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Richard Sollom Testifies on Bahrain to Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission

Richard Sollom, PHR Deputy Director, testified on May 13, 2011, before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission at a hearing on Bahrain. his remarks follow.

"Thankyou, Mr. Chairman and distinguished Members of the Tom Lantos Human RightsCommission.

Mr.Chairman, inthe interest of time, I’d like to summarize my remarks and ask that my fullstatement be made part of the record.  Inaddition, I’d like to submit for the record our full report as well as a listof Bahraini doctors, whose whereabouts remain unknown in the wake of thegovernment crackdown against medical personnel.

Inprevious statements, we heard that thousands of protesters took to the streets inBahrain calling for government reform earlier this year. The government’sresponse was brutal and systematic: shoot civilian protesters, detain andtorture them, and erase all evidence. On the frontline, treating hundreds ofthese wounded civilians, doctors had firsthand knowledge of these abuses.

Theassault on healthcare workers and their patients violates the principle of medical neutrality as well asinternational law.

As part of a Physicians for Human Rightsinvestigation in Bahrain in April of this year, my colleague, Dr. Nizam Peerwani and I conductedin-depth interviews with 47 medical workers, patients, and other eyewitnessesto human rights violations. We corroborated these testimonies by conductingphysical examinations of beaten and tortured protesters. In addition, weexamined their medical records and X-rays, and also investigated 4 suspiciousdeaths in custody.

Our investigation produced strongevidence that the Government of Bahrain has systematically targeted medicalpersonnel as a result of their efforts to provide ethical and unbiased care forwounded protestors. These systematic attacks include abductions of physicians,some of whom were taken from their homes in the middle of the night, handcuffedand blindfolded, by masked security forces. For each doctor, nurse, or medicthat the government disappears, many more civilians’ lives are impacted aspatients go untreated.

In conflict situations around theworld, there is a unique and highly qualified community of professionals whobring comfort and compassion to those in need. Medical workers in all countriesare bound by their professional ethics to provide care without consideration ofreligion, ethnicity, or other status. Because doctors are trained to applytheir skills without discrimination, they glean first-hand knowledge of typesof injury and numbers of deaths during a conflict. And importantly, they can discernthe cause of injury and death. That expertise and knowledge make doctorsimportant witnesses to government abuses and, in the case of Bahrain, make themtargets themselves.

During our investigation, we gathered evidenceabout these and other egregious abuses against patients and detainees includingtorture, beating, humiliation, and threats of rape and killing. Ourdocumentation and forensic evidence enable us to conclude the following:

  1. Government authoritiesused excessive force, including high-velocity weapons and shotguns – oftenfired at a close range aiming at the face and head of protesters.
  2. Securityforces used unidentified chemical agents, which cause disorientation, aphasia,and convulsions.
  3. Perhaps most alarming during my investigation was listening to severalpatients describe similar accounts of being tortured by security forces on the 6th floor of Salmaniya Hospital – supposedly a refuge for the sickand injured.

Regarding issues of medical neutrality, Igathered corroborated evidence that Bahraini authorities:

  1. physicallyattacked 6 physicians who were on-call the night of April 3 atSalmaniya Hospital
  2. usedambulances for military purposes and stole uniforms to pose as medicsapparently to get closer to the protesters; and
  3. militarizedhospitals and clinics, which continue to obstruct patients from seeking urgentmedical care.

The assault on healthcare workersand their patients constitutes extreme violations of the principle of medical neutrality and are gravebreaches of international law.

Inconclusion, I propose the following actions on the part of the US government:

  1. TheAdministration’s “mild” approach toward Bahrain as characterized in a May 9Washington Post editorial has failed to curb government abuses, and doctors arestill being disappeared. Senior members of the Administration, including thePresident, should instead speak out publicly – and in no uncertain terms –against ongoing human rights abuses by government authorities. TheAdministration should also demand the immediate and unconditional release ofall detained medical personnel.
  2. Members of Congress and the Administration should visit SalmaniyaHospital and meet with representatives of the medical community in Bahrain.
  3. The United States should spearhead an international effort tocreate a new mandate for a Special Rapporteur on Violations of MedicalNeutrality through the United Nations Human Rights Council.
  4. PHR would like to thank Representative McDermott for hisleadership on issues of medical neutrality and for introducing a bill dedicatedto protecting and promoting medical neutrality through US foreign policy. Weencourage all Members to support passage of this bill, which would:

a.  Suspendnon-humanitarian foreign assistance to countries violating medical neutrality
b.  Support aU.N. mandate for a Special Rapporteur on violations of medical neutrality; and
c.  Add thereporting of violations of medical neutrality to the annual State Departmenthuman rights country reports.

I am confident that through these efforts, theUS government can become an international leader in the protection andpromotion of medical neutrality.  I thankyou again for the opportunity to appear before you today, and I am ready toanswer any questions you may have."