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Physicians Urge Obama Admin to Pressure Mideast Ally Bahrain to End Repression of Doctors, Patients

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The Gulf nation of Bahrain has announced that 47 medical workers who treated pro-democracy protesters during the nation’s popular uprising will be tried before a military court on charges of acting against the state. Some could face the death penalty for providing medical assistance to protesters. Human rights groups say the arrests are part of a campaign of intimidation that runs directly counter to the Geneva Convention, which guarantees medical care to people wounded in conflict. We speak with Richard Sollom of Physicians for Human Rights. He recently traveled to Bahrain to document the situation there and is the co-author of a new report, “Do No Harm: A Call for Bahrain to End Systematic Attacks on Doctors and Patients.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Gulf nation of Bahrain has announced that 47 medical workers who treated pro-democracy protesters during the nation’s uprising will be tried before a military court. Some could face the death penalty for providing medical assistance to protesters. The charges against 23 doctors and 24 nurses include, quote, “promoting efforts to bring down the government” and “harming the public by spreading false news.”

Bahrain is a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, hosting the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Among the doctors facing charges is Ali Al Akri, a prominent physician who was arrested during a military raid at his hospital in the capital city of Manama on March 17th. His wife was also arrested and beaten under custody. She recently spoke to Al Jazeera.

FAREEDA AL-DALLAL: Actually, I’m very afraid, because I don’t know anything about him. Even his place, I don’t know where is he. His lawyers cannot contact him. And this one-day beating that I received, I think he received more and more, because he’s there now one-and-a-half months with them. And I don’t know what’s his — I don’t know what’s the kind of things that he is faced there with them.

AMY GOODMAN: Human rights groups say the arrests are part of a campaign of intimidation that runs directly counter to the Geneva Convention, which guarantees medical care to people wounded in conflict. The Independent of London reports one doctor, an intensive care specialist, was held after she was photographed weeping over a dead protester. Another was arrested while operating on a patient.

For more, we turn to Richard Sollom of Physicians for Human Rights, who is joining us from Boston. He just came back from Bahrain, where he documented the situation there. He has co-authored a report called “Do No Harm: A Call for Bahrain to End Systematic Attacks on Doctors and Patients.”

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Richard Sollom. Tell us what you found there.

RICHARD SOLLOM: Thank you, Amy.

Physicians for Human Rights just returned several weeks ago from Bahrain, where we were investigating allegations of violations of human rights, as well as medical neutrality. And what we found was very disturbing. After speaking with nearly 50 eyewitnesses, patients at Salmaniya Hospital, physicians, nurses, medical care personnel, including x-ray technicians, medics, etc., we came to a conclusion that the government authorities are systematically targeting these medical personnel for merely exercising their neutral, ethical responsibility of providing care to civilian protesters who were injured by government authorities during the protests over the past couple of months.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And your report indicates that these are not only cases where people were arrested in hospitals, but where actually security forces went to their homes in the middle of the night and just grabbed them and carted them off to jail?

RICHARD SOLLOM: Correct. It’s a disturbing pattern that we found. And the word “arrest” is actually a euphemism, because what the government security forces are doing are actually abducting these physicians and medical personnel from the middle of — in the middle of the night from their homes, in front of their children, literally dragging them from their beds, handcuffing him, blindfolding them, and disappearing them. Dr. Al Akri and his wife, for example, have been interrogated Dr. Al Akri is still missing. He’s facing these seemingly bogus charges. He is a highly respected physician, who, in our opinion, has done his ethical duty of treating civilians. And these charges that the government has against these medical personnel are unfathomable.

AMY GOODMAN: You have described that these doctors and nurses have, some, been taken as they were treating patients. Can you talk about what kind of pressure the U.S. can bring? I mean, this is a close ally of the United States, both Saudi Arabia, that moved into Bahrain to attack the protesters, and Bahrain itself. It is the home of the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet.

RICHARD SOLLOM: You’re absolutely right, Amy. We documented cases where literally the security force is inside the hospital. You have to remember that the entire Salmaniya Hospital is completely militarized. There are tanks out in front. There are police and Bahraini defense forces on every floor of the hospital. They’re carrying assault rifles. Many of them are wearing black masks to hide their identity. We were — when we tried to visit the hospital, we were detained and escorted out by the military an hour later. They wouldn’t let us visit this hospital. And as you said, some physicians were literally dragged out of the operating room when they were performing surgery by these government security forces. The United States plays a critical role, or can play a critical role, in the sense that the government, the Obama administration and Secretary of State Clinton, need to speak out forcefully on this issue.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, have you — you’ve raised questions as to whether these are violations of any international treaties or Geneva Conventions?

