No lessons learnt from Dr. Shafi affair

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The Health Services Committee of the Public Service Commission last week closed its inquiry into Dr. Seigu Shihabdeen Mohammad Shafi and directed Ministry of Health Secretary S. Janaka Sri Chandraguptha to reassign him to the Kurunegala Teaching Hospital.

Dr. Shafi was serving as a gynaecologist at the hospital when he was falsely accused and arrested for carrying out forced sterilisations on women on 24 May 2019. He was publicly slandered, arrested and sent on compulsory leave on false charges of performing sterilisation procedures on Sinhala women without their consent. Last year when the Court of Appeal ordered that he be paid his salary arrears on a court order, Dr. Shafi donated it to the Ministry of Health in order to purchase medicines for patients during troubled economic times.

Dr. Shafi was detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) when a Sinhalese newspaper published a lead story claiming a “Thowheed Jama’ath doctor in Kurunegala had illegally sterilised 4,000 ‘Sinhala’ mothers.” After his arrest, the Police recorded complaints from over 1,000 women who claimed that the doctor had performed a procedure that made them infertile. Prof. Channa Jayasumana, a professor of pharmacology and a current Member of Parliament, then attached to the University of Rajarata, offered his ‘expert’ medical opinion and confirmed that such an illegal procedure has been carried out by Dr. Shafi. The outrage that followed fuelled the flames of hatred towards the Muslim community, coming only weeks after the deadly Easter Sunday attacks. Buddhist clergy and politicians were quick to jump on this racist bandwagon which ruined Dr. Shafi’s career and brought about enormous pain and suffering to his young family.

In June 2019 the Criminal Investigation Department, then led by SSP Shani Abeysekara, informed the Kurunegala Magistrate’s Court that investigations carried out by the Police had not proven that Dr. Shafi had ‘blocked the fallopian tubes of mothers, amassed wealth in an illegal manner, or maintained links with a terrorist organisation’ as accused. The CID told the Court that a number of women who had accused the doctor of carrying out a sterilisation procedure without their consent had been produced before an expert committee of medical professionals which found no evidence for such claims.

Those who orchestrated this conspiracy against Dr. Shafi went on to reap the benefits of the hatred they spread. Channa Jayasumana went on to become a Member of Parliament riding the wave of popularity generated through the Shafi controversy. Dr. Shafi is not alone in facing systemic racism in recent years. Ahnaf Jazeem was held under the PTA for 18 months in connection with some poetry he had written, former Governor of the Western Province Azath Salley was arrested and held in custody for over six months for allegedly making a controversial statement at a media briefing and prominent Attorney Hejaaz Hizbullah spent over 18 months in detention under the PTA over a flimsy accusation of inciting communal strife.

Today, Dr. Shafi stands exonerated from the malicious accusations he faced. He and his family have paid an extraordinary cost in the last few years. Those who committed this atrocity against him are now reaping the benefits of their racist conspiracies. As elections loom there will be many more similar conspiracies and fake news that will stir the ethnic and religious hatred among the communities. Once again there will be ‘saviours’ waiting on the wings to swoop in to save the day. Having learnt nothing from its past experiences Sri Lanka will sink deeper into crisis and disharmony at the cost of many.   

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Disclaimer: No lessons learnt from Dr. Shafi affair - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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