Politicizing Medicine in Bahrain

One of the uprisings in the Middle East that has failed to garner a lot of attention is the situation in Bahrain. Even though Bahrainis took to the Lulu Roundabout much the same way Egyptians did in Tahrir Square just days after Mubarak’s ouster and before major protests broke out in Libya, the story itself has escaped Western news cycles. The excellent Al Jazeera English documentary on the uprising,Shouting in the Dark, correctly notes that at the outset of the Bahraini protests they “discovered what felt like a secret revolution… No lights, no TV crews, just a people, shouting in the dark.” Not much has changed since those early days of the protests in February. As the world focused on Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, few stories about the troubles in Bahrain made headlines. One of the rare exceptions is the treatment medical personnel have received from the Gulf kingdom for their role in treating protesters harmed by government security forces.

The targeting of medical personnel is not unique to Bahrain but is a serious breach of medical ethics and human rights. In the case of Bahrain, reports of intimidation of medical staff at the state-run Salmaniya Medical Complex emerged within hours of the early morning raid on Lulu. Numerous human rights groups such as Physicians for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch have documented intimidation of medical staff through violent attacks and threats, as well as the militarization of hospitals in order to control access to medical treatment.

As the government crackdown continued but protests failed to die down, the continued willingness of medical staff to fulfill their professional duty to provide care to all people regardless of politics increasingly landed those same medical personnel in political trouble themselves. Before long, many of the country’s top doctors and nurses were arrested under charges of trying to topple the monarchy. The trial of 48 medics in front of a military court started in June and ended in with at least 20 of themreceiving sentences ranging from 5 to 15 years in prison in September. Although the government agreed a week later to re-try the medics in a civilian court, new charges of weapons by the prosecution in contradiction to the official report by the Bahrain Independent Commission suggests that the new trial may not be any better in terms of fairness and impartiality.

Of course, the plight of the Bahrain medics is only one facet of troubles the kingdom has faced since protests broke out in February. However it is also indicative of why the crackdown in Bahrain has been more upsetting to some observers than other protests movements like Libya and Yemen. As Hani Mowafi for Amnesty International Magazine noted last month:

Although the scale of violence directed at protestors has certainly been greater in other countries in the region, the brutality of the crackdown in Bahrain came as a shock to many who had considered Bahrain to be a glittering hub of commerce along the lines of the Dubai model. The government attempted to justify its actions by portraying the protestors and their supporters as part of an Iran-backed Shi’a movement even though the protests focused on expanded political rights and included some Sunnis. Although we saw no evidence of sectarianism on the part of hospital staff, the government has targeted them and portrayed them as Shi’a-leaning. Amid this increasingly sectarian rhetoric, simply articulating what had happened became an act of tremendous courage. Indeed, while we were there, the doctors, nurses and emergency personnel we interviewed described being harassed, detained and released on various occasions following the initial crackdown, although they did not anticipate the full scale of the persecution to come.

Today, protests continue daily in Bahrain as does the government crackdown. Meanwhile, medics are waiting in prison cells for their trial to resume in January and learn what their fate will be for doing their job in a place where every action now has political consequences.

Originally published on Foreign Policy Blogs