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Main public hospital drawn into Bahrain strife

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MANAMA, Bahrain >> A handful of soldiers, their faces covered by black masks to hide their identities, guard the front gate of Salmaniya Medical Complex. Inside, clinics are virtually empty of patients, many of whom, doctors say, have been hauled away for detention after participating in protests.

Doctors and nurses have been arrested, too, and the police trail ambulance drivers, health care workers said.

To the government, Salmaniya, Bahrain’s largest public hospital, and local clinics are nests of radical Shiite conspirators trying to destabilize the country. But to many doctors at Salmaniya, the hospital has been converted into an apparatus of state terrorism, and sick people have nowhere to go for care.

The scene at Salmaniya is a grim sign that health care has been drawn into Bahrain’s civil conflict, which burst into violence last month when the army and security forces cleared not only Pearl Square but also the grounds of the medical complex, which had become a hub for opposition activities.

At least a dozen doctors and nurses have been arrested and held prisoner during the last month, and more paramedics and ambulance drivers are missing. Ambulances have been blocked from aiding wounded patients, according to health care workers and human rights advocates.

Meanwhile, the security forces, manning roadblocks around the country, inspect drivers and their passengers for birdshot wounds — the most common injury to demonstrators confronted by security forces — and those with the telltale black bruises are seized and detained.

“You have an assault on the health care system and the people who practice in it,” said Dan Williams, a senior researcher for the New York-based group Human Rights Watch, who is now investigating in Bahrain. “Hospitals are supposed to be used for health care and not as arbitrary detention centers.”

Bahraini doctors and international human rights workers say the purpose of the crackdown appears to be to instill terror in doctors, so they will not care for wounded demonstrators, and fear in dissidents, who might think twice about confronting the police if they know that being injured might mark them for arrest.

Government officials say wounded demonstrators are handed to the police only after they have been taken care of, and reports of violations are being investigated.

At a news conference Monday, the acting health minister, Fatima al-Balooshi, accused scores of doctors and health care workers at Salmaniya and elsewhere of joining “a conspiracy against Bahrain from the outside” — usually a code for Iran — to destabilize the government.

She said 30 doctors and nurses had been suspended or otherwise kept from practicing medicine in recent weeks, and 150 more were being investigated.

Al-Balooshi said doctors had deprived some people of medical care for sectarian reasons, had worsened peoples’ wounds to be able to get stories of repression in the news media and had received overtime pay for attending demonstrations. She also said that sophisticated weaponry had been found hidden in the hospital, and that health care workers had set up a tent in Pearl Square during demonstrations last month for propaganda purposes.

“They violated their duties, against international standards for health services,” al-Balooshi said of the doctors. “Now, thank God, they have been stopped.”

Most doctors in Bahrain are Shiite, as is a majority of the population, in a country ruled by a Sunni monarchy that now governs with the support of more than 1,000 Saudi Arabian troops. The opposition is predominately, though not entirely, Shiite.

The crackdown is centered at Salmaniya, the country’s main referral hospital, ambulance depot, center for emergency care and blood bank. But doctors at neighborhood clinics say patients are afraid to go to them as well, and they do not have enough blood, antibiotics and emergency equipment to care for patients who would otherwise go to Salmaniya for care.

The problems at Salmaniya began two months ago when demonstrators began using the parking lot in front of the emergency ward to protest, and some doctors joined in the protests while they were supposedly on duty.

When the security forces cleared Pearl Square on March 16, they also blockaded Salmaniya. According to one doctor who was in the hospital, the entire staff was terrified as it watched a nurse dragged away and beaten by five officers after she apparently tried to escape. She said the police hauled away a paramedic and his driver, who are still missing.

The next day, she said, the security forces went to the second floor, handcuffed about 10 patients wounded from the demonstrations, and took them to the sixth floor for questioning under torture. Others were taken upstairs later, doctors said.

In interviews that were given on condition their names not be published, four doctors and nurses and several family members of arrested health care workers said the medical community has been terrorized.

As they tell it, a pattern has emerged in which health workers are called to the Salmaniya administration offices, and then taken to a criminal investigation center. The arrested doctors and nurses are allowed to make brief calls home to say they are fine. Family members then come to bring them clothes, but rarely if ever see them.

Many of the health care workers arrested were involved in protests, but others apparently were not. One physician, Nahad al-Shirawi, was apparently arrested after she appeared in a published photograph weeping in the hospital over a victim who died in a protest broken up by the security forces.

Yasser Ali Abdulla, a paramedic, and Mohsen Ashour, his driver, were dispatched on March 15 to the village of Sitra to care for wounded demonstrators who were attacked by police. They never came home.

Abdulla’s father spotted their ambulance several days later parked in a local police station parking lot. Though the father was not allowed to see his son, Abdulla was allowed later that day to call his wife for a few seconds to tell her he was alive, according to a family member who spoke on condition she not be identified by name or exact relationship.

He called a week later, but has not been heard from since. “They say his crime was he stole the ambulance, but he was on duty and in uniform,” the relative said.

Richard Sollom, deputy director of Physicians for Human Rights, said the security forces have gone so far as to steal medical records such as X-rays of people injured in demonstrations, apparently to hide human rights violations.

“They are quite sophisticated,” said Sollom, who just completed a fact-finding trip here. “Doctors are the one group of people who have evidence.”

A few days ago, three doctors at Salmaniya were slapped and taunted by security guards in the middle of the night simply because they did not have a picture of the prime minister hanging on the wall of their dormitory room.

“We were standing and shaking and we didn’t know where this would end,” recalled one of the doctors, who spoke on condition he not be identified for fear that he would be arrested. “Going to work every day is a calculated risk of being beaten, harassed or even taken away.”

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