Are Bahrain's Medical Workers Being Persecuted?

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Hasan Jamali / AP

A medical worker speaks with a colleague receiving treatment at Salmaniya Hospital in Manama, Bahrain after doctors said he was allegedly beaten by Bahraini police.

Abdulrasool al-Hajiri, who worked sterilizing medical equipment at Salmaniya Medical Center in this island Kingdom's capital, Manama, came home to the small Bahraini village of Buri on Saturday, dropped off his bag and went out to get a part of his mobile phone fixed. He was never seen alive again. His body was found the next morning, bloody and beaten, on a street in a town four kilometers away.

His family and opposition leaders claim it was the work of thugs hired by Bahrain's government, posing in civilian clothing at checkpoints around the capital and increasingly targeting the country's medical personnel, who have been treating injured protesters since the first day the Shi'ite uprising against Sunni King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa turned violent. The government has denied any specific targeting of medical personnel.

Medical workers are now using covert methods to do their jobs. Doctors in plainclothes and driving their own cars make house calls to the injured. "We have all the materials we need to treat them at home," says a doctor who spoke anonymously for fear of retribution. On Tuesday, TIME spoke to medical workers who were driving to Sitra, a hard-hit Shi'ite enclave near Manama, to collect injured patients. One, an employee of International Hospital of Bahrain, had received "a good kicking there" on Thursday by what he says were government forces. His wrists were wrapped in splints. "It's too dangerous now to be [on the roads] in the ambulances, so we take them to the hospital in our own cars."

"Unfortunately the targeting of health professionals is not a new phenomenon in Bahrain. Over the past month, we have been documenting the troubling pattern of attacks against doctors, nurses and paramedics dispatched to treat the wounded," says Faraz Sanei, Bahrain researcher with Human Rights Watch. "Now we are seeing security lockdowns and attacks against hospitals, tampering with medical records, beating of patients and arrests of doctors. This represents a serious escalation of violence against the medical community." Coupled with the continuing arrests of activists — the number of missing stands at more than 90 — the targeting of hospitals has dealt a blow to the opposition's momentum.

A doctor at the private Ibn Na Fees Hospital says the facility treated about 30 patients injured in last Tuesday's crackdown on Pearl Square. He says four doctors are currently missing, including one from Na Fees, who had been hauled away by police while performing surgery on an injured protester. The doctor adds, "one patient was beaten as he left — security forces told us to let them know when he'd be discharged, and when we did they waited for him and beat him."

With major facilities like Salmaniya guarded by soldiers, local health centers, unequipped to deal with trauma, have been innundated with Shi'ites shot with rubber bullets, live ammunition and tear gas. Nurses who spoke to TIME inside Salmaniya last week trembled as they described how they watched from the windows as government forces beat staff members trying to exit the hospital. On Thursday, plainclothes security forces in balaklavas stormed the International Hospital of Bahrain, the country's oldest commercial medical facility, as patients recovered inside. An activist told TIME that a patient in critical condition was loaded into a vehicle and taken off life support machines. The patient remains missing.

The opposition says a Kuwaiti medical delegation coming to the aid of hundreds of injured civilians was turned away at the Saudi-Bahraini border Sunday. A statement on the Kuwait state news agency Kuna on Sunday said that their convoy was sent to Bahrain "to aid the Gulf country and its brotherly people." Dr. Adnan Fadeq, an organizer of the Kuwaiti team, told the Associated Press that the group of 53 staffers and 21 ambulances returned to Kuwait Monday after it was not allowed to cross into Bahrain. He said no reason was given for the repeal. Bahraini officials have not commented publicly on the incident.

Since welcoming help from the Jazeera Coalition, made up of forces from the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Kuwait, the government here has maintained that it is not targeting medical personnel and has continually expressed frustration with what they say is the opposition's unwillingness to continue the peaceful dialogue that had briefly begun in February before violence between Shi'ite protesters and their Sunni rulers intensified. On March 13, Riyadh dispatched 100 tanks to patrol the streets of Manama.