At about 11pm on 2 May, Bahrain's criminal investigations directorate summoned Dr Nedhal al-Khalifa, a 42-year-old dermatologist. Her father dropped her off at their headquarters at the ministry of interior at about midnight. Her family, including her four young children, didn't hear anything from her until she was released two days later. Her husband, Dr Sadiq Abdulla, a vascular surgeon, also 42, was detained in the same fashion on 14 April. His whereabouts and condition remains unknown, as does the reason for his detention.
These two doctors are among hundreds of Bahrainis detained without official explanation since mid-March, including scores of other doctors, nurses and medics. In almost all cases, the authorities have provided no information about their whereabouts or wellbeing. During this same period, at least four people have died in detention from abuse or medical neglect and the authorities are starting to televise "confessions" that might have been coerced. Except for a handful who saw a lawyer for the first time during their special military court trial, none of those detained have had access to lawyers or family members.
The arrests of so many medical professionals are part of a government policy of retribution against Bahrainis who supported pro-democracy protests. Some medics criticised assaults by security personnel on protesters at the Pearl roundabout in mid-February and again in mid-March that left more than a dozen dead, as well as several security officers, and many wounded. In the unfolding official narrative of events, the largely peaceful protests that brought hundreds of thousands of Bahrainis to the streets to demand democratic reforms were in fact part of a "coup attempt", in the words of prime minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa. "No violators will get away with it," he added. "All co-conspirators and abettors must be held accountable."
Medical personnel have been targets of repression from the outset. Security forces attacked a medical tent at the roundabout on the night of 17 February, assaulting and arresting doctors. Medics subsequently alleged that security officials ordered ambulances not to respond to calls from wounded protesters. When authorities violently dispersed the roundabout protesters on 16 March, security forces, armed and in many cases masked, had taken over the main hospital. There, and in other medical facilities, people whose wounds suggested they had been protesters were beaten, and many were arrested. Portions of the hospital became detention sites.
Authorities said that 47 doctors and medics will soon face prosecution, apparently in a special military court, for alleged acts that include claims of bringing weapons into the hospital, stealing blood so that protesters could feign serious injury, applying medications to simulate symptoms of nerve gas, refusing to treat injured or ill people who were not Shia and generally "serving the agenda of the protesters". They said 150 others are under investigation and suspended from their positions. Authorities said they will "reveal details" at a news conference on Sunday.
Human Rights Watch has written to Bahraini authorities requesting information to verify the criminal allegations - some serious and some far-fetched - but so far has received no response. Our researchers had regular and relatively unrestricted access to the main hospital between 17 February and 16 March. We saw protesters' tents in the parking lot outside the emergency wing, staffed by people who provided information to journalists and others reflecting protester views. Between 10 March and 16 March, rallies took place there featuring speeches by leading opposition figures. But at no point did we see or otherwise learn about any activities corresponding to the more serious government allegations.
In a public letter dated 26 April, seven leading national and international associations of medical professionals, including the American Medical Association and the American College of Emergency Physicians, called on Bahrain's leaders to cease all attacks on health facilities, medical professionals and patients, and to release all medical professionals (as well as others) "detained and disappeared for non-violent exercise of their fundamental rights and their ethical duties".