Anti-government protests that often broke along sectarian lines erupted in the island kingdom in February [EPA]
Bahraini security forces attacked doctors and nurses, lay siege to hospitals and clinics, detained protesters who sought treatment, and arrested and prosecuted dozens of medical personnel after unrest hit the island kingdom in February, a prominent human rights organisation has alleged.
Since mid-March, when the government stifled the uprising, the government has arrested more than 70 medical professionals, including several dozen doctors, and has put 48 on trial in a special military court, Human Rights Watch alleged in a 24-page report released on Monday.
The organisation called on Bahrain to stop harrassing medical personnel, withdraw all security forces from health centres and release all those facing minor charges, while providing due process to those accused of more serious crimes.
|Click to read the Human Rights Watch report.|
The report also called on the United Nations to conduct an independent investigation into the government crackdown.
“The Bahraini government’s violent campaign of intimidation against the medical community and its interference in the provision of vital medical assistance to injured protesters is one of the most egregious aspects of its brutal repression of the pro-democracy protest movement,” the report stated.
Hospital became battleground
Pro-democracy protests began in Manama, the capital, on February 14. They spread to other villages and brought Manama’s central Pearl Roundabout to a standstill until March 15, when a Saudi Arabia-led military force assembled by the Gulf Cooperation Council at Bahrain’s request arrived to put down the uprising.
Protesters complained of corruption and the authoritarian rule of King Hamad ibn Isa al-Khalifa’s family. Many were Shia, the majority sect in Bahrain, and called for an end to what they said was endemic discrimination at the hands of the ruling Sunni minority.
Since the crackdown, hundreds of detainees, including doctors, remain in custody facing politically motivated trials, Human Rights Watch said. Around 30 people are believed to have died during the uprising, while more than 500 were injured.
Most of the casualties were treated at Salmaniya Medical Complex (SMC), the largest hospital in Bahrain, which at times became a battleground and protest site.
Researchers from the organisation were able to interview more than 75 medical professionals, patients and family members before leaving Bahrain on April 20. They have not been allowed to return.
Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, who reported from Bahrain in March and May, said the report was consistent with the events he witnessed and heard described during his time in the country, but that abuses had continued after March, when the report ends.
Trained medics and nurses became “undercover medics,” putting on plain clothes and using code words to get information from Shia towns where security forces conducted violent sweeps, Stratford said.
Many injured protesters refused to seek medical attention in clinics and hospitals for fear of being detained or beaten by security forces.
The Bahraini government has denied that it allowed wide-ranging abuse of medical personnel and injured protesters. It has said that some medical workers were conspiring to overthrow the government and that weapons were stored inside the hospital and in ambulances.
Attacks on doctors and nurses
Attacks on medical personnel began almost as soon as demonstrations did, according to Monday’s report. On February 17, police moved in on the Pearl Roundabout protesters without warning, firing tear gas, rubber bullets and pellets.
Though a team of medical volunteers, some of them wearing Red Crescent jackets, identified themselves as medics, they were beaten by police.
When the SMC put in motion its “disaster plan” and dispatched 12 ambulances to Pearl Roundabout, security forces attacked several ambulance drivers, according to a member of the medical staff.
At least one SMC employee, Dr. Amjad Deek Obeid, said it was protesters who had interfered on the morning of February 17, occupying the hospital’s entrances, attacking the undersecretary to the minister of health – who was visiting – and stealing one ambulance to transport their comrades.
Laying siege to medical clinics
After the Gulf Cooperation Council force moved into Bahrain to quash the uprising, the crackdown on medical personnel entered a new phase, according to the report.
On March 15 and 16, security forces surrounded a health centre in Sitra, one of the country’s larger Shia towns, and then commandeered the SMC. Men armed with pistols and automatic rifles, some of then masked, effectively put the SMC into “lockdown,” the report said, and began ordering many of the injured protesters to the sixth floor, where they had control.
The Bahraini military began “calling all the shots”, a doctor told Human Rights Watch. The situation was much the same at other clinics in the country.
Security forces wrote down the names of doctors who helped protesters, entered operating theatres to confiscate phones and other recording devices, decided when some of the injured would receive surgery, and removed or beat those they suspected were involved in demonstrations.
Other injured protesters housed on the SMC’s sixth-floor wards reported beatings from security forces there and begged to be transferred.
Some doctors and nurses spoke openly with the media and criticised the government and their own employer for what they believed was an inadquate response to the attacks on protesters.
Dr. Nada Dhaif, who spoke with Al Jazeera, was arrested the day after her interview. Though Dhaif has been released, she and 20 others still face charges, including possession of unlicenced weapons and ammunition, inciting others to overthrow the regime, and destroying medical equipment.
There are 48 medical professionals on trial for protest-related crimes. Human Rights Watch says they have had little to no access to lawyers and family members.