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.

Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvSeries 5 opening episode attracts lowest ratings since drama began
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
people
Sport
Greg Dyke insists he will not resign as Football Association chairman after receiving a watch worth more than £16,000 but has called for an end to the culture of gifts being given to football officials
football
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Web Application Support Manager

£60000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Reigate...

** Secondary History Teacher Required In Liverpool **

£120 - £165 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

** Secondary Geography Teacher Required In Liverpool **

£120 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

** Female PE Teacher Urgently Required In Liverpool **

£120 - £165 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments