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(Manama) - Bahraini authorities are systematically targeting demonstrators and bystanders wounded in anti-government protests for harassment and mistreatment, and in some cases denying them critical care, Human Rights Watch said today.

Since the Bahraini Defense Force (BDF) took over the country's largest public medical facility on March 16, 2011, security and military forces have sought out and threatened, beaten and detained patients injured by teargas, rubber bullets, birdshot pellets, and live ammunition. These patients also have been removed from hospitals or forcibly transferred to other medical facilities, often against medical advice. Human Rights Watch has been documenting these cases.

"There is absolutely no justification for arresting someone solely because the person might have been wounded in a protest-related incident," said Joe Stork, Middle East deputy director at Human Rights Watch. "It is against every tenet of humanity to deprive patients of critical and sometimes life-saving medical treatment, causing them grave suffering and perhaps irreparable harm."

On March 27 security forces forcibly removed a young patient from a medical facility he had checked into for serious injuries from a pellet gun. The patient was in great pain and doctors said he needed immediate surgery to remove more than 100 pellets that had penetrated his pelvic area and damaged internal organs.

The 22-year-old patient, who wished to remain anonymous, went to a local medical facility on March 26. The patient told Human Rights Watch that security forces had fired birdshot pellets at him from about one meter away on March 25, after they entered his village in response to anti-government protests. He said he began to experience severe stomach pains and vomiting several hours later. The pain soon became unbearable, so his brothers took him to a nearby medical facility for treatment.

Doctors gave him pain medication, treated some of his surface wounds, and took an x-ray of his pelvic area and buttocks. The x-ray, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, showed more than 100 pellets lodged inside the patient's body. Doctors told him and his family that they were unable to treat him there because some of the pellets had penetrated deeply and caused internal damage that required surgery.

On the morning of March 27 the patient checked into another medical facility, where doctors told him he required immediate surgery. They said they would need to request blood from Salmaniya Medical Complex, the country's only blood bank other than the Bahraini Defense Force Hospital. They warned the patient and his family that they could not request the blood without providing his personal information, including his name, national identity number, and the nature of his injuries.

Approximately an hour-and-a-half later, a Human Rights Watch staff member at the scene saw about 10 security force personnel, including two plainclothes agents and at least four riot police carrying weapons, enter the medical facility. One of the police officers told Human Rights Watch that they were from the Isa Town police station and that they had come to take the patient. They entered his room and forced him out of bed and to his feet. They held him up and began escorting him out, but the patient was in noticeable pain and told them that he could not walk. One of the riot police sarcastically responded, "You can run away from the police but you can't walk now?" One of the hospital staff called for a wheelchair.

Human Rights Watch asked the security agents where they were taking the patient, and told them that he needed surgery and wanted to stay in the medical facility to receive care. Hospital staff communicated this same information to the security forces. One of the plainclothes agents told Human Rights Watch that they had orders to take the patient to the Salmaniya but refused to provide more information.

They took him to the parking lot in a wheelchair and put him in an unmarked white sports utility vehicle. One plainclothes agent sat behind the wheel while the other sat with the patient in the back seat. They drove off with a four-jeep police escort. The next day Human Rights Watch learned through unofficial channels that authorities had transferred the patient to the Bahraini Defense Force Hospital, operated by the military and that he had undergone surgery. No official information is available about his condition.

Human Rights Watch witnessed a similar case on March 28, when doctors at another medical facility were forced to transfer a wounded 19-year-old, who also wished to remain anonymous, to security forces at Salmaniya because he was in need of critical care. This patient had also been shot with a pellet gun at close range on March 25. More than 100 pellets had entered the right side of his body and damaged his right kidney, colon, and right lung, causing several lacerations and ruptures.

