rights groups call for Rajapaksa’s arrest after return to Colombo

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Deposed Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa is facing calls for his arrest as he returned to the country after fleeing in the middle of a historic uprising which saw protestors breaking into the presidential house demanding his removal.

The 73-year-old former military officer who hails from the powerful Rajapaksa family which has ruled Sri Lanka for decades, spent weeks in Thailand exploring his options, including applying for a US green card.

However, he returned to his home country amid tight security late on Friday night. He has reportedly been given special protection amid the continued protests and a state bungalow on his return.

But calls for his arrest have only grown since then. Several groups are demanding that he should be arrested by the government, which was set up after Mr Rajapaksa announced his resignation from Singapore and chose prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as a successor.

“Gotabaya returned because no country is willing to accept him, he has no place to hide,” Joseph Stalin, the leader of a teachers’ trade union that helped mobilise demonstrators, told AFP.

“He should be arrested immediately for causing such misery for the 22 million people of Sri Lanka. He should be prosecuted for his crimes.”

Sri Lanka has been suffering from the worst economic crisis of its independent history for months now as it runs out of foreign reserves, sparking an unprecedented scale of fuel crisis which led to shortages of basic necessities.

The crisis saw acute shortages of food, lengthy blackouts and long queues at gas stations for scarce fuel supplies after the country failed to pay for vital imports.

Sri Lankans came on roads to protest against the government and the powerful Rajapaksa family whose members have been holding key posts for decades as they held them responsible for the mismanagement of the economy leading to this crisis.

“He can’t live freely as if nothing has happened,” said Stalin, who was named for the former Soviet leader by his leftist father.

A motorcade which is believed to be conveying Sri Lanka's former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa leaves the Bandaranaike International airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka on Friday night (AP)
A motorcade which is believed to be conveying Sri Lanka's former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa leaves the Bandaranaike International airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka on Friday night (AP)

Mr Rajapaksa, however, received a warm welcome at the airport in Colombo when he arrived and was garlanded with flowers by a party of ministers and senior politicians.

Mr Rajapaksa has been lobbying for his return for weeks now as he fails to secure a safe haven for himself with his younger brother Basil, the former finance minister, meeting with Mr Wickremesinghe last month to request protection and allow the deposed leader to return.

Activists, however, have vowed to bring Mr Rajapaksa to justice for the plethora of charges he faces, including of corruption and his alleged role in the 2009 assassination of prominent newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge.

“We welcome his decision to return so that we can bring him to justice for the crimes he has committed,” Tharindu Jayawardhana, a spokesman for the Sri Lanka Young Journalists’ Association, said Friday.

Rajapaksa also faces charges in a US court over Mr Wickrematunge’s murder and the torture of Tamil prisoners at the end of the island’s traumatic civil war in 2009.