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The Shafi saga: Is it just Islamophobia?

By Arjuna Ranawana

Demonstators protest against Dr. Safi in Kurunegala/ Twitter.com

If his accusers are right then Dr. Segu Siyabdeen Mohamed Shafi is guilty of one of the most heinous crimes in the annals of Sri Lanka’s criminal history.

If he is innocent of rendering thousands of women infertile against their will, then he is a victim of irresponsible media riding a wave of rampant Islamaphobia, egged on by vicious politicians.

None of the various bodies in Sri Lanka’s Medical Fraternity are yet to comment officially on the controversy surrounding this doctor in the Kurunegala Teaching hospital.

The accusation, first reported in the Sinhala daily newspaper the Divaina, said police are investigating complaints that this doctor made thousands of Sinhala Buddhist women infertile while performing caesarian operations on them.

Later a professor at the Raja Rata University shared the name and picture of Dr. Shafi.

The professor, Channa Jayasumana, revealed that Shafi is a Senior House Officer who contested the 2015 Parliamentary General election as a UNP candidate.

Shafi is currently in Police custody, not on any charges of medical malpractice, but for possessing assets acquired in an allegedly suspicious manner.

Police have confirmed that there is no investigation against Shafi in the alleged enforced sterilization cases.

Many senior specialists including leading Obstetricians RepublicNext talked to have debunked the charges saying that the method Shafi is said to have used to make the women sterile “is implausible.”

Shafi’s accusers say he either cut or clamped the fallopian tubes of the women he was operating on.

These doctors have pointed out that during a caesarian section there are at least three surgical staff present including a Staff Nurse.

They say it is impossible for the doctor performing the surgery to either clamp or cut the fallopian tubes without the other members of the surgical team noticing.

“We don’t want the fall-out from this case to affect overall care for mothers”- Prof Senanayake

Professor Hemantha Senanayake, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo is one of the few doctors who have weighed in on the Shafi case.

He says that Sri Lanka’s achievements in Maternal care and health is globally recognized and high uptake of family planning, which includes female sterilization is an important part of that.

The professor says “we don’t want the fall-out from this case to affect the overall care we provide for mothers and what we have achieved so far. Safe motherhood is so important to social development.”

“Another aspect of the Sri Lankan success story is the high percentage of births that happen in hospitals, which at present stands at 99%. Erosion of confidence and trust in the healthcare system could reverse these gains. It is important that media reports responsibly and gives facts rather than emotions in these sensitive situations” he said.   

However, if these procedures have been carried out “without valid consent then it is punishable.” He hoped for a speedy conclusion to the investigations that are being carried out presently so that the confidence of the public could be restored.

Dr. Piyal Perera, a Sri Lankan Obstetrician who is currently at the Milton Keynes University Hospital in Britain has posted on social media that the only way to ensure that a woman is rendered sterile is to surgically remove a portion of the fallopian tube.

“What has been described by these accusers are impossible, it is a myth,” he writes.

While many doctors we spoke to hold this view very few are willing to be quoted.

In an extraordinary course of events the police asked women who thought that they had been wronged by Dr. Shafi to come forward and lodge complaints.

But these complaints are not being taken by Police but by staff at the Kurunegala Hospital, according to multiple sources.

Literally, busloads of women have come forward to complain that they had not conceived ever since they were operated on by Shafi, the hospital staff said.

But information received by us shows that not all these women were patients of Shafi. In fact there were other doctors who had operated on them.

In 2017, a woman doctor at the hospital had told another staffer that Shafi was sterilizing women staffers told reporters.

Shafi had complained to the then Director of the hospital in writing saying there was an attempt to malign him. Shafi also asked for an inquiry to be held into the allegation.

Eventually, that woman doctor had left the hospital and the matter ended there, these sources added.

Shafi is also locked in a dispute with the Sinhala Traders Association over the purchase of a property in Kurunegala town called Rio Bar which is said to be owned by another doctor.

Shafi and three others have made an advance payment for the building and asked for time to pay the rest of the money, according to people involved in the deal.

The Sinhala traders also want the property, and had offered to pay Shafi the down payment and something extra if he would give up his claim on the property but he has refused to do so.