For Dr. Imara Shafi, a nephrologist at the Kurunegala Teaching Hospital, Thursday May 23, 2019 started like any other day. She and her husband woke up early, discussed their day and their children. At 5 am, her husband, Dr. Seigu Shihabdeen Mohamed Shafi left for prayers at the neighbourhood mosque as he always did. The couple, both doctors had first met as students at the University of Sri Jayawardenepura.
Little did Dr Imara they imagine how monumentally life would change for them within a few hours.
A Sinhalese newspaper published a lead story claiming that a ‘Thowheed Jama’ath’ doctor in Kurunegala had sterilised 4,000 ‘Sinhala’ mothers. That same afternoon, a professor attached to the University of Rajarata used Facebook to link the story in the newspaper to Dr Imara’s husband, Dr. Seigu Shihabdeen Mohamed Shafi who was the Senior House Officer (SHO) at the Kurunegala Teaching Hospital.
On the same day, the Police Spokesman denied the newspaper story, and said the police had never got a complaint of that nature. SP Ruwan Gunasekera denied that a police investigation was underway, as reported therein.
But the very next day, Dr. Shafi was arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The charge had nothing to do with illegal sterilization as claimed in the newspaper. Police were accusing Dr Shafi of amassing large quantities of undeclared assets. Neither his link to the National Thowheed Jama’ath, the undeclared assets claim, nor the accusation that he has sterilized even a single mother has been proven to date. Dr. Shafi who is being held under detention order is yet to be produced in court. The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) is currently probing the case on a ‘massive scale’.
Dr Shafi’s senior consultants, surgical team and prominent obstetricians and gynecologists including Professor Hemantha Senanayake, who is the Head of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo and Former Chairperson of the Sri Lanka College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, have all debunked the claim against Dr Shafi as ‘highly unlikely’ and medically unfeasible.
But for three weeks a storm has been raging in Kurunegala. The epicenter is the Teaching Hospital at which Dr Imara Shafi and her husband, (still in custody), treated patients. Today the family is on the run, unable to remain in their hometown due to safety concerns. Dr Imara has been unable to report to work. Her three children, aged 15, 13 and 10 years, have had to be pulled out of school.
“Like refugees we stay away from home, because home is not safe for us anymore,” Dr. Imara, told the Sunday Observer as she sat down to speak about her struggle, attempting to free her husband after he was arrested using one of Sri Lanka’s most draconian laws.
Both Imara and her husband had been at work when they learnt about the damning newspaper article. Later the same day, they heard that Prof. Channa Jayasumana of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Rajarata, had also posted on Facebook, naming her husband as the doctor referred to in the sensationalist newspaper report.
Though the post was carefully drafted to send across a message in the guise of a compliment, it hit home. Dr. Imara, who saw the post through a friend, was worried, but Dr. Shafi paid no heed. “He said, because it was not true a FB post will not affect him,” Dr. Imara said. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Within a day, the post was viewed by hundreds. The comments that poured in were what worried Dr. Imara the most. They varied from disbelief, calling Dr. Shafi a dog, attacks on his personal appearance, calls to kill him, and even, worryingly, threats to their children.
“After seeing the comments, I told my husband that we would have to lodge a police complaint,” Dr. Imara said, but before they could do so her husband was arrested. Their house was also searched. A laptop, desktop computer and documents were taken from their home.
However, before the newspaper article even saw the light of day the police was behind Dr. Shafi. Police officials visited his medical lab and house on different occasions in May. He was also asked about his political afflictions.
Dr. Shafi resigned from the Government sector in mid 2015 to pursue politics. He contested under the UNP ticket alongside Rishard Bathiudeen and at the General Elections polled around 54,000 votes within about a month of campaigning, a fact his wife is proud of despite her strong disapproval for his attachment to politics. He was the eighth on the list, a position behind the number eligible to enter the parliament.
He then resigned from politics and resumed work at the hospital. During a former newspaper article Dr. Shafi was quoted stating he was against racist and extremist driven politics, he also said he had conducted 8,000 caesarian operations.
The number haunted him in the witch-hunt to prove he sterilized half of those mothers.
Though the arrest was for amassing a large number of assets, it was the sterilization accusation which spread like wildfire.
The media hype only aggravated the situation, and the Teaching Hospital in Kurunegala saw protest after protest, some accusing Dr. Shafi and some calling for immediate investigations into the case. Mothers were called to record complaints against Dr. Shafi.
The number of complaints reached around 1,000 by the end of this week. Complaints were recorded at the Teaching Hospital in Kurunegala, District Hospital – Galewela, and Base Hospital, Dambulla (where Dr. Shafi worked). An officer who recorded the statements told the Sunday Observer that most complaints were ambiguous in nature and most mother complaint of back and abdominal pain.
Chamila Pushpakumari, 32, a mother of one from Dampitiya in Kurunegala visited the hospital that same week with her nine-month-old son. After seeing the news on the TV her family urged her to lodge a complaint. She suffered from a back pain. Her statement was duly recorded.
Chandima Kumari, 27, also a mother of one child from Maduragoda in Kurunegala, also visited the hospital to record her statement. After having their daughter in 2014 they had tried in vain to conceive. Both mothers underwent caesarean sections where Dr. Shafi was part of the team.
A scientific testing of the mothers would easily prove if Dr. Shafi has in fact illegally sterilized the mothers as claimed. When the mothers were told they will have to undergo tests, and also that their husbands will have to undergo tests too, sources in Kurunegala said the complainants were reluctant.
