All doctors have a duty to care for the sick and wounded, says Dr Pete Deveson, and we must make a stand for our Bahraini colleagues.
The basic principle of medical neutrality is fundamental to our lives as doctors – we have an ethical duty to care for the sick without regard to politics, race or religion. Last month, the government of Bahrain violated that principle when it sentenced a group of doctors to long prison terms for treating civilians wounded in anti-government protests.
Bahrain is the smallest nation in the Middle East. Oil-rich, relatively progressive and Westernised, it is a valued trading partner to Britain and hosts a strategic US naval base.
But despite Bahrain's modernity and prosperity, tension persists between the minority Sunni leadership and the mainly Shia population. On 14 February, inspired in part by the Arab Spring protests that saw the governments of Egypt and Tunisia toppled by mass public demonstration, thousands of protesters began to gather in the capital Manama demanding democratic reforms and rights for the Shia majority.
Government security services responded with lethal force, shooting dead seven protesters and injuring scores more, but the protests continued and intensified. The casualties were treated at Bahrain's largest public hospital, the Salmaniya Medical Centre (SMC).
From the start of the violence, doctors and healthcare workers attempting to treat the wounded were deliberately targeted by security forces. This intensified after 16 March, when the Bahraini government accepted the aid of 2,000 mainly Saudi troops and declared martial law. During the following crackdown, the SMC was occupied by government forces, and doctors were subjected to intimidation, beatings, abduction and torture.
Human rights organisations have detailed a systematic campaign against medical staff involved in treating wounded protesters and speaking out against human rights abuses. There are many allegations of beatings, electrocution, sexual assault and false confessions obtained under duress.
Condemnation not universal
On 29 September, after periods of imprisonment lasting up to five months, 20 doctors and healthcare workers were found guilty by a military court, a ruling described as a ‘travesty of justice' by Amnesty International. Sentences ranged from five to 15 years for crimes which included ‘refusal to perform duties and putting people's lives and health at risk' and ‘incitement to the hatred of the regime'.
UK medical organisations have been quick to condemn the sentences, with statements issued by the BMA, the RCGP and the Royal College of Surgeons.
However, condemnation has been far from universal. The website of the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland, which runs a medical school in Bahrain, announced news of a study on defibrillators, but made no mention of the convictions.
And the Government has been similarly circumspect, with foreign secretary William Hague describing the sentences merely as ‘disproportionate' and calling for a transfer to a civilian court. One can't help wonder what length of imprisonment he would consider proportionate for the ‘crime' of treating wounded protesters.
Thankfully, the global outcry has had some effect – last week Bahrain announced a civilian re-trial.
So what can we, as British doctors, do to help? We can write to our MPs, demanding the Government take a firmer stance in condemning human rights violations. We can sign the online petition for healthcare workers across the globe.
And we can join the campaign on Twitter – using the hashtag #freebahraindocs or tweet your support to oral surgeon Dr Nada Dhaif, (@NadaDhaif) who is facing 15 years in prison.
We must try and generate enough international condemnation to ensure the doctors' civilian trial will find in their favour. We cannot stay silent.
Dr Pete Deveson is a GP in Epsom, Surrey