RICHARD SOLLOM: Well, we termed them “violations of medical neutrality.” Medical neutrality is — has foundations in the Geneva Convention or the laws of war, as well as in human rights law, as well as in medical ethics — for example, principles laid down by the World Medical Association. The Bahrain government has signed on to every major human rights treaty. They have a responsibility to uphold their treaty obligations. Even though there is a state of emergency that’s been declared, and therefore certain rights can be postponed, there are certain non-derogable rights which they must honor — for example, the right to life, the right to be free from torture.

And we documented, with forensic evidence, deaths in custody due to torture. We documented severe abuse, including torture of patients inside the hospital. And why we call it “torture” is, in addition to the severe physical and mental abuse paid upon these patients who were in the hospital, they were forced to make false confessions — for example, that they were instructed by Iranian government to lead these protests, to carry weapons, that they received military training from Iran. And these types of confessions, which were apparently videotaped by the security forces inside the hospital, I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing some of these forced confessions on television.

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Sollom, has Physicians for Human Rights ever seen a crackdown like this on doctors and nurses before? I mean, you’re talking about a country, Bahrain, that’s contributed troops to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan with the United States, signed a free trade agreement with the United States, is closely allied at every level with the United States. How is Bahrain, the government, justifying this? And what is the U.S. government saying?

RICHARD SOLLOM: Well, the Bahrain government is not justifying it. They’re actually strenuously opposing these allegations by organizations like Physicians for Human Rights, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch. We have all done reporting over the past several months and have come to very similar conclusions, that the government is systematically targeting medical personnel and civil society leaders.

In my 20 years of looking at violations of medical neutrality and human rights during times of war and civil war, I personally have never seen such widespread and systematic targeting of physicians, such egregious violations of the principle of medical neutrality. I have recently been in Bangkok last year during the Red Shirt protests, and where a hospital was stormed. I covered the situation in Sri Lanka at the end of that civil war. I covered the collapse of the healthcare system in Zimbabwe in 2008. None of this compares to the situation going on in Bahrain, and it makes it especially important for the United States to come out and speak about the atrocities that are being committed by their ally, the government of Bahrain.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And during the time that you were there, was there any sense that the repression was subsiding since the arrival or since the first days of the arrival of the Saudi troops, or is it actually increasing? And do you have any indication from the U.S. government that it is going to raise the issue of these nurses and doctors and the systematic attacks on the medical profession there?

RICHARD SOLLOM: Since the Saudi troops arrived in Bahrain and crossed over the causeway into that small island country in the Persian Gulf in mid-March, actually the human rights violations and violations of medical neutrality, targeting of physicians and medical personnel, has actually increased. We receive daily information via email and phone from new families of physicians who have been disappeared. Last week, two more primary healthcare centers were attacked by government authorities, surrounded by police cars, stormed, and medical personnel abducted from these primary care centers outside the capital, Manama, in Bahrain. So, unfortunately, we actually see these violations ongoing and actually stepping up.

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Sollom, finally, what are you calling for?

RICHARD SOLLOM: We call on the United States government, first of all, to speak out forcefully against these egregious violations. They do have a close relationship with Bahrain. As I understand it, President Obama, just this past Friday, made a personal call to King Hamad. I think that that is very welcome, and it’s reassuring. But he needs to publicly state, as well as Secretary of State Clinton, that they are against these types of egregious violations taking place in Bahrain. Secondly, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, which is meeting this summer, should take up the issue of violations of medical neutrality, which are happening not only in Bahrain, but also in Syria and in Libya. The international community should —

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, has the American — has the American Medical Association weighed in?

RICHARD SOLLOM: The AMA has, and other — as well as the World Medical Association, strenuously calling on the Bahrain government to respect physicians’ ethical responsibility to treat people, which is their responsibility.

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Sollom, we want to thank you for being with us, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights, speaking to us from Boston. He has co-authored the report “Do No Harm: A Call for Bahrain to End Systematic Attacks on Doctors and Patients.” He just recently returned from Bahrain.

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