COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — A group of Sri Lankan doctors who have been in police custody for nearly two months were brought before the media Wednesday to recant their reports of mass civilian casualties during the final days of the civil war.
The men, who looked well-fed but nervous, denied they were withdrawing their statements under pressure from the government, even as they expressed hopes they might now be released. A rights group said there were "significant grounds to question whether these statements were voluntary."
Their new testimony — with drastically reduced death tolls and casualty figures during shelling of civilian areas — contradicted reports from independent aid workers with the United Nations and the Red Cross who witnessed some of the violence.
The government barred journalists from the war zone and threw out most aid workers, leaving the doctors as one of the few sources of information about the toll the fighting was taking on the hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped by the final battles of the 25-year civil war here.
U.N. figures show more than 7,000 civilians were killed between January and May. Human rights groups accused the government of shelling heavily populated areas and accused the rebels of holding civilians as human shields. Satellite photos showed densely populated civilian areas had been shelled. Both sides denied the accusations.
When asked Wednesday about the doctors' latest comments, U.N. spokesman Gordon Weiss said: "We stand by our statements."
At the time, the doctors gave harrowing accounts of the damage and described how the vast number of wounded civilians overwhelmed their makeshift hospitals as they ran low on food, medicine, supplies and staff.
The interviews infuriated government officials, who denied the men existed, then insisted the doctors were being misquoted and finally said they were under pressure from the rebels to lie. The doctors fled the area during the final battles in mid-May and were immediately arrested and accused of spreading rebel propaganda.
On Wednesday, five doctors were brought before dozens of foreign and local media and said the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebels forced them to exaggerate the damage caused by the shelling and gave them lists of casualty figures to give to the media.
The rebels took medicine and food shipments sent by the government and demanded the doctors tell the media there were shortages, the men said.
"The information that I have given is false. ... The figures were exaggerated due to pressure from the LTTE," said Dr. V. Shanmugarajah.
"It's difficult for you to believe, but it's true," said Dr. Thurairaja Varatharajah, who was the top health official in the war zone.
However, Sam Zarifi, the Asia-pacific director for Amnesty International, said the statements from the doctors were "expected and predicted."
"Given the track record of the Sri Lankan government, 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 during weeks of detention," he said. "From the time the doctors were detained, the fear was that they would be used exactly this way."
The doctors' new testimony contradicted other evidence from the battlefront.
They estimated Wednesday that between 650 and 750 civilians were killed between January and mid-May in the final battles of the war, a number far below that reported by the United Nations.
Varatharajah said only 600 to 650 civilians were injured from January to April 15, even though the Red Cross rescued 13,769 sick and wounded patients and their relatives from his hospital during the final months of the fighting.
On Feb. 2, Varatharajah reported that three artillery barrages hit the pediatrics ward and women's wing of a hospital in the war zone, killing nine patients. On Wednesday, he denied the hospital had been hit.
However, the U.N. and the Red Cross, who had staff at the hospital, confirmed the attacks, the location of the strikes and the death toll. The army denied the attack.
Photos and video from the war zone showed damaged buildings and dead bodies, but none pointed to the scale of the killing.
No government officials were at the news conference at the Defense Ministry's press center to answer questions about why the doctors were being detained, how much longer they would be held, whether they were pressured to recant and whether they would be charged with any crime.
The moderator introduced himself as a freelance journalist and two men in white shirts and ties sitting off to the side appeared to be giving him directions. When one of the doctors acknowledged he was currently imprisoned, a journalist for the state media berated him, saying he was well fed, clean shaven, wearing a tie and had a decent haircut, so he couldn't be a prisoner.
In a telephone interview, police spokesman Ranjith Gunasekera refused to comment on what crime the doctors committed.
"Let the confidential inquiry continue, and we will give you the details later," he said.
In a recent interview with the Indian newspaper The Hindu, Lalith Weeratunga, the powerful secretary to President Mahinda Rajapaksa made it clear the government had no intention of releasing the doctors anytime soon.
"If they go scot-free, it will set a very bad precedent," he said.