KURUNEGALA, Sri Lanka (Reuters) - On May 23 Sri Lankan newspaper Divaina, known for its nationalist stance, published a front page article alleging a Muslim doctor had secretly sterilized 4,000 Sinhala Buddhist women after caesarean deliveries.
The doctor, who was not identified in the article, was also described as a member of the National Thowheed Jamath, one of two local Islamist groups blamed for bombings that killed more than 250 people in hotels and churches on Easter Sunday.
Reuters has no independent evidence to support these claims.
The article was produced roughly a week after Buddhist mobs in the North Western Province of Sri Lanka had destroyed Muslim homes, stores and mosques in rioting triggered by the coordinated bombings in the capital Colombo and two other towns.
Divaina’s editor-in-chief, Anura Solomons, told Reuters the paper’s story was based on police and hospital sources, whom he said he could not identify.
Allegations a Muslim doctor might be forcibly sterilizing Buddhists are particularly incendiary on an island where hardliners within the Buddhist majority have accused Muslims of seeking to use a higher birth rate to spread their influence.
Two days later, a doctor, Segu Shihabdeen Mohamed Shafi, was arrested. Police said he was accused of acquiring properties with money of a suspicious origin. Police are also probing the sterilization claims and have called on any potentially affected women to come forward.
Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekera told Reuters Shafi was charged under a money laundering act, but declined to provide further information on the financial charges he faced or the sterilization claims.
Shafi’s lawyer, Faris Saly, said the probe was flawed because the authorities did not call for evidence of sterilizations until after Shafi’s arrest, adding that all the allegations were unsubstantiated.
Shafi is a prominent physician in the province’s Buddhist heartland of Kurunegala, a district with a high concentration of army personnel and the constituency of nationalist ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, now the leader of the opposition.
The case has further raised the temperature in the area, with monks from the majority Sinhala Buddhist community protesting against Shafi in front of the Kurunegala Teaching Hospital where he works.
“If these allegations are proven, it will show that they want to destroy the Sinhala race,” said Pradeep Kumar, a 38-year-old driver waiting in a crowded hospital hallway as his wife lodged a statement detailing how Shafi had delivered their daughter by C-section 11 years ago.
He added the couple were concerned after hearing about the case as they had been trying unsuccessfully to have a second child for six years.
Shafi’s family said he was being framed.
“He is being targeted because of political problems and jealousy. I cannot exactly tell who it is, but there is a group,” said his wife Fathima Imara, 43, a kidney doctor at the same hospital.
In an interview, Imara described her husband as a devout Muslim and caring physician. He has not been a member of a militant group, she said.
Shafi was also a smart investor, she said, using earnings from his hospital work and a family-owned medical testing center to amass stakes in some 10 properties.
It would be impossible to surreptitiously block women’s fallopian tubes during caesarean sections, when a half-dozen staff members were on hand, she added. The hospital’s director, Dr A.M.S. Weerabandara declined Reuters’ request to interview Shafi’s direct colleagues, saying they were busy.
Meanwhile, Imara has stopped working and pulled their three children from school. She said her husband, whom she visited at the Colombo Criminal Investigation Department on Saturday, was being treated well, but that his mood was dark.
“From time to time, he is crying,” said Imara.
Weerabandara said the hospital started investigating the allegations of mass sterilizations following media reports.
More than 600 women have lodged statements about Shafi, that hospital authorities refer to as “complaints,” since the accusations were made public. Several told Reuters they simply wanted to be checked.
“I saw Shafi was arrested and people were complaining so I thought I would also,” said homemaker Amali Konara, 32, whose son Shafi was delivered by C-section in March.
Weerabandara said the women who have come forward had not been medically examined yet because the hospital was still receiving statements. He was unable to provide a timeline for the testing, which he said was complicated and required planning.
The newspaper article was amplified on the day it was published when a pharmacology professor in North Central Province, Channa Jayasumana, wrote about the allegations of Buddhist women being sterilized without their knowledge in a Facebook post alongside a picture of Shafi - the first time he was publicly linked to the claims, his wife said.
Jayasumana told Reuters he spoke to 20 doctors who identified the doctor mentioned in Divaina as Shafi. Jayasumana declined to provide the doctors’ contact details but said he passed on their information to police.
The post, which was shared more than 1,200 times, had a photo of an article in which Shafi said he had performed some 8,000 caesarean sections in his career. The post also highlighted that Shafi had stood for office for a Muslim party.
Shafi did unsuccessfully run in a 2015 parliamentary election with All Ceylon Makkal Congress, a Muslim party allied with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party.
Jayasumana told Reuters he was a health policy advisor to the party of former President Rajapaksa, who is a rival of Wickremesinghe. But Jayasumana, a professor at the Rajarata University of Sri Lanka, stressed Shafi’s case was not political.
Rajapaksa, the local MP, has called on authorities to compensate potential victims.
Hilmy Ahmed, vice president of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, said the Shafi accusations were largely “stage-managed” by Rajapaksa supporters to create anger at the government ahead of this year’s presidential election. He was not able to provide evidence to back his statement.
Rajapaksa rejected the accusations, stressing that complainants were speaking out independently.
Neither Wickremesinghe nor President Maithripala Sirisena have publicly spoken about the case, which has provoked a media storm in Sri Lanka. They declined to comment for this article.
Additional reporting by Ranga Sirisal and Shihar Aneez in Colombo; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Martin Howell and Alex Richardson