The patient sought treatment at a local medical facility, but doctors there told him and his family that he needed urgent care, possibly surgery, and that he would need to be transferred either to Salmaniya or the Bahraini Defense Force Hospital. Authorities eventually allowed him to be transferred to Salmaniya in an ambulance without a police escort and guaranteed that he would receive proper treatment. The family remains very worried about his condition, and fears that authorities have transferred him to the sixth floor of Salmaniya where many other patients with protest-related injuries are being held.

Human Rights Watch had previously documented another similar case. Hani Abd al-Aziz Jumah, also shot at close range with birdshot pellets, had sought treatment at a medical facility where doctors struggled for nearly two hours to stabilize him after massive blood loss. Jumah's father had told Human Rights Watch that after his son arrived at the medical facility, an ambulance arrived from the Bahraini Defense Force Hospital, accompanied by two masked police officers. The officers announced they were transferring his son to that hospital. That was the last time Jumah's family saw him alive.

On March 29 the Interior Ministry's undersecretary for legal affairs announced that at least one patient had died and another was in critical condition because their families, fearing they would be detained and mistreated, delayed admitting them to hospitals, which "resulted in the deterioration in the condition of [one of the protesters] and the death of the other." Human Rights Watch has confirmed that the death the ministry was referring to was Jumah's. Human Rights Watch is not aware that authorities have sent any official communication to the families of the two wounded patients who were taken to Salmaniya and the Bahraini Defense Force Hospital on March 27 and 28.

"The Interior Ministry's statement is utterly dismissive of the difficult decisions that critically wounded patients and their families have had to make because of the security forces' inhumane behavior at Salmaniya and other medical facilities over the past week," Stork said.

Human Rights Watch has documented several cases in which patients with protest-related injuries were transferred to or sought treatment at Salmaniya and were then severely harassed or beaten. Numerous witnesses told Human Rights Watch that Salmaniya authorities have systematically segregated people with protest-related injuries from the rest of the patient population and moved most of those with wounds from birdshot or live ammunition to wards on the sixth floor. The sixth floor is effectively under lockdown, these witnesses said.

One former patient, who wished to remain anonymous, described a six-day ordeal at Salmaniya. He went there for treatment of birdshot wounds to his face, eye, and thumb after security forces attacked anti-government protesters at the Pearl Roundabout on March 16. He told Human Rights Watch that around 8:30 p.m. on March 17 he and his four roommates, who were in Ward 23, heard men shouting and slamming doors. A group of armed masked men, some in civilian clothes and the others in police uniforms, entered his room and demanded that he and his roommates identify themselves, give their addresses, and describe their injuries.

The armed men forced him and his roommates out of their beds, pushed them to the ground, and tied their hands behind their backs, then beat them and dragged them out of the room. The men took them to the hospital's reception area, where they were forced to lie on the ground face down with their hands tied for four hours along with dozens of other patients. The witness said the men kicked and swore at the patients while reviewing their medical records.

The witness said that the next day at around 4 or 5 p.m. the hospital transferred him and many of the others who had protest-related injuries to Ward 62, on the sixth floor. He said that from that evening through early the next morning, several groups of men, some in uniforms and others in civilian clothes, most of them masked, entered their room and repeatedly interrogated them on videotape, demanding to know about alleged relationships with opposition figures, Iran, and Hezbollah. The men used anti-Shia slurs against the patients. He said at one point one of the men told the others to beat them with their shoes because they were "najes," or unclean, and the men beat the patients on their heads, hands, and necks.

Over the next two days, the witness said, the patients, under lockdown in the sixth floor ward, were subjected to repeated beatings and interrogations. The witness told Human Rights Watch that starting on March 19, authorities directed doctors to assess some of the patients who had less serious injuries and ordered the hospital to discharge them. On March 21 he and several others were discharged. Other witnesses gave similar accounts to Human Rights Watch.

"Bahrain's government has turned the country's medical facilities, places that are meant to be safe and healing havens for the sick and injured, into holding pens in conditions that sometimes amount to torture," Stork said. "Authorities should immediately allow all patients with protest-related injuries unrestricted access to medical centers and hospitals."

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