Richard Sollom: The shocking thing is that Bahrain abuse is systematic

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The Independent Online

In two decades of conducting human rights investigations in more than 20 countries, I have never seen such widespread and systematic violations of medical neutrality as I did in Bahrain.

Bahrain's ambulances, hospitals and medical clinics as well as its physicians, nurses, and medical staff are all being targeted. It's pervasive and ongoing. These attacks violate the principle of medical neutrality and are grave breaches of international law.

Doctors have a special role in society and have an ethical obligation to treat all people equally. In Bahrain, as they treat protesters and wounded civilians, they have borne witness to incredible human suffering. Treating these patients has provided physicians with unparalleled evidence of the atrocities committed by the authorities, the security forces and riot police. Their knowledge of these atrocities has also made them targets. At least 32 healthcare professionals have been abducted over the past two months and are being held incommunicado by security forces.

Salmaniya, a large 821-bed hospital housing Bahrain's leading medical specialists, is where the most serious injuries have been treated. Doctors there have seen evidence of gas inhalation, gunshot wounds and beatings.

While in Bahrain, we documented evidence of the hospital administration at Salmaniya calling doctors and nurses in for appointments, from which they were never seen again. Presumably they are taken to places of detention. One notable detention centre, Criminal Investigations Directorate at Adliya, is also an infamous centre of torture.

Unfortunately, the doctors do not have to be taken to detention centres to suffer violent attacks. We have documented the story of six doctors beaten by security forces in a Salmaniya staff room. When security forces are capable of such brutality in a hospital, one can only imagine what happens in a detention centre.

These attacks also put the families of doctors at risk. We interviewed the family of one surgeon who was ripped from his family, blindfolded, handcuffed and dragged from his home in the middle of the night. These systematic attacks have paralysed many health professionals in Bahrain with fear. Many are too terrified to go to work. Travelling to a hospital or clinic often means passing through road blocks where they must present identification and are vulnerable to attack. Arriving at the hospital or medical centre does not provide safety either, as police and security forces also visit medical centres.

We have documented this type of abuse in the past. In 2008, the entire healthcare system in Zimbabwe collapsed under Robert Mugabe, and doctors were targeted in a haphazard way. The shocking difference in Bahrain is that attacks appear to be systematic. It must stop.

Richard Sollom is deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights