Bahrain's Assault on Medical Professionals

November 23, 2011

Bahrain's Assault on Medical Professionals

Bahrain's doctors, nurses and emergency workers treated scores of injured and saw the dead after security forces launched a brutal crackdown on protestors. Now many are paying a steep price for speaking out about what they witnessed.


By Hani Mowafi

Dr. Hani Mowafi is co-director of the Boston Medical Center Department of Public and Global Health and is on faculty at the Harvard University Humanitarian Initiative.

After traveling to Bah rain in February as part of an Amnesty International fact-finding mission earlier this year, I have been watching the country's deteriorating human rights situation with great concern. Our mission took place just days after at least seven protestors were killed and dozens more injured in a brutal crackdown on protests by activists demanding greater social and political rights from the country's monarchy. The government has sought to cast the protests in a sectarian light; Bahrain is a Sunni monarchy ruling a majority Shi'a population. While the Shi'a doctors, nurses and other medical professionals who cared for the injured-and spoke out about the violence they witnessed-insisted they did so as a matter of conscience, many have since been arrested, detained and persecuted.

In late September, a military court took seven minutes to declare 20 doctors and medical professionals from the Salmaniya Medical Complex (SMC) guilty of attempting to topple the government and imposed prison sentences of up to 15 years. The medical professionals were accused of using the SMC- the leading tertiary care center on the island and the hospital closest to the Pearl Roundabout, where the most egregious violence took place- as a "control center" for protests, inciting hatred of the regime, occupying the hospital by force, stealing medicine and stockpiling arms. Other military trials that same week upheld guilty verdicts and harsh jail terms-including life sentences-for human rights activists, opposition leaders and teachers on charges related to the February and March protests. The trials have marred Bahrain's image as an oasis of stability and cosmopolitanism in a turbulent region.

AI researchers Said Boumedouha and Neil Sammonds and I landed in Bahrain a few days after security forces had cleared the Pearl Roundabout in a pre-dawn raid. Things at the main convergence point for demonstrations had settled somewhat and protestors were re-occupying the area, but the mood was anxious. At the nearby SMC we met with physicians, nurses, ambulance personnel and ministry employees, and we examined people who had been treated for injuries.

Witnesses reported that security forces had used shotguns to clear crowds from the roundabout, and there was clear evidence that they had used live ammunition on the protestors, many of whom had shotgun firearm injuries, along with rubber bullets and tear gas. Protestors had collected the spent ammunition, tear-gas canisters and rubber bullets, and displayed it at the hospital; much of it was clearly marked as U.S.-made. The United States is one of at least 10 countries that supplied or licensed weapons exports to Bahrain.

The use of shotguns as a crowd-control device is not unprecedented-in fact, shotguns had been used on rare occasions to suppress uprisings in Bahrain since the 1970s. However, in this case it was clear that a significant number of the protestors' injuries resulted from shotguns fired at close range, and we spoke to physicians who had seen many more people who were dead on arrival from shotgun wounds to the head, chest or abdomen. This testimony coincides with reports that civilian defense forces-who do not have the kind of training in crowd control that police and army forces do-cleared the square on at least one occasion.

After the February 17 raid, ambulances were not permitted to enter for six hours, and those emergency responders who did were attacked and beaten. Subsequently, access was permitted, but by that point no one was left inside the restricted area to be picked up by the ambulance crews from the hospital. Near the roundabout, however, clearly identified medical workers were targeted by police while trying to help wounded protestors. Dr. Sadeq al-‘Ekri, a surgeon who had set up a mobile clinic, told AI that police stopped him, tied his hands behind his back, pulled his trousers down and beat him. We also learned that an unknown number of severely wounded people were taken to the military hospital, and many remained there both under treatment and in detention. It is unclear who determined whether injured people should be taken to the military hospital or the civilian hospital. The diversion of the more seriously wounded protestors could have been innocuous-or it may have been intentional, as it later became clear that the government had begun to see the SMC physicians, nurses and ambulance personnel as a threat.

Although the scale of violence directed at protestors has certainly been greater in other countries in the region, the brutality of the crackdown in Bahrain came as a shock to many who had considered Bahrain to be a glittering hub of commerce along the lines of the Dubai model. The government attempted to justify its actions by portraying the protestors and their supporters as part of an Iran-backed Shi'a movement even though the protests focused on expanded political rights and included some Sunnis. Although we saw no evidence of sectarianism on the part of hospital staff, the government has targeted them and portrayed them as Shi'a-leaning. Amid this increasingly sectarian rhetoric, simply articulating what had happened became an act of tremendous courage. Indeed, while we were there, the doctors, nurses and emergency personnel we interviewed described being harassed, detained and released on various occasions following the initial crackdown, although they did not anticipate the full scale of the persecution to come.

The provision of medical care should never be politicized. Yet in Bahrain, the principle of medical neutrality has fallen victim to the government's desire to maintain its hold on power. Once we allow the provision of medical care to be seen as "giving comfort to the enemy," to crib a line from one politician- then an important refuge in modern society has been eliminated. When I saw medical professionals doing what we do every day in Boston and paying such a heavy price, I could not help but think, "There but for the grace of God go I."

U.S. Delays Arms Transfer to Bahrain After AI Advocacy

The day after Amnesty International released a damning report exposing arms transfers to the Middle East and North Africa, the White House delayed a $53 million arms sale to Bahrain. The October 19 announcement of the delay followed weeks of intense lobbying by AIUSA, which helped draft congressional resolutions opposing the sale. The White House announcement was welcomed by Rep. James McGovern (D-MA) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR.), who are sponsors of the legislation, and Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), who sent a separate letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging a delay in the proposed arms sale. The letter was also signed by Senators Richard Durbin (D-IL), Benjamin Cardin (D MD), Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Ron Wyden (D-OR). Although the international community has taken some steps this year to restrict international arms transfers to Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen-all countries where security forces used imported weapons to brutally suppress protests-existing arms export controls have not been stringent enough. AI is pressing for a rigorous case-by-case evaluation of each proposed arms transfer in order to prevent serious human rights abuses.

ACT: Please call on your congressional representatives to cosponsor legislation by Rep. McGovern and Sen. Wyden that would suspend the sale of military weapons, equipment and services to Bahrain: