Addressing the Issues of the Dr Shafi Shahabdeen Case

Malinda Seneviratne, in Daily Mirror, 4 July 2019, where the title runs  “Dr Shafi Sahabdeen and the proportionality of communalism”

I want Dr. Seigu Shihabdeen Mohamed Shafi cleared of all charges levelled against him with respect to unethical and unwarranted sterilization. I want him cleared because I want to believe that our medical profession is made of impeccably honourable and competent people. I want to believe that those who graduate from state universities in Sri Lanka learn the relevant skills and show absolute fidelity to professional ethics. I want him cleared because it would help dial down the lunacy among a certain section of the population to see a terrorist in every Muslim.

Here’s the caveat: IF HE IS INNOCENT. Here’s another caveat: He has to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Over and above all this, I concur with Prof. Hemantha Senanayake, Head of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo, who insists that the absence of an impartial, speedy and transparent investigation could have a negative impact not only on Sri Lanka’s achievements in maternal care and health but create a situation where people would be afraid to have babies delivered in hospital.

Let me flag the key words here: Impartial, speedy and transparent. I would assume that ‘comprehensive’ is a given.

The lengthy submissions by the CID have been taken as proof positive, irrefutable, absolute and final that Dr Shafi had not blocked the fallopian tubes of mothers on whom he had performed Caesarian surgery, amassed wealth in an illegal manner or maintained links with a terrorist organization. Having thus concluded, those who are convinced of his innocence have turned their fire on the accusers. Some have raised the bogey of a massive conspiracy involving women who lodged complaints, even claiming that they have been paid by some ‘somebody’.

They are forgetting some important facts. First, the investigation is not yet concluded. Second, there is nothing to say that CID investigations are always comprehensive and above board. Indeed, in this case, certain salient matters seem to have been ignored.

On the issue of investigating complaints, CID claims that 468 women (of the 615 who had complained regarding Dr Shafi) had developed complications, but of the 147 complaints investigated, only 13 women were produced before ‘an experts committee’. Two cases, apparently, need to be further investigated while 11 have been deemed ‘false’. In other words, there are 321 cases yet to be investigated and there are questions about two that have already been investigated.

There are allegations regarding Dr Shafi’s behaviour when operating on Sinhala women. There are very personal and emotional elements associated with issues of childbirth and related medical examination. Do these indicate guilt? Not necessarily.

Dr Shafi’s wife, M.N.F. Imara, herself a physician has pointed out that her husband worked under the supervision of a Consultant. She has, echoing expert views, said that other medical professionals are present in operating theatres. In other words, if he did wrong, then the relevant consultant(s) and others were complicit. However, those who work in such hospitals claim that situations for wrongdoing do arise. It is alleged that consultants often delegate authority to house officers such as Dr Shafi, who, by the way, is not an obstetrician or gynaecologist. There is talk of consultants doing so because they engage in private practise elsewhere and therefore could only implicate themselves by revealing all. That, however, needs to be investigated. It does not imply guilt.

It is certainly disturbing, though, that the CID thought fit not to take into account all relevant statements by the hospital authorities. It is strange also that the CID has not thought fit to do a simple exercise in statistics. The following questions could very well elicit answers that either exonerate Dr Shafi or indicate very strange happenings, short of course of unwarranted, unethical and perverse sterilization: a) How many Caesarean Sections did Dr Shafi perform? b) How many such operations did doctors in similar positions perform during the same period of time? c) What is the ‘ethnic’ breakdown of the patients? d) What is the ‘ethnic’ breakdown of women whose first child was thus delivered and who did not conceive thereafter, in the case of Dr Shafi and in the case of other such doctors?

It cannot be impossible to find out how many of the 3,479 Sinhalese mothers, 860 Muslim mothers and 33 Tamil mothers did not have children after Dr Shafi operated on them. Of course it could be ‘choice’ but numbers will tell a story, one way or another. We need to know.  I want to know these things. Dr Imara has said that her children are undergoing mental trauma, ‘as they are unable to attend school, due to the threatening situation.” They should not suffer such trauma, but they will until this case is closed and Dr Shafi’s innocence is established.

Given the circumstances, which of course we need not elaborate but which include the fear, anxiety, doubt and suspicion generated by the Easter Sunday attacks by a group affirming the Islam faith as per their reading of the same, any glaring omissions in the investigation can only make matters worse. The political affiliations of Dr Shafi, the alleged intervention of Rishad Bathiudeen in Dr Shafi’s appointments following electoral defeat, the Health Minister’s tendentious statements with respect to the need for investigation, etc., clearly describe a cloud. This cloud needs to be cleared. One way or another.

Disturbing as it is to extrapolate the actions of a single individual (regardless of overall context) to paint negatively an entire community, even more troubling is the fact that it is not the preserve of a single community.   

A Facebook post claimed the following: 457 houses, 198 business establishments and 70 vehicles belonging to Muslims were destroyed in 36 hours in Kuliyapitiya, Nikaweratiya, Bingiriya, Panduwasnuwara, Wariyapola, Chilaw and Minuwangoda. That is a large number. The unknown author may have been liberal in the use of the word ‘destroyed’ and in the numbers tossed out, but let us assume he was not. My contention is that even if it was one house or business premises or vehicle that was damaged (not destroyed) on account of the religious identity of the owner, it is disturbing.   

It is as though the Easter Sunday attacks did not take place, that some 300 people were not killed and 500 were not wounded, churches and hotels were not damaged, and yes, extremism so violent that the ‘faith’ factor overrides any ‘provocation’ did not, does not and will not exist on this island! Instead we have ‘gullible or vindictive racist Sinhala women’ enacting an anti-Muslim drama. We have Sinhala Buddhist hordes creating a bogey of unethical sterilization. We have other such ‘extremist’ elements in paintings that have no room for, for example, the almost 400 children who lost a parent on Easter Sunday. Well, we do get the large-print disclaimer ‘terrorism/terrorists have no religion’. True, in a sense, but who is actually buying that and why should anyone buy that, simply because in another sense, it is rank silly and a disavowal of a serious problem that has created an existentialist anxiety among people belonging to communities that the terrorists were clearly at odds with. This is the other problem; there’s lunacy among a certain section of the population to see all Sinhala Buddhists as intolerant extremists and the one and only villainous collective of the sad, tragic and terrible piece that Sri Lanka has become.

A swift, comprehensive, independent and transparent investigation would go a long way in sorting out these issue because the truth does that, sooner or later. Anything less than that will not help. What we have though is cherry-picking by those who want to find Dr Shafi innocent and by those who want to find him guilty. In the case of the first, we have too much ‘politician’ in the investigation and in relation to the latter, a marked reluctance to assume innocence until guilt is proven. We need a Presidential Commission at this point to keep communalism and extremism at bay and of course to ensure that things are not blown out of proportion.

ALSO read Wilfrid Jayasuriya in 11 July 2019

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