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Colombo detains three doctors, witnesses of the war on Tamil rebels

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2009-05-30

After denouncing the UN's complacency toward civilian casualties in Sri Lanka, French daily Le Monde on Friday ran an article about three doctors who, because they stayed behind to care for the wounded, are now in police custody.

Three Tamil doctors, once considered heroes for their work with the wounded in Sri Lanka's warzone, have been jailed by the government in Colombo.


The three doctors worked in mobile clinics on the front line and stayed there until the end of the army’s offensive against Tamil Tiger rebels. They were detained on May 15, as soon they left the area. They are now being held by the Criminal Investigation Division in Colombo, a Sri Lankan government unit slammed by the UN in 2007 for the “routine” practice of torture.

Philippe Bolopion, a permanent correspondent at the UN and a special correspondent in Sri Lanka, published on Friday a harrowing report on the fate of these three doctors in the French daily Le Monde. A day previously, Bolopion published a piece quoting anonymous sources at the UN and among NGO officials denouncing the United Nations’ complacency in dealing with the Sri Lankan government.  

“These three men are about the only people who can testify to exactly what happened in the combat zone during the last 10 days,” Bolopion said on FRANCE 24, where he is a regular contributor. “If one day an international investigation is conducted to investigate violations of human rights committed by both sides during the conflict, they would be key witnesses.”


A feeling of helplessness


Thurairaja Varatharajah, Thangamuttu Sathyamurthi and V. Shanmugarajah “simply did their jobs,” said a senior UN official posted in Sri Lanka who was quoted in Le Monde. “The doctors always avoided political issues,” he adds. The three men were in regular contact by email on a satellite link with United Nations officials, Sri Lankan officials and diplomats.


"They were witness to absolutely horrific scenes,” Bolopion said. “I obtained photos that they had taken during the last days [of the offensive] showing their mobile hospitals [...] inundated with injured people who had lost limbs, people seriously burnt -- absolutely terrible wounds.”

Despite the violence, the limited means at the doctors' disposal and their feeling of being overwhelmed by the number of wounded, they stayed behind. But their emails describe the horror they witnessed. The Sri Lankan army attacked, with “heavy weapons, civilians living in plastic tents who were prevented from fleeing by the Tamil Tigers,” Bolopion's Le Monde report said.


“Today, around 1600 hours, the Mullivaikkal hospital was attacked by mortar fire [...] Nine patients dead and 15 patients injured,” one of the doctors describes in an email. Their mobile clinics were regularly targeted by the Sri Lankan army, says an international official based in Sri Lanka.

“The government has every interest in shutting them up,” Bolopion told FRANCE 24. “They are doctors, they are credible, they were in contact with the international community, UN, NGOs, throughout the conflict. People who know the doctors fear that the government will let them out in the middle of the night -- and some metres away, a van will take them and make them disappear. This kind of thing has already happened in the past.”

On Wednesday, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution that praised the Sri Lankan authorities for the steps taken "to address the urgent needs of the internally displaced persons".

Date created : 2009-05-29