Why Doctors from Sri Lanka's Combat Zone May Face Jail

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Joe Klamar / AFP / Getty Images

Internally displaced Sri Lankans wait behind barbed wire during a visit by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to a refugee camp on May 23, 2009

The veil of secrecy over the whereabouts of three doctors who worked in Sri Lanka's shrinking war zone last month has finally been lifted. On Thursday Colombo announced that the doctors, who were treating patients in areas held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the final days before those areas were gained by Sri Lankan government forces, are now in government custody and face court action for collaborating with the Tigers.

Disaster-management and human-rights minister Mahinda Samarasinghe revealed that the three doctors — T. Varatharajah, T. Sathyamurthi and V. Shanmugarajah — had been detained by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and are being investigated for suspicion of working with the Tigers. The three doctors remained in the shrinking combat zone during heavy battles in May and crossed over to government-held areas only three days before the government announced the death of Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, signifying the effective end of the Tigers' long insurgency.

During the last weeks of the war, the government consistently charged that the three doctors were providing inflated numbers and wrong information about civilian casualties by government fire within a narrow no-fire zone. On May 12, Varatharajah told the Associated Press that 49 patients were killed and 50 others were injured when shells hit the only functioning medical facility within the zone.

"I can't reveal all the details of the confessions [by the doctors], but you will see when they appear in court," Samarasinghe said, indicating that the doctors were likely to retract accusations that government forces were responsible for the shelling. When AP reported the May 12 shelling incident, the government reiterated that government forces had already suspended the use of heavy weapons inside the combat zone three weeks earlier. "There was a lot of publicity that we launched an attack on a hospital. That publicity was given due to the three doctors," Samarasinghe said. "Now they are in the custody of the CID, under detention orders. Soon they will be produced in court. You will hear what really happened."

The minister did not say when the trial would begin, but he did say law requires the government to produce the doctors in court once a month during their detention. He also said there was legal provision with the constitution allowing the detention to be challenged at the country's Supreme Court.

There was uncertainty about the condition of the doctors after they crossed over, having remained within the combat zone as late as May 15, according to some reports. Amnesty International said the three had last been seen on the morning of May 15 near Omanthai, where the screening of civilians and others escaping the combat zone was taking place, about 50 miles (80 km) south of the fighting. One of the doctors, Varatharajah, was injured during the latter stages of the fighting.

On May 20, officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visited the doctors at a detention center, according to Monica Zanarelli, the ICRC's deputy head of operations for South Asia during a regular visit to detention sites. ICRC officials in Colombo, the capital, said the organization had access to the doctors but could not confirm whether officials had made any more visits since May 20. Samarasinghe said the three were now being detained at the CID in Colombo.

The three doctors became the main source of information to the outside world from within the combat zone during the final days of Sri Lanka's decades-long civil war. Because the shrinking war zone was blocked, they were relied on heavily by journalists, relief agencies and others for updates. Many of them felt that the doctors were trustworthy sources: according to ICRC's Zanarelli, the three were from a group "with whom the ICRC had been working to evacuate nearly 14,000 patients and their careers between mid-February and 9 May."

The government, however, has maintained that the information relayed by the doctors was inherently unreliable. After the May 12 incident, the health ministry said Varatharajah had not communicated with the ministry since late last 2008. "We have always maintained that any voice from the [former] no-fire zone cannot be an independent voice. When somebody was talking from the small area under the Tigers, it was not an independent voice. There was a pistol pointed at the head when they are talking to BCC, CNN or al-Jazeera," Samarasinghe said, with his index finger firmly pointed at his temple.