The Bahraini government needs to stop targeting medical professionals who dare to treat injured protesters.
- By Rula al-SaffarRula al-Saffar is an activist, president of the Bahrain Nursing Society, and head of the Emergency Nursing Program at the Bahrain College of Health Sciences.
When the Arab Spring swept through Bahrain in 2011, citizens there — just as in other Middle East countries — took to the streets demanding political and economic reforms. Also just as in other Middle East countries, peaceful demonstrations were soon met with a violent crackdown by government forces.
When it began, I knew that it was my duty as a nurse to help. So I made my way to Salmaniya Medical Complex, Bahrain’s only public hospital, to do what I could to aid the overwhelmed staff, even though I did not work there myself. What I witnessed was horrifying: Evidence of the use of live ammunition, bodies battered by tear gas canisters fired at close range, and protesters blinded by the use of bird shot. In the months that closely followed, nearly 50 people were killed as a direct result of the violence against protesters, a number which has risen to over 100 since 2011.
As a healthcare professional, it was my duty to aid the injured. But as a witness to the Bahraini security forces’ violent response to the peaceful protests, I also felt a duty to speak out against the abuses. Many of my colleagues who felt the same way spoke on the record with the media to describe the types of injuries they had seen, shedding light on the nature of the government’s brutality. After authorities barred ambulances from bringing injured protesters to Salmaniya Medical Complex, we joined in protests to demand that the wounded have access to the hospital and care.
As health care professionals, we felt a need to speak out against violations of medical neutrality. The government felt a need to silence us. And so in response to exercising our right to free speech, security forces attacked medics and brought Salmaniya hospital under military occupation. To justify their actions, the Ministry of Interior and state-controlled media falsely reported that healthcare workers were refusing to treat injured security forces. The truth is much more appalling: Security forces occupying Salmaniya hospital used their proximity to medical workers and patients to gather information about protesters. The sixth floor of the facility was used to interrogate patients, many of whom were suffering from severe injuries. As a result, patients with sometimes life-threatening injuries were afraid to seek treatment out of fear of being interrogated, or worse, by government security forces. It was these sorts of egregious actions by the government that my colleagues and I sought to expose. In turn, we soon became the targets of government brutality ourselves.
In March 2011, the Bahrain government began detaining and interrogating healthcare workers. On April 4, in response to a summons, I presented myself to the Bahrain Central Investigation Department for questioning on my role in the uprising. While in detention, I was given electric shocks to my head and face, and threatened with rape. What happened to me also happened to dozens of other medics. Since the uprising, 82 medical professionals have been arrested on a variety of politically-motivated charges meant to intimidate citizens from speaking out against the government’s abuses. Their stories of receiving physical and emotional abuse were documented in a report released in May 2012 by Physicians for Human Rights.
In August 2011, 52 of those medics were sentenced by a special military court to prison terms ranging from one month to 15 years. Charges against me personally included attempting to overthrow the regime, spreading false information, and participating in an illegal public gathering. I was convicted on 12 counts and was sentenced to 15 years. These convictions were later reviewed by a civilian court, which upheld the convictions of nine medics and acquitted nine others, including myself. This past March, an additional 21 medics were acquitted, but the convictions of more then a dozen medics still stand.
Since my five-month ordeal in prison, and despite the constant threat of being imprisoned again, I have been an outspoken advocate for medical neutrality; the principle of non-interference with medical services in times of conflict. Medical neutrality requires all sides of a conflict to obey the following principles: civilians must be protected from the conflict and not targeted; medical professionals must provide care to the sick and wounded, regardless of affiliation; and medical facilities, transport, and personnel must be permitted to tend to the wounded without interference.
Denial of medical care is a breach of human rights, and its abuse in Bahrain has been well-documented. (See, for example, this latest report by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.) The government of Bahrain did not respect the rules of medical neutrality during the uprising of 2011, and attempts to speak out against this breach of trust between the medical community and the government were swiftly punished — a discredit to the government of Bahrain and a disgrace to our country.
I remain in Bahrain, though I am no longer allowed by the government to work as a nurse. As one of the fortunate Bahraini medics to have been freed from detention, I now feel it is my obligation to advocate on behalf of not only my colleagues in prison in Bahrain, but of other healthcare professionals around the world who have been the victims of medical neutrality violations. For most, it is unthinkable that a medic would be punished for treating injured victims and bearing witness to those crimes. Regrettably, this is a reality too many healthcare professionals face today. That is why I call upon the government of Bahrain, and governments around the world, to respect the tenants of medical neutrality and to release those medics still in prison for simply doing their job. I may no longer be in prison, but I cannot truly be free until my colleagues are as well.