Sri Lankan doctors "recant" prior testimony

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:  priu@presidentsoffice.lk) and to the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the U.S. Jaliya Wickramasuriya (email:  slembassy@slembassyusa.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.

Sri Lanka arrests three doctors

I’m very worried.  In the final days of the war between the Sri Lankan government and the opposition Tamil Tigers, it had been hard to get reliable information as to what was happening in the war zone, since the government had barred access to the area to independent observers.  One of the few sources of information were the reports from three government-employed doctors (Drs. T. Sathiyamoorthy, Varatharajah and Shanmugarajah) who were working in the  war zone.  They provided eyewitness accounts to reporters detailing the suffering of the civilians trapped in the area, many of whom died from war-related injuries.  Their reports highlighted continuous shelling of areas in which civilians were concentrated.

The three doctors were reported to have left the war zone on May 15 with about 5,000 other civilians.  They were last seen at a holding area at the Omanthai checking point.  Amnesty International has gotten reports that Dr. Varatharajah was seriously injured and was airlifted by the Sri Lankan Air Force to an unknown destination.  We also understand that Drs. Sathiyamoorthy and Shanmugarajah were arrested and are now in the custody of the Terrorist Investigation Division, a police unit, in the capital, Colombo.  However, no detention order has been issued so their relatives don’t know where they are or what their status is.

I’m very concerned that the doctors may have been detained in reprisal for the reporting they had done from the war zone.  A Sri Lankan health official has been quoted as saying that they were detained on accusations that they gave false information about civilian casualties to the media.  A top UN official yesterday said that the doctors had “performed absolutely heroically” and expressed concern about their fate.

Please write to President Mahinda Rajapaksa (Presidential Secretariat, Colombo 1, Sri Lanka, email:  priu@presidentsoffice.lk) and to the Sri Lankan Ambassador to the U.S., Jaliya Wickramasuriya (email:  slembassy@slembassyusa.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 need, especially Dr. Varatharajah, as well as access to their relatives and lawyers of their choice.  Thanks for your help.