For sick or injured Bahrainis, going to the hospital means risking a prison term—or even death. Describing the “militarization of hospitals,” Rula Al-Saffar, president of the Bahrain Nursing Society, said patients with “head traumas, broken bones or burns” are first interrogated by police to determine if they are involved in protests against the government. Health professionals are only allowed to treat patients after police investigate and clear them for treatment. For some, the delay means death.
In one such instance, “a man fell down the stairs and had a brain hemorrhage,” she said, during an interview at the Solidarity Center. The man could not be treated until the police went to the site to determine if his story was credible. Al-Saffar, in Washington, D.C., this week to update members of Congress and policymakers on the ongoing repression in Bahrain, is among Bahraini medics demanding Bahrain abide by medical neutrality. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights has released a report that details the country’s breach of medical neutrality and violations of injured patients.
Medical neutrality, codified in the Geneva Conventions, is the principle of noninterference with medical services during armed conflict. Internationally recognized, medical neutrality requires the safe transport and treatment of patients and the non-persecution of health professionals for treating ill and injured patients. The issue, says Al-Saffar, is far broader than Bahrain.
“If it happens in Bahrain, it will be the role model in other countries,” she said.
In March, a Bahrain appeals court reversed the conviction of 21 health professionals arrested during pro-democracy protests in 2011. Yet more than two dozen other medics are still in prison. Medics—doctors, nurses and technicians—have been prime targets of government persecution because they treated wounded protestors. Al-Saffar is one of them.
She was put in prison for five months where she was beaten and subject to electro-shock torture. Her 15-year sentence for 12 politically motivated charges was overturned in 2012.
Hassan Matooq, a pediatric nurse, is among those still imprisoned. His younger sister, Jehan Matooq, is traveling in the United States with Al-Saffar to bring attention to his case. Matooq, a medical coordinator for the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, says Hassan was arrested while at work in the pediatric emergency room and given less than 24 hours to find a lawyer to defend him in a military court trial. Unable to contact a lawyer, he was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison for “hatred against the regime,” she said.
The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry last year found that Bahrain officials had grossly exaggerated, if not manufactured, many claims brought against thousands of ordinary people who had been caught up in the 2011 protests, including hundreds of education professionals. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain has issued a detailed list of medics who have been arrested and their current status.
Al-Saffar also described a systematic campaign of terror against Bahraini citizens, in which police tear gas civilians and shoot individuals at close range with pellet guns. Further, Al-Saffar says the regime has barred Sh’ia nursing graduates from getting jobs—despite Bahrain’s severe nation’s nursing shortage. For example, one nurse is responsible for 20 patients at the Samaniya medical complex, the country’s only full-service hospital.
The 2011 peaceful uprising brought together citizens of all religions, but since then, “the government has done a great job of a hatred campaign,” Al-Saffar says. Recently, she has seen signs that the public is not buying such divide-and-conquer efforts. “The people are coming together again.”