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Sri Lanka presidential hopeful would free soldiers, rebels

The presidential front-runner in Sri Lanka promised Friday he would rehabilitate and release all military personnel accused of human rights abuses in the long civil war.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa's manifesto says that Tamil Tiger rebels who are imprisoned for war-related activities would also be released after rehabilitation.

During the war, Rajapaksa was a powerful defense official under his brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He himself has been accused of condoning rape, extrajudicial executions and abductions, charges he denies. He is considered the top candidate in the elections scheduled for Nov. 16.

Sri Lankan presidential candidate and former defense chief Gotabaya Rajapaksa greets to gathering during the launching of his election manifesto in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Friday, Oct. 25, 2019. The presidential front-runner in Sri Lanka says he will rehabilitate and release all military personnel accused of committing human rights abuses in the long civil war.(AP PhotoEranga Jayawardena)

By mentioning "rehabilitation," his pledge differs from his previous promise to release all detained soldiers soon after he is elected, which was questioned as possibly bypassing legal procedures. It wasn't clear what it meant by rehabilitation and Rajapaksa and his camp have not explained it further.

The manifesto also reiterates his previous pledge that he will not recognize a resolution Sri Lanka co-sponsored at the United Nations human rights body promising to investigate allegations of war crimes against government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels.

"Even though we took steps to pardon, rehabilitate and release 13,784 Tiger members who surrendered with arms, such steps were not taken in relation to soldiers who faced different accusations related to the wartime," the manifesto said.

Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa gestures holding a copy of the election manifesto of his brother and presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa, bottom left, during a function in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Friday, Oct. 25, 2019. The presidential front-runner in Sri Lanka says he will rehabilitate and release all military personnel accused of committing human rights abuses in the long civil war. (AP PhotoEranga Jayawardena)

It says that steps will be taken to "systematically rehabilitate and reintegrate" into the society as free citizens not only the soldiers but also members of the Tamil Tigers who are facing different accusations related to the war.

Sri Lanka's government ordered Tamil rebels and any civilian with remote relationship to the rebel group to surrender after they were boxed inside a narrow strip of land in the final days of the war in 2009. The government released the official number of 13,784 people who surrendered but families say they saw busloads of their relatives taken away by soldiers never to be seen again. A protest demanding information on their missing relatives has continued for years.

Rajapaksa's manifesto does not talk about the missing but speaking to reporters earlier this month, he said that no person had disappeared other than those who participated in active combat, and that included thousands of soldiers. Even though there are different allegations, he said people must forget the past and move on.

Sri Lankan presidential candidate and former defense chief Gotabaya Rajapaksa, center, distributes copies of his election manifesto in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Friday, Oct. 25, 2019. The presidential front-runner in Sri Lanka says he will rehabilitate and release all military personnel accused of committing human rights abuses in the long civil war. (AP PhotoEranga Jayawardena)

Sri Lankan presidential candidate and former defense chief Gotabaya Rajapaksa greets to gathering during the launching of his election manifesto in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Friday, Oct. 25, 2019. The presidential front-runner in Sri Lanka says he will rehabilitate and release all military personnel accused of committing human rights abuses in the long civil war. (AP PhotoEranga Jayawardena)