Bahrain and Syria are imprisoning doctors for treating wounded anti-regime protesters, a tactic that aims at extinguishing medical neutrality in order to undermine anti-regime protests, the International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly Societies has warned.
On Thursday 14 June, a group of Bahraini physicians lost an appeal against lengthy convictions for alleged violent opposition activity, amongst other charges, accusations that the network, which campaigns against human rights violations and unjust imprisonment of scientists, scholars, engineers, and health professionals, say were trumped up and intended to intimidate health professionals.
Doctors brought in by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, an international expert group established in June last year, examined eight of the accused and found evidence of torture, including electric shocks and severe beatings. The others allege that they, too, were tortured to extract “confessions”, but independent doctors have not been permitted to examine them.
“By denying them medical care, the regime clearly doesn’t want the wounded protesters to survive,” the network’s executive director, Carol Corillon, told Nature. “If protesters know they won’t receive medical treatment, they’ll think twice about heading into the streets.”
“This is a flagrant violation of medical neutrality,” she added.
Bahrain’s top appeals court reduced a military court’s 5–15 year sentences to between 1 month and 5 years for 9 doctors from Salmaniya Medical Complex hospital, the largest in the capital, where protesters had fled during the height of anti-government protests in February last year.
The 15-year sentences of another two doctors, who were out of the country, were upheld, however, and another nine doctors saw all charges dropped. Three of the most severe charges, including incitement of hatred against the regime and supplying weapons to the opposition, were also put aside by the High Court. The network believes that those with the longest sentences were held up as examples for having been the most outspoken about the targeting of health professionals.
Amal al Yusuf, an opthamologist at the hospital, told Nature what happened during the worst of the crackdown: “We were overwhelmed with the huge number of casualties, the number of people dying. We’d never seen such numbers, so when the media came to the hospital the doctors just said what they saw, the scale of the brutality.”
“But this exposed the ugly crimes of the security forces, which had claimed that no one had been injured,” she said.
After a state of emergency was declared, the security forces militarized the hospital. “The doctor who was sentenced to five years imprisonment, [Ali Alekri], was taken away right out of the operating room.”
In January this year, the Bahraini National Health Regulatory Authority directed private hospitals and clinics to report all cases of protest-related injuries to the security forces. Failure to comply with the order “constitutes collaboration and is criminalised by law”.
The government’s strategy seems to be working. Owing to fear of being arrested in hospital, those with protest-related injuries have turned instead to physicians that had gone underground to treat their compatriots.
The network last week issued a public letter to the King of Bahrain, calling for the convictions to be overturned and urging the king to take a number of steps to ensure that medical neutrality is respected.
Meanwhile in Syria, according to the network, more than 500 health professionals have also been targeted for arrest and torture, or murdered for treating Syrians who have been injured in protests or bombings or while trying to flee from attacks by security forces.
The network on Thursday released a separate public appeal urging Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to respect the obligation of health professionals to provide medical care to all people who are ill or injured and to release the hundreds of detained doctors.
“The Syrian Armed Forces … are systematically singling out Syrian health professionals for arrest and often murder,” read the appeal to Assad, himself a trained opthamologist.
“End immediately the arrests, torture, and sadistic killing of health professionals,” the letter demands, singling out the murder of doctor Sakher Hallak, who was detained and tortured to death “in the most barbaric ways imaginable — his mutilated body dumped in the ditch.”
Al Yusuf says that although Western governments are isolating Syria, more pressure needs to be placed on Bahrain. “It is very frustrating and disappointing. You cannot compare the pressure that is exerted on Syria to that on Bahrain. It is so much softer.”
She says that she hopes other “health professionals and scientists particularly in the US and UK lend their prestige, write letters to press their governments to stop selling weapons, to introduce sanctions. There are so many ties.”
“This kind of pressure can help. It is unacceptable that advocates for human rights, democracy talk about strategic friendships while all this is happening.”