Bahrain’s security forces stole ambulances and posed as medics to round up injured protesters during a ferocious crackdown on unarmed demonstrators calling for reform of the monarchy, an investigation by a rights group reveals today.
The first major report on repression of the medical profession during the country’s crisis details how a doctor was abducted during an operation and injured patients lying in hospital were tortured and threatened with rape.
The investigation by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) followed a report by The Independent yesterday detailing threats faced by medical staff who treated victims of the repression. More than 30 medics have been taken away by security forces and have had little or no contact with their families.
The report said it found that security forces targeted Shia doctors in particular. The crackdown has created such a climate of fear that wounded people were too frightened to go to hospital to seek treatment.
The Bahraini monarchy responded to calls for reform by massed demonstrations starting on 14 February by calling in 2,000 troops from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Over the next two days, Bahraini security forces, backed by the Saudis, drove protesters from the streets, made arbitrary arrests of at least 500 people, systematically tortured detainees and sacked anybody who had shown sympathy for protests.
The group’s investigators said they received witness evidence that security forces stole at least six ambulances. “Police forcibly removed ambulance medics from the vehicles, made them remove their uniforms at gunpoint, and then posed as medics, reportedly to get closer to injured protesters to detain them,” the report said. It also related how “armed security forces abducted Dr Ali El-Ekri from the operating room while he was performing surgery at Salmaniya Hospital on 17 March.”
Patients and detainees have been targeted according to the report which says that methods used against them include “torture, beating, verbal abuse, humiliation, and threats of rape and killing.”
In one case a Bahraini called Ali was shot in the face with bird shot and was taken while unconscious to Salmaniya hospital in the capital Manama where he remained for five days. On his second day there “three armed security forces handcuffed Ali and a dozen other wounded men behind their backs with plastic wrist ties and began to beat them.”
Ali and the other patients were thrown from their beds onto the floor where they lay face first and were then dragged, leaving trails of blood, into a hallway of the hospital. An Indian nurse told the security men: “Don’t hurt them. They are our patients.”
The report by the Cambridge, Massachusetts group, said that one of the Bahraini security forces shouted back: “They are not your patients - they are criminals!”
One of the armed men with a Saudi accent hurled insults at the patients on the floor and cursed: “Grave worshippers! Sons of whores! Sons of Muta!" (derogatory references to Shia Muslims). Another armed man in black shouted, “We’re going to hang you. We're going to kill you,” the report said.
Ali and the other patients lay on the floor for four hours until they were transferred to another ward. Later that night, police in blue uniforms and men in civilian dress wearing black masks stormed the ward and beat Ali and the other patients with the butts of their rifles and kicks to the groin, stomach, and bottom. One policeman with a Jordanian accent threatened to rape Ali.
Small groups of armed men took turns beating each patient in the ward hurling insults at them. The patients were subjected to constant beating.
The aim of the interrogation was to force people to admit that they had carried arms during the protest and intended to go to Iran for military training. Ali finally confessed to stop the beating, the report said.
One of the complaints of pro-democracy demonstrators prior to the all-out army and police attack was that the ruling al-Khalifas were trying to change the demographic balance in Bahrain by importing Sunni from Pakistan, Jordan and Yemen who were rapidly made Bahraini citizens.
The 30,000 strong army and 30,000-strong security forces recruited many officers from Sunni countries and have almost no Shia members.
According to one 20-year-old witness interviewed by a team from Physicians for Human Rights, riot police attacked a Shia wedding ceremony taking place on 13 March.
The witness said “tens of riot police in blue uniforms and white helmets attacked unarmed civilians during a wedding ceremony taking place in his town’s Ma’tam (a Shi’a congregation hall).
They launched tear gas inside the enclosed building and fired 40mm hard rubber bullets at the wedding party causing guests to flee outside where they met more armed police.
Elderly men and women collapsed to the ground. The groom’s father tried to speak with the riot police to say that this gathering was just a wedding. The police yelled in broken Arabic to move back, which made clear to the father that they were not from Bahrain.”