Sri Lanka: Three doctors who helped BBC now missing

Fears grow that news from conflict zone will be restricted

Three doctors who told the BBC of various attacks carried out by the Sri Lankan government over the last few months have gone missing, according to Amnesty International.

Amnesty International fears that they may be held in reprisal for providing information about civilians in the conflict zone between government forces and the Tamil Tigers, and is now deeply concerned over their safety. The three – Dr T Sathiyamoorthy, Dr T Varatharajah and Dr V Shanmugarajah – gave eyewitness reports from hospitals and makeshift medical centres.

Their reports detailed the suffering of ordinary civilians, many of whom died from war-related injuries. They also highlighted the continuous shelling of areas with large concentrations of non-combatants.

The three were last seen on Friday 15 May in a holding area at Omanthai checking point. They had been working for the government in the conflict zone in north-eastern Sri Lanka, treating the sick and wounded until they travelled out of the “No Fire Zone” with approximately 5,000 other civilians.

Amnesty understands that Dr Shanmugarajah and Dr Sathiyamoorthy, the regional director of health services in Kilinochchi, may be currently held at the Terrorist Investigation Division in the capital Colombo.

However, a detention order has not yet been issued so their relatives remain unsure of their whereabouts and they do not have access to a lawyer.

Dr Varatharajah, the regional director of health services in Mullaitivu, was seriously injured and is reported to have been airlifted from the Omanthai crossing point to an unknown destination by the Sri Lankan Air Forces.

Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, said:

“Amnesty International is deeply concerned about the well-being and whereabouts of these three doctors. The three were employed by the government and were there to help ordinary civilians.

“Unless they are charged with a recognisable criminal offence and remanded by an independent court, they should be released immediately.

“At present they have no access to lawyers or their family and we have no guarantees about their safety.

“We are calling on all our members worldwide to write to the Sri Lankan authorities expressing their fears for Dr T Sathiyamoorthy, Dr T Varatharajah and Dr Shanmugarajah.”

Background information:
· At checkpoints and in transitional areas for the newly displaced, the government is reported to be screening the civilian population in order to identify suspected the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fighters. There is currently no standard registration process for the displaced coming out of the Wanni.
· The armed conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE has been ongoing for decades. Fighting intensified in north eastern Sri Lanka from July 2008 and developed into a high intensity conflict marked by grave violations of human rights law and international humanitarian law.
· In early 2009, up to quarter of a million people were trapped between government security forces and the LTTE. The Sri Lankan government has restricted independent journalists or monitors from reporting on the situation. As a result an almost total blackout of information has prevented the population of Sri Lanka and the world from knowing the full scale of the humanitarian crisis in the Wanni region of north east Sri Lanka. In September 2008 the government forced the withdrawal of all humanitarian agencies with the exception of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) from the Wanni.
· In April 2009, as fighting intensified and international pressure grew for a temporary humanitarian ceasefire, tens of thousands of civilians escaped to government-held areas. There are now over 200,000 displaced people in more than 20 transit camps across Vavuniya District.

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