NEW YORK and COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — “Dear Friends, Nice to contact after 100 days.”
So began an email sent at the end of August from a Sri Lankan government doctor after three months of detainment by the country’s Terrorist Investigation Division.
The author, Dr. T. Sathiyamoorthy, along with four of his medical colleagues, had been arrested and accused of giving false information to the international community during the last months of Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war, which the government won definitively in May when it defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers).
From January to May 15, when they were arrested, the doctors communicated from the war zone almost daily, sending reports of casualties and photographs that often showed dead bodies, shallow bunkers and malnourished children.
Held under provisions of the government’s “emergency regulations,” which allow the detainment of suspects for 18 months without formal charges or access to legal representation, the doctors went silent as they began months of interrogation by the government.
Their release in August was by no means viewed as a victory by the human rights groups and medical organizations who had been monitoring their cases. One doctor remains in prison and the other four are on parole until their court hearing scheduled for Nov. 9.
Physicians for Human Rights has said that the detention of the doctors was an attempt to suppress reports about civilians casualties and attacks on hospitals during the last months of the war.
“An embarrassed government has no right to detain doctors for practicing neutral medicine and for providing factual reports about the humanitarian and health situation on the ground,” said Frank Donaghue, chairman of PHR.
Many in the international community, including the EU, have called for an independent inquiry to find out what exactly happened in the war zone, known as the Vanni, where the doctors were stationed. The final civilian death toll ranges from a U.N. estimate of 7,000 people to a Times of London report that claimed more than 20,000 civilians were killed. Both sides of the 25-year conflict have been accused of war crimes. Responding to allegations that the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) used people trapped in the war zone as a human shield, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said, “the brutal and inhuman treatment of civilians by the LTTE is utterly reprehensible, and should be examined to see if it constitutes war crimes.”
The Sri Lankan government is facing equally serious accusations. In August, a cell phone video that purportedly shows government troops executing naked, unarmed prisoners was circulated widely online. Government officials have rebuked calls for any independent investigations of the incident or any other war related matters.
Many human rights groups believe the physicians who were arrested could help illuminate the extent of war atrocities committed during the end days of the conflict. The doctors kept the only known detailed accounts of civilian casualties, and provided information and documentation to media outlets around the world.
One email contained photographs showing plumes of dirt and debris from artillery shells exploding within what had been declared the “no-fire zone” where almost 300,000 civilians were trapped between government and Tamil Tiger forces. “Injured patient ward at Mullivaikkal primary health centre was under heavy shell attacked,” wrote one doctor. “There are many death [sic] bodies in the roads.”
In mid-February, faced with depleted medical supplies and overrun outdoor hospitals, the doctors began coordinating with the International Committee of the Red Cross to evacuate the most seriously wounded by boat. Until May 9, when the rescue operation ended, the doctors were instrumental in removing 14,000 civilians from the war zone, according to Monica Zanarelli, ICRC’s deputy head of operations for South Asia.
Some of their dispatches revealed smaller but equally challenging scenarios undertaken by the doctors to save lives. On April 15, Dr Thurairajah Vartharajah delivered a set of twins by cesarean on the cement floor of a rudimentary hospital in the “no-fire zone.” On April 16, a second set of twins were born at the same hospital.
“These are people who performed absolutely heroically in the last few weeks and months, and deserve every praise and care,” said U.N. Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes.
Through April the government continued to deplete LTTE forces but civilians were increasingly squeezed into a smaller sliver of land that had become a death trap. On April 20, the army blasted through an earthen wall and an estimated 100,000 civilians flooded through the broken rampart seeking safety. On May 15, three of the doctors reportedly fled with 5,000 more civilians to a military checkpoint where they were arrested.
After their arrest, the doctors disappeared for two months. Then on July 8, all five appeared at press conference organized by the government and recanted their previous reports of civilian casualties. “The information that I have given is false,” said Dr. V Shanmugarajah. “The figures were exaggerated due to pressure from the LTTE.”
The doctors told the assembled journalists that no more than 650 civilians were killed in the last months of the war and that the Tamil Tigers forced them to report inflated numbers in a strategic bid for international sympathy. The public “confession” came as little surprise to those watching. “Given the track record of the Sri Lankan government, there are very significant grounds to question whether these statements were voluntary, and they raise serious concerns whether the doctors were subjected to ill-treatment during weeks of detention,” said Sam Zarifi, the Asia-Pacific director for Amnesty International.
Nonetheless, the press conference muddled the extremely contentious issue of how many civilians had been killed and whether they fell from government artillery at the same time the defense minister was assuring the world that there were zero civilian casualties.
For now, four of the five doctors are free on bail. Whether or not they will ever be free to testify to what really happened in the Vanni remains unknown.
In addition to O’Connor, who reported from New York, one journalist in New York and one in Sri Lanka contributed to this story but wish to remain anonymous to maintain their safety and that of their colleagues.