A group of Sri Lankan doctors currently in detention were produced by the Sri Lankan government before the media today in order to recant their prior reports of civilian deaths during the last stages of the war between the Sri Lankan military and the opposition Tamil Tigers. I’d written about three of these doctors in an earlier entry on this blog, expressing concern that their arrest by the government shortly after leaving the war zone was in reprisal for their earlier reports. The doctors had provided eyewitness accounts from the war zone detailing the extent of civilian suffering earlier this year.
Since January, an intense military offensive by the government gradually reconquered all the territory once held by the Tigers. In mid-May, the government announced that it had defeated the Tigers and recaptured all their territory. Trapped in the war zone with the Tigers had been thousands of civilians who were prevented by the Tigers from leaving; some civilians who did flee were shot by the Tigers as they did so. The government forces repeatedly shelled the war zone, despite the heavy concentration of civilians in an increasingly shrinking area. The government denied that it had caused any civilian casualties. Since the government barred independent observers and the media from the war zone, the doctors’ reports were one of the few eyewitness accounts available as to what was actually happening in the war zone.
Despite U.N figures of more than 7,000 civilian deaths this year, the doctors today said only 650-750 civilians were killed this year. Their estimate also happens to be far below the Sri Lankan government’s own estimate – a Sri Lankan government official last month estimated 3,000 – 5,000 civilians had been killed.
The Sri Lankan government had said, and the doctors today asserted, that their earlier reports from the war zone had been given under pressure from the Tigers who then controlled the area they were in. Consider this: the doctors have been in detention by the government since mid-May and have yet to be charged. At today’s press conference, they expressed hope that they might now be released.
Also consider that last week, Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa had said in an interview with the Indian newspaper, The Hindu, when asked why the doctors couldn’t be released now, “I told them to organize a press conference. Let the doctors come and say what they have to say.” You might think that that would mean that the doctors have now done what the President wanted, so they’d now be released. But note that in the same interview, Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to President Rajapaksa, had said about the doctors, “If they go scot-free, it will set a very bad precedent.”
If the doctors had been under pressure earlier from the Tigers while the fighting was going on, have they since been under pressure from the government to “recant” their earlier reports? AI said today that the doctors’ statements were “expected and predicted,” since we feared that their detention by the government was intended to produce exactly the result we saw today.
I’ll repeat the request I made in my earlier entry about the doctors: please write to President Mahinda Rajapaksa (Presidential Secretariat, Colombo 1, Sri Lanka, email: email@example.com) and to the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the U.S. Jaliya Wickramasuriya (email: firstname.lastname@example.org). Please ask that the doctors be released immediately from detention unless they’re promptly charged with a recognizable crime. They should be given all the medical care they may need, especially Dr. Varatharajah, as well as access to their relatives and lawyers of their choice. Thanks for your help.