Over the last month, the Bahraini police have been using tear gas almost every night against protesters in residential areas. Specifically, thepolice have been targeting the Shi’a neighborhoods of Iker, Sitra, Nuwadrat,and Ma’ameer. While there are international guidelines for the proper use oftear gas, victims of such attacks describe the police using tear gas inappropriately – including firing into homes and other closed spaces. Such inappropriate use can have disastrous consequences. Since the start of the unrest in February 2011, at least 13 civilians have died from exposure to the tear gas, according to Bahraini civil society groups. They note that those who die from tear gas inhalation are usually people who are already vulnerable due to old age or disease, which make the gas’s effects more deadly.
One of these victims was a newborn baby who was in her own homewhen she was exposed to the gas. She died on December 11th when shewas just 6 days old. 14-year-old Yasseen Al Asfoor was the most recent victimof government misuse of tear gas against protestors; he suffered fromrespiratory problems and tear gas killed him on January 22nd.
A Bahraini doctor told Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) that she believesthat the government is using a new kind of tear gas that is more dangerous. Butwithout knowing the active ingredient, she has been struggling to treatpatients:
“I wasexposed to different types of gas when I went to (the village of) Sitra—a whitegas and a yellow one, but I also saw a third gas of a blue color from adistance. The gas felt like a poison,like a thousand knives and needles all over your body; what kind of tear gas issupposed to affect people this way? I have seen tear gas patients who are in a stateof convulsion that never ends, like a prolonged seizure… Before the tear gasthat was being used had ‘Pennsylvania, USA’ written on it, now the canistersare just blank with no labels. It is impossible to know what the contents are.”
Other Bahraini doctors also noted that the symptoms of the teargas were unusual. When they asked the Ministry of Health to run tests on thegas canisters, their requests were denied. Since the long-term effects ofprolonged and repeated exposure to tear gas has never been studied, physiciansin Bahrain have begun to worry about the impact that repeated exposure to thesechemicals may have on the general population.
Because the Bahraini government has demonstrated it cannot betrusted to use riot-control materials in a manner consistent with internationalguidelines, the U.S. should not authorize additional sales of tear gas andrelated materials to Bahrain. PHR urges the U.S. Administration to ensure thatit does not grant export licenses for tear gas and other materials that may beimproperly used against civilians. The Administration should also ensurecomprehensive end-use monitoring of all U.S. items sent to Bahrain that may beused during the ongoing attacks. Additionally, PHR welcomes the U.S.Administration’s decision to delay a pending $53 million arms sale to Bahrain,and encourages the Administration to continue to block such a sale absentsignificant human rights improvements in the country. There is a resolution inboth the House and Senate (H.J. Res. 80/S.J. Res. 28) that would block thissale absent enumerated improvements including ending attacks on civilians andholding any perpetrators of these attacks accountable, dropping politically-motivatedcriminal charges, and reinstating dismissed public employees.
The Government’s continued attacks on civilians demonstrate that therehas been little improvement in Bahrain since the release of the report of theBahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, chaired by international law expertCherif Bassiouni. The report detailed instances of torture, killings, arbitrarydetention, and excessive use of force. Included in the report were keyrecommendations, some of which involve establishing an impartial accountabilitymechanism to bring those responsible for human rights violations to justice,investigating alleged acts of torture using forensic experts, and droppingcharges against those wrongly convicted. The Government of Bahrain isconsidering methods of implementing the recommendations, and announcements ofits action plan are expected next month. The U.S. and the rest of theinternational community should approach those announcements with full knowledgeof the Government’s ongoing attacks against civilian populations. In themeantime, the international community must demand an end to attacks oncivilians, a thorough investigation of incidents since the release of theCommission of Inquiry report, and accountability for all those responsible.