Bahrain’s assault on medical professionals

The United States may not be able to propose solutions for all the Middle East, but it can prescribe the course of events unfolding in some Arab Spring countries. Case in point: Bahrain. After thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators took to the streets in the small Gulf kingdom earlier this year, the Bahraini government’s response was ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

The United States may not be able to propose solutions for all the Middle East, but it can prescribe the course of events unfolding in some Arab Spring countries. Case in point: Bahrain.

After thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators took to the streets in the small Gulf kingdom earlier this year, the Bahraini government's response was brutal and systematic: shoot civilian protesters, detain and torture them, and erase all evidence. On the frontline, treating hundreds of these wounded civilians, doctors gained firsthand knowledge of these abuses.

As part of a Physicians for Human Rights investigation in Bahrain last month, Dr. Nizam Peerwani and I conducted in-depth interviews with 47 medical workers, patients, and other eyewitnesses to human rights violations. We corroborated these testimonies by conducting physical examinations of beaten and tortured protesters and by examining their medical records and X-rays. We also investigated four suspicious deaths in custody.

The United States may not be able to propose solutions for all the Middle East, but it can prescribe the course of events unfolding in some Arab Spring countries. Case in point: Bahrain.

After thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators took to the streets in the small Gulf kingdom earlier this year, the Bahraini government’s response was brutal and systematic: shoot civilian protesters, detain and torture them, and erase all evidence. On the frontline, treating hundreds of these wounded civilians, doctors gained firsthand knowledge of these abuses.

As part of a Physicians for Human Rights investigation in Bahrain last month, Dr. Nizam Peerwani and I conducted in-depth interviews with 47 medical workers, patients, and other eyewitnesses to human rights violations. We corroborated these testimonies by conducting physical examinations of beaten and tortured protesters and by examining their medical records and X-rays. We also investigated four suspicious deaths in custody.

During the investigation, we gathered evidence on egregious abuses against patients and detainees including torture, beating, humiliation, and threats of rape and killing. Security forces used excessive force, including shotguns fired at close range and high velocity weapons aimed at the heads of unarmed protesters. They also detained and tortured civilian protesters to extract false confessions of subversive activity.

Our investigation also produced strong evidence that the Government of Bahrain has systematically targeted more than 100 medical personnel and the overall healthcare system. These systematic attacks include abductions of physicians, some of whom were taken from their homes in the middle of the night, handcuffed and blindfolded, by masked security forces. Our documentation and forensic evidence enable us to conclude that Bahraini authorities:

  • Attacked ambulances; removed ambulance medics, and forced them to give their uniforms to police who then posed as medics to get closer to protesters;
  • Prevented ambulances from reaching people who needed medical care;
  • Blockaded health facilities and obstructed delivery of care;
  • Militarized the country’s main tertiary care hospital, preventing medical staff and patients from entering or leaving;
  • Destroyed medical records;
  • Abducted medical professionals, detained and held them incommunicado;
  • Hunted down patients wounded in protests by searching medical centers and setting up police check points;
  • Humiliated, beat, and tortured patients while in medical centers;
  • Forcibly discharged patients in need of urgent medical care.

This assault on healthcare workers and their patients constitutes extreme violations of the principle of medical neutrality and, as such, is a grave breach of international law. The cost of these attacks on health professionals and medical services are borne by all Bahrainis: for each doctor, nurse, or medic that the government disappears, many more civilians’ lives are impacted as patients go untreated.

In conflicts around the world, there is a unique and highly qualified community of medical professionals who give care to those in need. Medical workers in all countries are bound by their professional ethics to provide such care without consideration of religion, ethnicity, or other status. Because doctors are trained to apply their skills without discrimination, they glean first-hand knowledge of types of injury and numbers of deaths during a conflict. And importantly, they can discern the cause of injury and death. That expertise and knowledge make doctors important witnesses to government abuses and, in the case of Bahrain, make them targets themselves.

To date, the U.S. administration’s mild approach toward Bahrain, as characterized in a May 9 Washington Post editorial, has failed to curb government abuses, and doctors are still being disappeared. The State Department’s decision not to testify on the human rights situation in Bahrain before Congress last Friday only bolsters this tepid approach. An important non-NATO ally of the United States since 2002 and home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is susceptible to American pressure. But President Obama must choose to use it.

Senior members of the administration, including the president, should speak out publicly – and in no uncertain terms – against ongoing human rights abuses by government authorities as it has toward Syria. The administration should also demand the immediate and unconditional release of all detained medical workers in Bahrain.

To address the growing incidence of violations of medical neutrality globally, the United States could spearhead an international effort to create a new mandate for a Special Rapporteur on Violations of Medical Neutrality through the United Nations Human Rights Council. It should also add the reporting of violations of medical neutrality to the annual State Department human rights country reports.

In the post-Bin Laden climate of reassessing its relations with Middle Eastern governments, the Obama administration should tack a new course vis-à-vis Bahrain, take off the kid gloves, and demand an immediate end to the atrocities.

Richard Sollom is deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights.

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