Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Female doctors tortured in Bahrain amid fears of intensified crackdown until June 1

Bahrain's government has announced that it will lift the state of emergency on June 1, but this may signal a worsening of human rights abuses in the short term, according to SAVE's contact in Bahrain, as medical professionals continue to go missing.

Three days ago, Bahraini authorities summoned Dr Najah Alhadad for a short interrogation. The only contact she has had with her family since then is a five-minute phone call to her daughter, asking for a change of clothing.

Alhadad is a consultant family physician and Deputy Chief of Primary Care in Bahrain, and like many others she has been targeted because of her profession. “The regime is interrogating those who brought medicines to the protesters and who received casualties from the uprisings,” says Rania*, who also works in healthcare in Bahrain. “The regime is making up accusations, saying that the doctors and nurses held in custody carried out unnecessary operations on people, and that these people died from the procedures.”

From the testimonies of doctors and nurses recently released from custody, Rania is able to put together a picture of conditions inside the al-‘Adliya Criminal Investigations Department where most are held. “Detainees are beaten with water pipes and hoses, slapped on the face, head and legs, and some are given electric shocks until they lose consciousness,” says Rania. “Prisoners are kept blindfolded and made to sit on chairs for days without sleep. Men are sometimes hung by their feet and beaten. After the torture, they are given a blank piece of paper and told to sign at the bottom. The authorities fill in the confession above the signature.”

Female detainees are usually held for two to five days, but several men have been missing for far longer. There is no gender segregation in the centres, and women report hearing men screaming all night long.

Bahrain’s government began its deadly crack down on March 14, in response to popular protests agitating for political change. Four people have so far died in detention. Rania claims to have seen the bodies of these victims, saying that they were covered in torture marks.

One young poet, Ayat al-Ghermezi, was reported to have been killed by the regime on April 20. She was arrested after reading her poems in Pearl Square, the main gathering point for protesters. However, Rania’s friends claim to have seen the 20-year-old in detention, alive and in acceptable health. “The government is trying to force her to write a poem praising Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa ibn Salman Al Khalifa,” says Rania. “Apparently she tried to do it, but could not think what to write. Now she is refusing to write.”

Lifting state of emergency may only intensify immediate danger for opposition

Currently, a state of emergency reigns in Bahrain. Movement is severely limited; there are checkpoints in city streets and at the entrance to most villages to ensure that protesters are unable to gather. The crackdown is also harming the economy, as many employees – including 150 medical staff - have been suspended from work or fired. The regime has announced that it will lift the emergency laws on June 1, but Rania doubts that this signals an improvement in the immediate situation of opposition figures.

“The extremists in the regime will charge as many people as they can before the end of the state of emergency,” says Rania. “More will be arrested and they will try to finish most of the trials of activists and opposition leaders before June 1.”

Tomorrow, 21 activists and opposition leaders will appear before a Military Court on charges that include attempting to topple the government by setting up terror groups, inciting hatred, and taking part in rallies without notifying authorities, according to Amnesty International. They have been denied basic rights such as access to a lawyer before trial.

Medical staff may also soon face such trials, according to Rania. “There is an interrogation committee in the Ministry of Health, and the acting head has so far referred 47 persons to the Ministry of the Interior for investigation. Many are sent to the military court, and we do not yet know what the sentences will be.”

In total, 30 male doctors are currently in detention. The majority are thought to have been forced to videotape pre-written confessions which may soon be aired on Bahraini television. Concerns have risen for three surgeons in particular, Dr. Ali Elkri, Dr. Nadeel Hameed and Dr. Basim Bhais, all of whom were leaders in organizing medical care at Salmaniya Hospital during the protests, and thus have become a focus for the regime’s revenge.

Rania emphasizes the impossible situation that Bahraini medics face. “Doctors take an oath when they qualify,” says Rania. “Even if you see an enemy, regardless of race or religion, if they need medical care you must give it to them. The regime is operating double standards – on one side they are accusing us of refusing to aid foreigners, and on the other they are telling us not to treat Bahraini people.”

International public opinion is hardening against the Bahraini regime, especially since a group of five Bahrainis brought a case to The Hague’s International Criminal Court on Friday, accusing the Bahraini Royal Family and certain government members of war crimes.

Still, Rania does not believe that the international community is doing enough to put pressure on the government. “During the uprisings in the 1990s, the government could act with impunity,” says Rania. Bahrain saw sustained unrest in the 1990s, resulting in around 34 deaths. “Now that we have social media, TV, and internet, the whole world knows what the regime is doing. But international coverage is not up to expectations. They frame this as a Shi’ite revolution, but it is a Bahraini revolution. We don’t want external intervention, but we want strong statements by world leaders condemning the crimes against humanity happening here, and a stronger focus on Bahrain in the international media.”

Rania has so far avoided detention. However, she cannot sleep at night, knowing that she could be the authorities’ next target.

“I am afraid for my family – I don’t know what will happen. Nobody is safe and every household has been affected.

“Politically, there will be no genuine changes. But from history we know that we have to fight for our rights. It might not be fruitful this time, but in the long run it will be. We cannot complain that our government is brutal and not react against it. We must show the world that we asked for our rights and the regime refused. Innocent blood will not have been shed in vain. We will not achieve 100% of our demands. But even if we achieve 1%, we have made a step forwards.”

*Name has been changed for reasons of confidentiality. Report by Helen Victoria Thompson.

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