Why Doctors from Sri Lanka’s Combat Zone May Face Jail

Why Doctors from Sri Lankas Combat Zone May Face Jail

The veil of secrecy over the whereabouts of three doctors who worked in Sri Lanka’s shrinking war zone last month has finally been lifted. On Thursday, Colombo announced that three doctors, all of whom were treating patients in Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam -held areas in the final days before they were gained by Sri Lankan government forces, are now in government custody and face court action for collaborating with the Tigers.

Disaster Management and Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe revealed that the three doctors Dr. T. Varatharajah, Dr. T. Sathyamurthi, and Dr. V. Shanmugarajah had been detained by the Criminal Investigation Department and are being investigated for suspicions of working with the Tigers. The three doctors remained in the shrinking combat zone during heavy battles in May, and only crossed over to government-held areas three days before the government announced the death of Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, signifying the effective end of the Tigers’ long insurgency.

During the last weeks of the war, the government had consistently charged that the three doctors were providing inflated numbers and wrong information on civilian casualties by government fire within a narrow no-fire zone. On May 12, Dr. Varatharajah told the Associated Press that 49 patients were killed and 50 others were injured when shells hit the only functioning medical facility within the zone.

“I can’t reveal all the details of the confessions [by the doctors], but you will see when they appear in court,” Samarasinghe said, indicating that the doctors were likely to retract accusations that government forces were responsible for the shelling. When AP reported the May 12 shelling incident, the government reiterated that government forces had already suspended the use of heavy weapons inside the combat zone three weeks earlier. “There was a lot of publicity that we launched an attack on a hospital. That publicity was given due to the three doctors,” Samarasinghe said. “Now they are in the custody of the CID, under detention orders. Soon they will be produced in court. You will hear what really happened.”

The minister did not say when the doctors’ trial would be begin, but he did say that law requires the government produce them in court once every month during their detention. He also said that there was legal provision with the constitution allowing the detention to be challenged at the country’s Supreme Court.

There was uncertainty over the condition of the three doctors after they crossed over after remaining within the combat zone till late as until May 15, according to some reports. Amnesty International said that they had last been seen during the morning of May 15 near Omanthai, where screening of civilians and others escaping the combat zone was taking place, about 50 miles south of the fighting. One of the three doctors, Dr. Vartharajah, was injured during the latter stages of the fighting.

On May 20, officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross had visited the doctors at a detention center, according to Monica Zanarelli, the ICRC’s deputy head of operations for South Asia during a regular visit to detention sites. ICRC officials in Colombo said that the organization had access to the three doctors but could not confirm whether officials had made any more visits since May 20. Samarasinghe said that the three were now being detained at the CID in the capital Colombo.

The three doctors became the main source of information to the outside world from within the combat zone during the final days of Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war. Because the shrinking war zone was blocked, they were relied on heavily by journalists, relief agencies and others for updates. Many of those felt they were trustworthy sources: According to ICRC’s Zanarelli, the three were from a group “with whom the ICRC had been working to evacuate nearly 14,000 patients and their carers between mid-February and 9 May.”

The government, however, has maintained that the information relayed by the doctors was inherently unreliable. After the May 12 incident, the health ministry said that Dr. Varatharajah had stopped communicating with the ministry since late last 2008. “We have always maintained that any voice from the [former] no-fire zone cannot be an independent voice. When somebody was talking from the small area under the Tigers, it was not an independent voice, there was a pistol pointed at the head when they are talking to BCC, CNN or al-Jazeera,” Samarasinghe said with his index finger firmly pointed at his temple.

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