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Unsubstantiated claims Muslim doctor sterilized women raise tensions in Sri Lanka

Image: Segu Shihabdeen Mohamed Shafi.

Alexandra Ulmer, Omar Rajarathnam.

(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.

A general view of a hospital where women wait to make statements and complains against Muslim doctor Segu Shihabdeen Mohamed Shafi, who was arrested after accusations of secretly sterilising Buddhist women during their caesarean deliveries inside a hospital in Kurunegala, Sri Lanka May 31, 2019. Picture taken May 31, 2019. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte
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.


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