July 10, 2009
Rhys Blakely in Mumbai
Mahinda Samarasinghe, the Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights, said: “The challenges now are different. Manning entry and exit points and handling dead bodies, transport of patients, in the post-conflict era are no longer needed.”
Last night, the Red Cross was closing two offices. One of these is in Trincomalee, which had helped to provide medical care to about 30,000 injured civilians evacuated by sea from the conflict zone in the north east.
The other is in Batticaloa, where the Red Cross had been providing “protection services”. This involves following up allegations of abductions and extrajudicial killings, practices that human rights organisations say have become recurring motifs of the Sri Lankan Government.
The Manik Farm camp was set up to house the largest number of the 300,000 mainly Tamil civilians forced to flee the northeast as army forces mounted a brutal offensive against the Tigers, who had been fighting for an ethnic Tamil homeland for 26 years.
Aid workers and the British Government have warned that conditions at the site are inadequate. Most of the deaths are the result of water-borne diseases, particularly diarrhoea, a senior relief worker said on condition of anonymity.
Witness testimonies obtained by The Times in May described long queues for food and inadequate water supplies inside Manik Farm. Women, children and the elderly were shoved aside in the scramble for supplies. Aid agencies are being given only intermittent access to the camp. The Red Cross was not being allowed in yesterday.
Experts suggest that President Rajapaksa, the country’s leader, is yet to make good his victory pledge to reach out to the minority Tamil community. “The discourse used by the Government is of traitors and patriots,” Paikiasothy Saravanamuthu, of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a Sri Lankan analyst, said. “There is no indication that this mode of thinking is slipping.”
Mr Rajapaksa is known for not tolerating dissent; a trait that human rights organisations say was demonstrated this week when five Sri Lankan doctors who witnessed the bloody climax of the country’s civil war and made claims of mass civilian deaths recanted much of their testimony.
The doctors said at a press conference on Wednesday that they had deliberately overestimated the civilian casualties. As government officials looked on, they claimed that Tigers had forced them to lie.
The five men added that only up to 750 civilians were killed between January and mid-May in the final battles of the war. They were then taken back to prison, where they have been held for the past two months for allegedly spreading Tiger propaganda.
The number was far below the 7,000 fatalities estimated by the United Nations. An investigation by The Times uncovered evidence that more than 20,000 civilians were killed, mostly by the army.
The doctors denied other former testimony, including the government shelling of a conflict-zone hospital in February for which there are witnesses from the UN and the Red Cross.
The statements met with scepticism from human rights campaigners. Sam Zarifi, the Asia- Pacific director for Amnesty International, said that they were “expected and predicted”. He added: “There are very significant grounds to question whether these statements were voluntary, and they raise serious concerns whether the doctors were subjected to ill-treatment.”