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(New York) – Syrian security forces forcibly removed 18 wounded people from al-Barr hospital in the central city of Homs on September 7, 2011, including five from the operating room, Human Rights Watch said today, based on reports from witnesses, including doctors. Security forces also prevented medical personnel from reaching the wounded in a number of the city’s neighborhoods on that day.

Human Rights Watch interviewed two doctors from al-Barr hospital as well as two Red Crescent volunteers. Syrian authorities should allow injured protesters unimpeded access to medical treatment, Human Rights Watch said.

“Snatching wounded people from the operating room is inhumane and illegal, not to mention life-threatening,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Cutting people off from essential medical care causes grave suffering and perhaps irreparable harm.”

Syria’s security forces began a large-scale military operation in Homs in the early hours of September 7. Many residents said they heard heavy gunfire starting at 6:30 a.m. Local activists provided Human Rights Watch with a list of 23 people they said were killed that day by the security forces. Syria’s national news agency, SANA, reported that “terrorist groups” killed eight members of the security forces. Two local activists told Human Rights Watch that a group of soldiers defected on September 7 and joined some local residents in fighting security forces who had deployed heavily throughout the city.

A doctor who went to the Bab Dreib neighborhood after being told that doctors were urgently needed there described the situation:

I got to Bab Dreib around 8:30 a.m. There were already three dead and eight wounded. The situation was very dramatic. Five of the wounded had bullets in their stomachs and required hospitalization, but I could not get them to any hospital. Regime snipers were firing on any car leaving the neighborhood and armed vehicles were stationed around the neighborhood, shooting indiscriminately. I had to operate on them in an improvised field hospital in a mosque. The numbers of wounded kept increasing, and at one point there were 18 of them. I finally managed to send eight wounded to the al-Barr hospital, but getting them there was like a suicide mission. Young men put them in pickup trucks and just drove as fast as they could to avoid sniper fire and other random fire from the armored vehicles.

Another doctor, who was at the al-Barr hospital, told Human Rights Watch that security forces came and seized some wounded from the hospital:

 I got to the hospital around 1 p.m. There were around 50 security forces surrounding the hospital. They shot in the air and went to see the administrative director. They were looking for a specific person called Bilal. The administrator told them that there had been a Bilal who arrived at the hospital but he had died from his wounds and his family had already taken the body. The security forces then asked the administration for lists of wounded who had arrived that day and then I saw them go through the rooms of the hospitals taking anyone with a bullet wound, regardless of when they had arrived. In total they took 18 wounded from the hospital. Five of them were taken from the operating room, including two who were still unconscious.

 When we tried to help the wounded who needed urgent medical care, the security forces pushed us back, saying these were criminals and rapists. They were beating the wounded as they moved them out of the hospital. A woman, who must have been a mother or a sister of one of the wounded, begged them [the security forces] to give her relative his medication but they pushed her. The security forces then put the wounded in ambulances and drove them away. We could see them beating them inside the ambulance as they departed. I don’t know where they took them.

The forcible transfer of wounded patients created panic in the hospital and prompted many families to withdraw patients for fear that they will also be detained by the security forces, the doctor said.

Red Crescent volunteers in Homs told Human Rights Watch that security forces prevented them from reaching some of the wounded. One volunteer told Human Rights Watch that their center received a call around 7 a.m. informing them that four wounded people who needed to be hospitalized were in a dispensary in the Bab Tadmor neighborhood. The Red Crescent dispatched an ambulance, but 800 meters from the dispensary security officers stopped them at a checkpoint and ordered the ambulance crew to transport two security officers – one wounded and one dead. The ambulance crew complied, and the Red Crescent sent another ambulance to pick up the four wounded civilians. But officers at the same checkpoint point refused to let them through.

Another Red Crescent volunteer told Human Rights Watch that a police officer came to their operations center in the morning and told them that he had received orders to direct the operations for the day. The policeman stayed at the center until around 2 p.m., the volunteer said, and gave orders to the Red Crescent staff to help wounded security officers but not anyone involved in anti-government activities.

Blocking access to necessary medical treatment for people who have been wounded or injured – regardless of whether they are involved in any anti-government activity or supporters of the government – violates Syria’s obligation to respect and protect the right to life and the right to health and not to subject anyone to inhuman treatment, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented a troubling pattern of security forces preventing medical personnel and others from reaching wounded protesters, forcing many of the wounded to be treated in makeshift field hospitals set up in private homes or mosques.

The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Jakob Kellenberger, concluded a visit to Syria on September 5 by emphasizing that “Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers and medical personnel must be allowed to carry out their life-saving work in safety.”

“There can be no justification for denying medical care,” Whitson said. “President al-Assad and other Syrian officials bear ultimate responsibility for this flagrant violation of the right to health and potentially the right to life.”

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