By Sabeeh Baig

 

Beginning in the winter of 2010, protests calling for greater civil freedoms have swept across the Middle East.  On February 14, 2011, Bahrain, ruled by the Al-Khalifa family for over two hundred years, became the latest Middle Eastern nation to experience such anti-government protests.  While the underpinnings of the conflict in Bahrain have been contested by its stakeholders—religious scholars, media reporters, politicians and the Bahraini public—in the face of government crackdowns and opposition, its consequences have been disastrous for protesters and those associated with them.

 

One of the most interesting such consequences has involved the issue of medical neutrality. Some 47 Bahraini medical staff, 23 doctors and 24 nurses, were arrested in March,  and have been awaiting trial in a military court accused of anti-state activities by the Al-Khalifa regime.  Specifically, they were accused of taking control of the main state hospital in Manama, the Salmaniya Medical Complex, and using it as a base to coordinate opposition against the state.  The doctors and nurses quickly denied these charges.

 

Lawyers and relatives of the defendants have stated that they are being targeted simply for providing medical care to injured protesters.

 

The principle of medical neutrality, as articulated in the Geneva Conventions, offers comprehensive protection from attack or interference to medical professionals, patients and facilities in conflict scenarios.  In addition, they guarantee undeterred access to healthcare.  Finally, medical neutrality stipulates humane treatment of all civilians and nondiscriminatory medical treatment of the wounded and sick.  These Conventions, upheld by international human rights law were posited as a response to the increasingly asymmetric nature of armed conflicts in the post-World War II era. In these conflicts, civilian death tolls have drastically increased necessitating revamped protections for civilians that treated healthcare as a basic human right.  As such, medical neutrality constitutes one of the most important elements of international medical ethics.

 

Since the opening of their trial at the beginning of June, the Al-Khalifa regime has been accused of  having ulterior motives in bringing these medical professionals to trial at all.  Some of the doctors on trial have said that their confessions were extracted through coercion and torture, and some of the lawyers involved in the trial have echoed the same concerns about their clients’ confessions.  The humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières has claimed that the Al-Khalifa regime is using the prosecution of these doctors and nurses to signal to the Bahraini public that it will not stop at anything to ensure its political security.  Bahraini officials have been quick to deny these allegations.

 

It’s important to note that in addition to requiring governmental authorities to respect free practice of medicine, the principle of medical neutrality confers the same responsibility to medical practitioners.  Medical professionals cannot differentiate between patients in any fashion; they must treat all patients without consideration for their backgrounds.  They must not use their position as medical staff to further their personal political motives.  As a final example, medical professionals must not use medical facilities as weapons storage compounds or bases for paramilitary operations.

 

Due to the secrecy surrounding this trial, the details about it are largely unknown.  However, this trial certainly carries the potential to cast doubt on Bahrain’s adherence to the principle of medical neutrality.  If the medical personnel are being tried because the Bahraini government wants to use them as scapegoats to show the Bahraini public that it will not tolerate any dissent, then this trial will send the wrong signal to medical personnel throughout the world: they may not be immune from prosecution or incarceration in their country if they provide medical care in conflict situations.  If this turns out to be the case, it would be imperative for the international community to advocate on behalf of the doctors and nurses being tried and defend medical neutrality as a governing principle of medical practice. If the charges of anti-state activities against the doctors and nurses do stand, then this trial may cause ordinary people to question medical professionals and their motives for giving care.  In this situation, even if medical personnel do sufficiently uphold medical neutrality, their patients may not trust them enough to allow them to provide care. Regardless of how it unfolds, the trial will have immediate consequences for the vitality and free practice of medicine in Bahrain and the global community.

 


Sabeeh Baig
is a senior at Johns Hopkins University majoring in Anthropology and Public Health and an intern at the Berman Institute. His research interests include Islamic bioethics and general health policy.

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