Attacks on physicians in Bahrain

by David Dodwell, Pamela Cox, George Akerlof, Mkhaimar Abusada, and Cesar Chelala

The government of Bahrain has been conducting a systematic attack on doctors and other medical personnel, ostensibly because of the care they provide to protesters attacked and maimed by government forces. The United States, which has been quite clear in its criticism of repression in Syria, should now make it clear where it stands with regard to human rights abuses in Bahrain.

The Bahrain regime started its last round of repression following protests Feb. 15, and hasn’t stopped since. As of the middle of April, more than 400 people had been arrested. Twenty-seven political opponents and protesters are reported dead and dozens are missing.

On March 16 the government imposed a state of emergency. Its security forces, backed by troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, cleared protesters from Pearl Square in Manama, the kingdom’s capital.

Government soldiers have taken control of Salmaniya Medical Complex, Bahrain’s largest public hospital. According to the government, both the hospital and local clinics are nests of radical Shiites intent on destabilizing the country. The result is that many sick people have nowhere to go.

The government’s crackdown on doctors and medical personnel is probably intended to instill fear in doctors so that they will not take care of wounded demonstrators. Many doctors still respond to the mandate of their Hippocratic Oath, managing to care for the wounded, in many cases taking them to the hospital or neighborhood clinics in their own cars, rather than in ambulances, to avoid being stopped by the police.

Bahrain’s campaign of intimidation and persecution of doctors runs counter to the Geneva Convention rules guaranteeing medical care to people wounded in conflict. A series of e-mail messages between a surgeon in Salmaniya hospital and a British colleague obtained by The Independent shows the extent of the abuse: “It has been a long day in the [hospital] theater with massively injured patients equivalent to a massacre. Things are still volatile and I hope there will be no more death,” wrote the Bahraini doctor to a colleague in Britain.

The government has repeatedly denied that it is targeting doctors or medical personnel. But the opposition claims that plainclothes policemen target medical personnel at checkpoints if they suspect them of having treated protesters. The government is accused of having turned away a Kuwaiti medical delegation that was coming to the aid of injured civilians.

“Now we are seeing security lockdowns and attacks against hospitals, tampering with medical records, beatings of patients and arrests of doctors. This represents a serious escalation of violence against the medical community,” states Human Rights Watch, which has been closely following the situation in Bahrain.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has denounced the abduction of three doctors by armed security forces. including one from the operating room while he was performing surgery. The whereabouts of all three are unknown. PHR has also found flagrant abuses against patients and detainees including torture, beatings, verbal abuse, acts of humiliation, and threats of rape and killing.

The government’s repression is not only targeted at doctors. According to Human Rights Watch, unknown assailants threw tear gas grenades at the home of Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and a member of the Human Rights Watch Middle East Advisory Committee.

The grenades were identified as the Triple Chaser CS 515 type, manufactured by Federal Laboratories in Saltsburg, Pennsylvania. According to Human Rights Watch, only Bahrain’s security forces have access to this type of grenade.

“In two decades of conducting human rights investigations in more than 20 countries, I have never seen such widespread and systematic violations of medical neutrality as I did in Bahrain,” wrote Richard Sollom, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights for The Independent.

Given its close relationship with the Bahrain government, the U.S. has the right, and the responsibility, to help put a stop to these abuses.

Cesar Chelala, M.D. and Ph.D., is an international public health consultant and a co-winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award.