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Doctors go underground to treat protesters in Bahrain

Most demonstrators hurt in clashes with police refuse to go to hospitals, no matter how grave their wounds, fearing they will be arrested there.

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A report by the government-appointed Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) later confirmed officers had made unlawful arrests. It also stipulates detainees throughout the country were subjected to torture and other forms of physical and psychological abuse while in custody.

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However, Abdul-Aziz al-Khalifa, a spokesman for the Bahrain Information Affairs Authority and member of the large royal family of Bahrain, vehemently denies that torture is still happening and insists soldiers currently stationed at Salmaniya abide by the law.

“Nobody will be refused treatment if they go to a hospital,” he affirmed, “but if an injury is sustained in a manner that one feels they need to call in the police, then they have to do that. That is the norm around the world. That can’t be held against us.”

Mr. Al-Khalifa says the government is committed to moving beyond the “unfortunate events” of last year, but implied that increasingly violent behavior by opposition protesters is holding the country back. According to him, the number of young Shiites attacking police with Molotov cocktails is on the rise and officers have responded by using more birdshot, teargas, and other weapons.

“We are obliged to maintain law and order,” says Al Khalifa, who also stresses the “rioters” must face the consequences of their actions.

With no easing of the situation in sight, many analysts have begun to describe the unrest in Bahrain as a frozen conflict. Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House, says the term is an understatement. “The situation is worse than a stalemate – it’s a slow deterioration,” she says.

And that deterioration is being seen in hospital halls as well as in the streets.

“There is this feeling of mistrust between doctors and doctors, doctors and patients – a division between sects and families,” says Dr. Nabeel Hameed, who works at Salmaniya. “If you solve the political problem tomorrow, if you solve the economic problem tomorrow you’ll have the social problem of sectarianism. That will continue for another 50 years. The problem now is this mistrust between neighbors.”

Dr. Hameed is among 28 medics who were arrested at Salmaniya during last year’s crackdown after they treated wounded protesters. They are facing misdemeanour charges of joining illegal gatherings and protesting against the government. Their verdicts, which are expected in September, come after nine of their colleagues were sentenced last month to up to five years in jail for assisting the anti-government uprising.  All the medics claim they were tortured by authorities and insist the cases against them are politically motivated.    

Activists say trying health workers is yet another example of how Bahrain is breaching medical neutrality and insist medical care should be free from political influence. They also argue that if the government is truly committed to reform and reconciliation, it should dismiss the cases and overturn the verdicts already handed down.

Dr. Mohamed agrees. He also says if more effort was put into eliminating fears surrounding public health care in Bahrain, not only would it allow for a growing number of citizens to receive the desperate care they need, but it would also help the nation itself heal.

“The government has to separate the medical field from politics,” he says. “The hospitals are places for people who are injured to get medical care. It’s their right to live.”

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