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(Beirut) - The Bahraini government should immediately end its campaign of arrests of medical professionals and attacks on injured patients linked to recent anti-government protests, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Human Rights Watch called on authorities to investigate the violations against medical personnel and patients who exercised their rights to freedom of expression and assembly, hold those responsible to account, and allow unhindered access to medical treatment for all.    

The 54-page report, "Targets of Retribution: Attacks against Medics, Injured Protesters, and Health Facilities," documents serious government abuses, starting in mid-February 2011. These include attacks on health care providers; denial of medical access to protesters injured by security forces; the siege of hospitals and health centers; and the detention, ill-treatment, torture, and prosecution of medics and patients with protest-related injuries.

"The attacks on medics and wounded protesters have been part of an official policy of retribution against Bahrainis who supported pro-democracy protests," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Medical personnel who criticized the severe repression were singled out and jailed, among the more than 1,600 Bahrainis facing solitary confinement and ill-treatment in detention and unfair trials before a special military court."

The government violations were part of the violent response by authorities to largely peaceful pro-democracy and anti-government demonstrations that began in February and continued months after military and security forces began a massive crackdown in mid-March, which led to the armed occupation of Bahrain's main public hospital, the Salmaniya Medical Complex, on March 16.

Beginning on February 17, Human Rights Watch documented attacks by security forces on paramedics, doctors, and nurses who were providing urgent offsite medical care to wounded protesters and bystanders. Sadiq Alekry, a 44-year-old doctor, volunteered his services at the Pearl Roundabout on the evening of February 16, prior to the attack by security forces after midnight that resulted in the deaths of four protesters. Shortly after 3 a.m. Dr. Alekry said, riot police confronted him with sticks and guns, handcuffed him and began punching, kicking, and beating him with sticks.

Human Rights Watch also interviewed paramedics who described how military and security forces attacked their ambulances that morning and prevented them from picking up injured protesters, some of them critically wounded.

On March 15, when King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa declared a state of emergency, military and security forces attacked Shi'a villages and laid siege to at least one local health center, in Sitra.

On March 16, security forces surrounded and then occupied Salmaniya, the country's main public hospital, and took command of operations there. In the days that followed, security forces surrounded other medical facilities; prevented ambulances, patients, and medical staff from entering or leaving the hospital complex and other health facilities; and fired teargas, rubber bullets, and pellet guns at other health facilities.

The takeover of the hospital had an immediate negative impact on the provision of medical care in the country. Security forces interfered with medical decisions, and the presence of troops and security forces - many wearing masks and carrying arms - intimidated medical staff and patients alike, and made injured protesters afraid to seek necessary and timely medical attention.

Patients who had apparently sustained protest-related injuries were the most vulnerable. At least one ward on Salmaniya's sixth floor was turned into a makeshift detention facility, where security forces subjected patients to incommunicado detention, regular beatings, torture, and other forms of mistreatment, witnesses told Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch witnessed one incident on March 27 in which security forces forcibly removed a 22-year-old patient from a clinic he had checked into for serious injuries after security forces shot him with a pellet gun. The patient was obviously in great pain, and doctors told Human Rights Watch he needed immediate surgery to remove more than 100 pellets that had penetrated his pelvic area and damaged internal organs. They informed both the patient and his family that they would need to request blood for a transfusion from Salmaniya, and warned that they could not request the blood without divulging the patient's name, national identity number, and the nature of his injuries.

Approximately an hour-and-a-half later, Human Rights Watch observed about 10 security agents and riot police carrying weapons enter the clinic. One officer told Human Rights Watch that they had come from a local police station to take the patient with them. They forced him out of bed and to his feet. After trying to force him to walk, which the intense pain apparently prevented him from doing, they placed the wounded man in a wheelchair, then put him into an unmarked white sports utility vehicle and drove off with a four-jeep police escort. Human Rights Watch has been unable to obtain information about his subsequent well-being or whereabouts.

Since March 17, security forces have arrested more than 70 medical professionals, including several dozen doctors, and suspended or terminated more than 150 medical workers from their jobs. On June 6, a military judge convened the first session of a trial before a special military court against 48 of the medics. The military public prosecutor charged them with a host of crimes ranging from the serious - deadly assault, unauthorized possession of weapons, and ammunition, kidnapping - to the transparently political - incitement against the regime, dissemination of false news, and participation in unauthorized rallies. Like other Bahrainis tried before the special military court, the medical professionals had little to no access to lawyers prior to appearing in the courtroom, where several alleged that interrogators abused and mistreated them while they were in custody, and in some cases tortured them.

A doctor currently on trial told Human Rights Watch that interrogators repeatedly harassed and intimidated him and abused him physically and psychologically to coerce a confession. He told Human Rights Watch:

They shouted and screamed horrible insults at me about my mother, sisters, and wife. They started beating me before they even asked questions. They hit me with a big rubber cable - all over my back, buttocks, and thigh. I told them that I was ready to sign anything they wanted me to confess to. But they said, "You have to confess. We don't want lies.

The doctor said that he eventually confessed to exacerbating one patient's wounds, and his jailors then videotaped his confession in front of Bahrain TV cameras. The doctor said that the rehearsed taping session lasted approximately an hour, during which he read the statement his captors had essentially prepared for him.

Charges are pending against 48 of the medics, including doctors, nurses, and paramedics who treated injured protesters at Salmaniya and other health centers. On June 26, authorities announced that they would transfer all remaining court cases from the special military courts to civilian courts. Human Rights Watch has not been able to determine whether all cases in the special military courts, called national safety courts, have, in fact, been transferred to the civilian courts.

On April 21, Human Rights Watch wrote to the acting health minister, Dr. Fatima al-Balooshi, requesting information regarding official allegations against medical staff at Salmaniya and elsewhere. Human Rights Watch has not received a response.

"Officials justify the government's crackdown and the arrests of the medics by alleging that they violated the principle of medical neutrality and committed heinous crimes," Stork said. "Yet they have failed to provide any convincing evidence that their actions are anything but a campaign of retribution aimed at silencing government critics."

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