“They are reluctant because undergoing these tests can be traumatic,” Secretary to the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) Dr Indika Rathnayaka at the Teaching Hospital of Kurunegala, said. He explained that the current methodology that is said to be used involved x-rays and use of a dye to see if the fallopian tubes are blocked. Women are still arriving at the hospitals to record complaints.
Meanwhile, an expert committee appointed by the Ministry of Health was turned away when they visited the hospital to probe the incident on May 28. The hospital officials said they had no faith in the ministry. A preliminary report by the committee headed by Director of the Health Ministry Dr. Anil Samaranayake states it is requesting the hospital heads to assist the probe.
The Sunday Observer learns from a ministry official that the committee is conducting a ‘theoretical investigation’ into the case as they cannot approach the hospital. They have received a letter from hospital director Dr.Sarath WeeraBandara that their ‘assistance’ (as it was called) was no longer required at the hospital’.
“We want the President to appoint an expert panel to look into the issue. We only can trust the President in this case,” Dr. Rathnayaka of the GMOA said.
President Maithripala Sirisena is currently in Tajikistan where he is attending the fifth Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) held in the capital Dushanbe.
Away from her home, struggling to look after her children, and fighting for justice for her husband Dr. Imara herself expects nothing more than a conclusive probe into the claims.
“I don’t want him to just be released. I want an investigation to prove he is innocent,” she said. In fact, she is so concerned for his safety, Dr Imara believes Dr Shafi, whose face and name have been splashed all over the news media over the past three weeks, might be safer in police custody than out in society, at the moment.
Dr. Imara has been on anti-depressants since the newspaper article was published. It is helping her to function as normally as possible, she claims. Her eldest daughter, who was closest to their father, is badly affected. She was taken for counseling, and sent to live with their grandmother because Dr. Imara feels she cannot emotionally handle her daughter’s pain too.
Since their father’s arrest, the Shafi children have not sighted their school, a prominent Buddhist school in Kurunegala. Worse still, When Dr Imara tried to send her eldest daughter to her private tuition class so she would not fall back in her lessons, the teachers there told her that other parents had requested that Dr Shafi’s child not be included in the same class as their children. The teachers had offered to conduct individual classes for the 15 year old girl, who sits her ordinary level examination next year.
“It wasn’t easy for us to go to university and become doctors. Both of us, went to the university on scholarships. I want to serve our country. I miss my work,” Dr. Imara said.
Though Dr. Shafi is a member of the GMOA he has received very little help from this highly politicised trade union. Medical officials are reluctant to speak to the Sunday Observer on record. One female doctor, a former colleague of Dr. Shafi, was branded as his mistress after she posted on social media that he was a good doctor.
For the same reasons, speaking on the condition of anonymity, a gynecologist at the Kurunegala Hospital where Dr Shafi worked, said there is a team during a delivery. This includes the SHO, a house officer assisting the SHO, a supervising visiting Obstetrician and Gynecologist VOG (though not always), a nurse to give instruments, a running nurse, doctor or consultant for anesthesia and minor staff.
“It is highly unlikely for Dr. Shafi to sterilize women, if he did at all, without any of these medical officers noticing. And 4,000 is a far-fetched number in any case,” the gynecologist said.
He said a comprehensive process is needed to prove that the women were sterilized. “We have to only entertain complaints of mothers who are sub-fertilized. The complaints mostly involve mothers who are not sub-fertilized. This is misleading the public,” he said. Then he said one needs to check on the male factor, if the woman is ovulating or not, then see if there is tubal blockage. “That too is not easy because tubes can be blocked by infections or other medical issues,” he said, stressing that the methodology being used to test the theory about Dr. Shafi’s case is wrong.
Meanwhile, a Fundamental Rights (FR) petition will soon be filed at the Supreme Court consequent to Dr. Shafi’s sudden arrest. Attorney-at-law Hejaaz Hizbullah who is appearing for Dr. Shafi said the case against the doctor was entirely speculative. The oddest factor, he said, is calling for complaints after an arrest, so as to justify the arrest.
“Everything against Dr. Shafi is on the media and social media. The B-report filed in courts has nothing him. This is a trial by media witch-hunt situation,” Hizbullah said. He said they are planning to take action against all who falsely accused Dr. Shafi. This includes the Mayor of Kurunegala for claiming, in another media report, that Dr. Shafi conducted abortions, and the Kurunegala Police DIG Wasantha Kithsiri Jayalath who led his arrest.
Meanwhile, Sunday Observer learns that DIG Jayalath is under investigation himself by the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) for giving statements to the media that could cause communal violence without notifying the Police Spokesperson. The said DIG’s wife is attached to the Teaching Hospital in Kurunegala where Dr. Shafi also works.
Even after the allegations against Dr. Shafi seem to have hit a dead end, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper where the controversial article was published told Reuters news agency, the ‘story was based on police and hospital sources, whom he said he could not identify’. The editor continues to stand by the story.
As for Dr Shafi’s wife Imara, the nightmare is far from over.
“I can’t sleep or eat properly. This is affecting our children badly,” she said. When the Easter Sunday attacks claimed 258 lives, she grieved for the country. “The terrorists have destroyed the Muslim community entirely. We are all Sri Lankans. We lived in harmony,” she said.
“I don’t know what the future will hold for my family. I don’t think things will go back to normal and fall back into place, even if my husband is proved innocent. The media has killed us.”