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Sydney Morning Herald

Hospitals Show Ugly Truth about Bahrain, as US Looks the Other Way

Tiny Bahrain, a vital American ally in the Gulf region, is reimaging itself as a classic Cold War police state in the aftermath of the democracy uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa.

The island's Sunni hereditary monarchy, which presents itself to the world as a ''constitutional monarchy'', was ahead of the reform curve that erupted in Tunisia in January - three months earlier it set about repressing political parties and arresting majority Shiite activists by the hundreds.

But in the aftermath of declaring a state of emergency, still being enforced by troops from neighbouring Saudi Arabia, it is the kingdom's hospitals through which the world can see the uglier side of a regime which, compared with those in Libya and Syria, has earned only the mildest of rebukes from the Obama administration.

Despite denials by island authorities, reputable non-government organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Medecins Sans Frontieres have documented systematic intimidation of doctors and other medical staff who might treat injured demonstrators and a takeover of health facilities by the security forces in an attempt to round up demonstrators.

Since the Saudi-backed crackdown in March, mass demonstrations have petered out in Bahrain, which hosts the US Navy's Fifth Fleet. But mass arrests continue, government workers suspected of involvement in the protests are being hounded from their jobs and the authorities have embarked on a media witch-hunt.

New emergency regulations authorise security forces to invade houses without a warrant and to dissolve political parties, unions and any organisations they deem to be a danger to the state. They can censor television, newspapers and the internet; and they may seal off whole sections of the country.

As many as 30 protesters were killed, hundreds are being held in unknown detention and 35 are listed as ''missing''. Those who have been released complain of torture by electrical shock, beatings and sexual abuse.

Amid reports of some hospitals being empty of patients, MSF accused the regime of using health facilities as ''bait'', with police sweeps looking for injuries consistent with involvement in protests - and then hauling away the patients.

A report by MSF concluded that the regime crackdown had ''paralysed'' hospitals and turned them into ''places to be feared''.

Human Rights Watch staff saw a patient being informed that his details would have to be included in a request for blood as part of his treatment - and 90 minutes later, the arrival at the hospital of a 10-strong police team who hauled the patient away.

Hospital staff told al-Jazeera that security forces were patrolling hospitals, beating up doctors and nurses as they went. Others said that ambulance drivers and other paramedic staff were being tailed by the authorities.

Like a caricature of the East European security forces, mouthpieces for the kingdom accuse the media of deliberately falsifying reports and watchdog organisations like Human Rights Watch and MSF of complicity in a conspiracy of lies against Bahrain.

At a media conference early this week, the acting Health Minister, Fatima al-Balooshi, argued that scores of doctors and staff at the Salmaniya and other hospitals had joined a ''conspiracy against Bahrain from the outside'' - code for Iran. She confirmed that 30 doctors and nurses had been arrested and that another 150 were under investigation.

Claiming that patients were neglected and that weapons caches had been uncovered in hospitals, she insisted: "They violated their duties against international standards for health services - now, thank God, they have been stopped."

One of those missing is the activist father of 27-year-old Zainab al-Khawaja, who has gone on a hunger strike to support demands for the release of her father and other members of her family who were seized in a night-time raid on their home.

In an open letter to the US President, she writes: "If anything happens to my father, my husband, my uncle, my brother-in-law, or to me, I hold you just as responsible as the al-Khalifa regime - your support for this monarchy makes your government a partner in crime."

Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, a consultant lawyer to Human Rights Watch, wrote this week: "[Barack Obama] calls Syria's response to its protesters 'abhorrent', but he loses his voice when it comes to Bahrain. He is apparently conceding to Saudi Arabia, whose rulers seem determined to stamp out any uncontrollable democracy - one perhaps under Iranian influence - in the neighbourhood."

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Paul McGeough

Paul McGeough is an Irish Australian journalist and senior foreign correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald, specializing in Middle Eastern affairs.


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