Bahrain hospital on frontline in protest crackdown

AP News
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Posted: Mar 20, 2011 11:48 AM
Bahrain hospital on frontline in protest crackdown

It was just after midnight when armed men in military uniforms came to the hospital bed of Ali Mansour Abdel-Karim Nasser, who was injured by pellets fired during a clash with riot police. He said what came next was worse: he was bound, beaten and mocked in the hallway of Bahrain's main state-run hospital.

"I did not talk. I did not argue with them. I just cried," he told The Associated Press in his mostly Shiite village, Al Kharjiya, about 20 miles (15 kilometers) from the capital, Manama.

The Salmaniya medical complex _ now under military rule _ appears to be one of the last main targets of Bahrain's Sunni rulers trying to crush a pro-democracy uprising by the country's Shiite majority. The hospital treated hundreds of injured demonstrators and its morgue held some of the dead since the revolt began last month in the strategically important Gulf country, the home of U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

For many Shiites, the sprawling complex _ sitting between fancy shopping malls and Western-style cafes in central Manama _ is as much a symbol of the rebellion as the city's Pearl Square, which protesters occupied for a month. Authorities regained control of the square last week and destroyed its landmark 300-foot (90-meter) pearl monument to wipe out what Bahrain's foreign minister called "bad memories."

The medical complex is now surrounded by military checkpoints, its outside walls patrolled by commando-style troops in army green coveralls and black ski masks. Soldiers and policemen are driving ambulances and interrogating and detaining doctors and patients, according to Bahrain's doctors' union and local media reports.

"They came with guns and they said, `What's wrong with you, why are you here?' I told them I was shot and I showed them my legs," said Nasser, whose legs and abdomen were peppered with wounds from pellets shot during a protest in a village on Sitra island on Tuesday.

"They cursed at me, ripped out the IV, pushed me off the bed and started kicking me," Nasser told the AP on Saturday in Al Kharjiya, one of six Shiite villages on Sitra, the center of Bahrain's oil industry southwest of Manama.

Nasser said the six soldiers _ whose faces were covered with black ski masks _ pulled him to the hallway and tied his hands behind the back. He said at least 12 other patients were abused in a similar way.

When the beatings stopped, Nasser said the soldiers untied his hands and said: "Shiite dogs, go to your rooms. And let Iran help you now" _ a reference to Shiite powerhouse Iran, which has denounced the crackdown by Bahraini forces aided by more than 1,500 troops from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations.

The Gulf leaders have rallied behind Bahrain's Sunni dynasty to try to snuff out further revolts in the region, saying gains by Bahrain's Shiites could give Iran a pathway for greater influence in the Gulf.

Nasser said he was beaten several more times and begged to be released on Friday.

"I was not safe there," Nasser said. "The hospital is a dangerous place because the doctors are not in charge, the military is. The doctors are scared, apologizing to us, saying sorry, but there is not much we can do for you now."

Neither Nasser's story nor the conditions inside the hospital could be independently confirmed. Authorities have blocked journalists from entering the medical complex.

Bahrain's foreign minister, Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, told reporters Friday he was not aware of the hospital siege. He said Salmaniya hospital became a "source of misinformation" and was now "liberated."

Authorities previously denied abuse of patients and medical staff at Salmaniya after the military takeover of the hospital complex on Wednesday.

State-run media reported on Friday that "services at Salmaniya Medical Center were back in operation," but new measures were in place. They include ambulances driven by security personnel and under police escort, a report in the state-run English-language Daily Tribune said Saturday.

All patients admitted to the hospital "during the recent clashes have been moved to other wards" and ambulance drivers and paramedics "deemed to be neutral were put back on duty," the report said.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner called on Bahraini authorities on Friday to "cease violence, especially on medical personnel and facilities."

The Salmaniya hospital complex has been a political hotspot since the first clashes. The mostly Shiite personnel are seen by the Sunni authorities as protest sympathizers, although the staff claim they must treat all who need care.

There have been moments of open anger among the doctors and nurses _ most of whom have never seen war-style injuries before. As overwhelmed teams treated the injured from clashes, many broke out in calls to topple the monarchy during the most violent days of the revolt.

Officials in the hospital said they took more than 400 injured in clashes across the kingdom last week after martial law-style rule was announced Tuesday.

Many protesters injured in the recent clashes have avoided Salmaniya hospital _ the only facility with extensive trauma care _ out of fears they could be arrested on the spot.

"There is no way I will go to Salmaniya," said Abdul Samad Youssef, 32, a protester who has pellet wounds over his back and his head. Some are seriously inflamed.

"If I enter that hospital as a wounded man, there is no guarantee I will get out," Youssef said. "It's better to live with these wounds than to come out of the hospital from the morgue's door."

With his eye badly injured from pellets fired Tuesday by security forces, Eid Ali Abbas, 35, also is too afraid to seek treatment at the only place in Bahrain with the necessary medical expertise.

"I feel I should go because my eye hurts and I can not see well, but I am really scared," said Abbas, his left eye red and swollen.

"Salmaniya is a military base now. They will shoot me or beat me if I go there, so I will gamble on my eye," Abbas said.

Bahrain's Doctors' Society said at least two physicians have been detained by security forces at Salmaniya, including Dr. Ali al-Iqri, who was been talking to journalists about the uprising. He was taken from an operating theater on Wednesday, according to nurses and his relatives.

"They arrested my brother because he passed the truth about the injured protesters to the international media," his sister Fatima told the AP, adding that the family has had no contact with al-Iqri since he was taken by the security forces.

The second doctor in custody was Mahmood Asghar, a pediatric surgeon in Salmaniya. His brother, Jassim Asghar, told the AP he was arrested on Thursday and the family has not heard from him since. "We don't know why they took him since he was not involved in any political activity," Jassim Asghar said.

A report in the Sunday's Daily Tribune said Mahmoud Asghar is being questioned by the police over his role in the unrest and has been held by the police for "giving impromptu speeches while patients were being rushed to the Accident and Emergency Department during the clashes."

Ibrahim Youssef, a veterinarian who helped nurses with injured at the Sitra Health Center, said authorities see the doctors who helped people as working against the government.

"They think of the hospital the same way as they did of Pearl Square," said Youssef. "They won't bring down the hospital, but they will take all doctors away, replace them with others and pretend all this has never happened."