Doctors Detained in Bahrain Face Accusations of Medical Abuses

BY Talea Miller  May 18, 2011 at 3:00 PM EDT


A wounded Bahraini demonstrator is taken to a hospital in Manama in February. Photo by Joseph Eid/ AFP

Updated May 23 | More than 100 medical workers have been targeted and detained by Bahrain’s government in recent months for their role in aiding protestors, say human rights groups, and many are still locked up facing military trials.

But the government says some health workers engaged in gross medical abuses, including refusing care based on sect and exaggerating injuries to the media.

“If you are a health professional and wear a lab coat you are suspected of being subversive. You are interrogated, videotaped and compelled to offer false confessions of wrong doing,” said Richard Sollom, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights, who was in Bahrain in April and authored an investigative report on the detention of medical workers.

“They are being abducted in the middle of the night sometimes from their homes in front of their children, blindfolded,” he said.

Human Rights Watch has also received credible reports of torture and mistreatment from detainees who have been released.

A doctor the NewsHour team spoke with in Bahrain — and agreed not to identify for safety reasons — said she treated protestors during her off hours and was detained for weeks as a result.

“During the interrogation, whenever I said something which they don’t like it, they will slap me again. And I was beaten also by a hose on my hands and my thighs,” she said. “In the dark…they gave me the paper of confession to sign it and thumb — thumbprint without knowing what is there in that paper.”

Bahrain’s Minister of Justice Sheikh Khalid bin Ali bin Abdulla al Khalifa denied any form of maltreatment for detainees in an interview with senior correspondent Margaret Warner.

The PBS NewsHour received a written response from Bahrain’s U.S. Ambassador Houda Ezra Nonoo stating that the torture allegations are the result of “false information disseminated by forces supported from external regimes fighting the Bahrain government.”

Nonoo also wrote that many of the doctors and health workers who were initially arrested have since been processed and released.

Bahrain has been under a state of emergency since a wave of anti-government demonstrations broke out in March. The country’s main hospital, Salmaniya Hospital, became a hotspot during the height of the unrest, with protestors being brought in for treatment and demonstrations being held on the grounds.

In early May the justice minister announced 47 doctors and nurses from the facility would be tried in military court on charges of taking action against the state and taking part in illegal rallies, as well as smuggling weapons. The government has also leveled serious medical allegations against the community, saying that some workers actually harmed patients.

An earlier statement from Ambassador Nonoo listed the accusations, including “refusing treatment to some citizens and residents based on their sect,” “augment[ing] the injuries of some of the wounded in order to aggravate their conditions and… mislead people about the real facts on the ground in Bahrain,” as well as performing unnecessary surgeries, causing two deaths.

Human Rights Watch, which had people on the ground and in the hospital during the government crackdown, said they have yet to see any evidence from the government of the charges. But Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director for the group, said some of the accusations are quite serious.

“We heard none of these types of allegations while we were there, when we were in the hospital…These are all allegations that arose after the military took over the hospital,” he said. “If there is evidence of criminal acts people should be charged and tried before a civilian court, not these special military courts that don’t meet international fair trial standards.”

Sollom said physicians with flawless records, the leaders in their fields, are being accused of these “gross atrocities” now as part of what he calls a disinformation campaign by the government.

“They have to discredit the doctors because some of them were the ones that initially spoke out to the international media,” he said.

Requests by U.N. groups to investigate the situation have been declined until this week, when the minister of health said Tuesday a group from the World Health Organization may be allowed in, reported the Associated Press.

“We have nothing to hide,” said Health Minister Fatima al-Balooshi.

While the unrest in the streets of Bahrain has died down to a large extent, the controversy over the detentions has not, and medical facilities are still not receiving patients at capacity.

“Today people are afraid to go to hospital or health centers because there are police and army everywhere,” Stork said. “The practice of medicine in Bahrain — it’s in really bad shape today.”