Doctors who braved bombs in Sri Lanka imprisoned

Government accuses medics of collaborating with Tamil Tigers

Three doctors who struggled to help tens of thousands of civilians wounded in Sri Lanka's war zone could be held for up to a year before being charged with harming the country, the government has revealed.

Sri Lanka's Human Rights Minister, Mahinda Samarasinghe, said the doctors were being detained on "reasonable suspicion of collaboration with the LTTE [Tamil separatists]". He said the men had to be presented before a court on a monthly basis, but that investigations could take more than a year.

In the final bloody months of the war, the three government-appointed medics – Thurairaja Varatharajah, Thangamuttu Sathyamurthi and V Shanmugarajah – worked with the most basic medical facilities to run a makeshift clinic inside the conflict zone.

Without many of the drugs they required, or sufficient staff numbers, the doctors struggled to manage while their clinic came under regular bombardment, reportedly from both the LTTE rebels and government forces.

Yet, to the fury of the government, the doctors were also one of the few sources of independent information about the civilian casualties of a conflict that was all but hidden from view.

The medics regularly spoke with the media, including The Independent, about the situation inside the war zone. They talked of shortages of food and medicine, and how their clinic was often hit by shelling. They talked about their efforts to prevent the spread of disease.

Their testimony often stood in stark contrast to the position of the Sri Lankan military, which denied using heavy weapons as it sought to breach the LTTE defences and free up to 250,000 civilians trapped there. Indeed, the military claimed that those who were injured or killed – the UN estimates 15,000 were wounded and at least 8,000 killed – were hit by LTTE firing. The government insisted that the testimony of the doctors could not be trusted, and that they were under the control of the LTTE.

In the very final days of the conflict, the three doctors fled the conflict zone and were detained by Sri Lankan troops. It is understood that one of them, Dr Varatharajah, was injured and had to be airlifted to hospital.

In an interview with the BBC, Mr Samarasinghe said the three men were being held by the criminal investigation department in Colombo.

"I don't know what the investigations may reveal, but maybe they were even part of that whole conspiracy to put forward the notion that government forces were shelling and targeting hospitals and indiscriminately targeting civilians as a result of the shelling," he said.

The only organisation with access to the doctors is the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which was the sole aid group that had access to the conflict zone.

Satish Kumar, brother-in-law of Dr Shanmugarajah, said he had been told by ICRC officials that they had been able to give him some clothes and that "he had not been tortured".

Mr Kumar, who lives in Norway, said: "If the government charges them, then we can approach a lawyer. Everybody knows they've not done anything other than help civilians and try to save lives. They may have given some casualty figures, but is that an offence? It's obvious how many people were injured – they are now all in the camps."

The UN said it has repeatedly raised the question of the men's detention.

In an effort to raise their profile, the men had been put forward for the Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize, established in 1989 by Unesco to recognise those who have "made a significant contribution to promoting, seeking, safeguarding or maintaining peace".

Gordon Weiss, a UN spokesman in Colombo, said: "Our position is that these men are government medics who played a big role in saving a great many lives. If the government believes there is a judicial process, they should be charged or else let go."

Testimony: Exposing reality of life under fire

* "We are unable to treat people properly because a lot of aides have fled the hospital. We go into bunkers when there is shelling, and try to treat them as much as we can when there is a lull." – Dr T Varatharajah, 12 May, after confirming 50 deaths in Sri Lankan army mortar attacks on his hospital.

* "Today we can hear the gunfire and shelling. Yesterday, another 80 civilian casualties were brought to the hospital. Today at around 5.30am we heard the sound of artillery fire." – Dr T Sathyamurthy, 18 April. He estimated around 300,000 refugees were trapped in the war zone.

* "We are doing first aid and some surgeries as quickly as we can. The situation is overwhelming; nothing is in our control." – Dr V Shanmugarajah, on 10 May, when he estimated 378 civilian deaths at his hospital alone.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions