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Sri Lankan Physicians Detained for Adhering to Medical Ethics

by on June 23, 2009

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I was recently interviewed about three Sri Lankan physicians who treated civilians and disseminated information on the health crisis in the conflict zone. You can listen to the four-minute interview, above.When taking the Hippocratic Oath, a doctor makes a promise to his or her patients to “keep them from harm and injustice." But the Government of Sri Lanka has failed to uphold its own pledge to protect these medical professionals. Instead of protecting the doctors, government authorities have detained them incommunicado and have denied them their right to legal counsel.Last month, Physicians for Human Rights called on the Sri Lankan government to
release the doctors immediately and to respect their rights to legal counsel and to receive medical care as well as family visits.
Now, more than three weeks after government forces issued their detention orders, Thangamutha Sathiyamoorthy, MD, and V. Shanmugarajah, MD, remain in police custody at the Central Investigating Division (CID) in Colombo, while Thurairaja Vartharajah, MD, is reportedly receiving treatment in a Colombo hospital.Under the Sri Lankan Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), the doctors can be detained if they are suspected of unlawful activity, and their detention may be extended every three months for up to 18 months total. According to Mahinda Samarasinghe, Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Minister, investigations could last for more than a year.But what have the doctors done wrong, and why are they still detained?According to a health ministry official speaking on condition of anonymity to the Associated Press, the three doctors
were detained on accusations that they gave false information about the casualties to the media.
Darma Wanninayake, a ministry spokesman, told The Guardian that the doctors’ statements embarrassed the government. In addition, the BBC reported that the physicians had stated that some of the shelling came from government positions and killed civilians.But was the information the doctors provided false? Unlikely. A report from The Times gave convincing evidence that some of the shelling did indeed come from the government side.
Independent defense experts, who analyzed dozens of aerial photographs taken by The Times said that the arrangement of the army and rebel firing positions and the narrowness of the no-fire zone made it unlikely that Tiger mortar fire or artillery caused a significant number of deaths.
These photographs lend credibility to the doctors' statements to the media.The University Teachers for Human Rights, a Jaffna-based organization that reports on human rights violations, believes
the doctors were controversial because their assessments of the local situation differed from that of the Government ... [especially] the report that a single mortar shell hit the admissions ward.
As medical professionals, the three doctors adhered to the World Medical Association International Code of Medical Ethics, which calls on them to
recognize their independent professional judgment [and to] bear in mind the obligation to respect human life.
In the conflict zone, the doctors reported that children suffered from malnutrition and of severe food shortages. In effect, they spoke out to protect the lives of their patients in accordance with their professional medical ethics.By detaining and interrogating the three doctors for adhering to medical ethics, the Government of Sri Lanka has violated Article 10.1 of the Additional Protocol II of the Geneva Convention, which states that
under no circumstances shall any person be punished for having carried out medical activities compatible with medical ethics.

Places: Sri Lanka

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