Middle East

Bahrain's 'underground medics' secretly treat injured protesters

Police use tear gas to disburse protesters outside the capital Manama
Image caption Police are meant to use tear gas to disburse protesters and keep them at a distance

Fearful of arrest when seeking treatment in Bahrain's hospitals, injured protesters are turning for help to medics who have been forced underground, a Bahraini doctor has told the BBC.

Sixteen-year-old Mohammed al-Jaziri was seriously injured when he was struck in the face with a tear gas canister on February 18, in the Bahraini village of Sitra.

He was with a band of young Shia confronting riot police in a community that has been a hotspot of protest since an uprising against Bahrain's Sunni Muslim rulers began a year ago.

In a video seen by the BBC, Mohammed is shown, together with other youths, hurling stones toward a line of police.

At a distance of less than 50m, one of the officers appears to aim and fire a tear-gas launcher towards Mohammed, who collapses clutching his head.

John Timoney, Miami's ex-police chief, was hired by the Bahraini government to improve policing methods. When asked about the rules of engagement for tear gas, he told the BBC that police in America are trained not to fire head high and to either arc the canister into the air or roll it on the ground.

He said that the purpose for using tear gas in Bahrain is to keep the protesters at a distance and added "the police do not purposefully hit people with it".

Mr Timoney said that a tear gas canister could be a lethal weapon but it was not intended to be used that way.

Hospital interrogation

But what is said to have happened next to Mohammed illustrates why so many Bahraini Shia protesters are afraid to seek help in the country's hospitals.

Image caption John Yates (left) and John Timoney are overseeing reforms to the Bahraini police

His elder brother Hussein says Mohammed was taken to a local clinic by police. From there an ambulance took him to the Salmaniya Medical Complex, the main hospital in the capital Manama.

Hussein says that within ten minutes of arriving police attempted to interrogate his brother who had been hit in the eye and was bleeding heavily.

Throughout that night, Hussein says, the police repeatedly attempted to interrogate Mohammed, even though he was only semi-conscious.

"I told them: 'Please just leave us alone. Can't you see he is in no condition to answer your questions?'"

The next day, Hussein alleges, his brother was subjected to a three hour interrogation by a public prosecutor who refused to give the family his name.

"We need to get him out of Salmaniya. He urgently needs an operation on his eye but we don't trust them," Hussein said.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionBill Law reports for Newsnight on fresh clashes between police and protesters

Hussein is hoping his brother can get treatment in a private hospital but believes Mohammed will lose the sight in one eye.

John Yates, the former assistant commissioner of Scotland Yard in the UK, was also brought in by the government. When told of the alleged incident at Salmaniya, he said that in the UK interrogation of suspects in hospital was highly unlikely to happen. "The health (of the suspect) comes first."

Fearful protesters

The fear of being interrogated and arrested means that many injured protesters are not being taken to Salmaniya. And last month Bahrain's National Health Regulatory Authority issued a warning to all private hospitals and clinics.

It said: "Providers must report cases with injuries due to suspected criminal activities irrespective of their causes to concerned authorities." The letter added that failure to do so "constituted collaboration and is criminalised by law".

Reporting suspicious injuries is a practice in keeping with most western hospitals but veteran human rights campaigner Zainab al-Khawaja says that simply going out to protest peacefully can constitute a crime.

"Calling for freedom and democracy in the streets makes me a criminal in Bahrain," she says.

And if someone is injured by police action during protests, they are likely to face interrogation and the possibility of charges should they seek hospital treatment.

Fall in hospital numbers

Salmaniya has seen a dramatic fall in emergency room numbers. One source close to the hospital told the BBC that since the uprising began last February the numbers of those seeking treatment in accident and emergency has been halved.

Yet as protests continue violence between police and protesters is escalating. John Timoney said that police are being subjected to nightly Molotov cocktail attacks "that are off the chart".

For their part, activists claim that security forces continue to use teargas and rubber bullets with excessive force. And they say the police routinely beat protesters in their vehicles or in unofficial "torture centres" before dumping them injured back onto the streets. The police deny both claims.

Image caption Police are increasingly coming under attack from Molotov cocktails

But what no-one is denying is that many of those who are injured are not going to hospital.

A medic who asked to remain anonymous because he fears arrest said that he is secretly treating approximately 50 patients a week in Shia villages.

"Some of these people are very seriously hurt," he told the BBC. He said he treated one man who had been hit in the head with a teargas canister fired as police were entering his home

"I had my fingers inside his skull. He was bleeding heavily. I didn't have enough equipment. I suture stitched the wound. I did what I could."

The medic says that many of the injuries are in the upper torso and head. He claims that it is a deliberate tactic of the police now to go for head and upper body shots.

Asked to describe the kind of injuries he is treating he told the BBC: "You see a lot of bruising caused by beatings. Those are not so serious but I am also treating birdshot wounds to the abdomen and chest, teargas and rubber bullet hits to the head and neck and skull fractures with internal bleeding."

He says that where the injuries are life threatening he tells families to take the patient to Salmaniya.

"But people refuse so I try and arrange for a private hospital to take them. I say: 'Look, he may be arrested but at least he will be alive.'"

No-one from Salmaniya Medical Complex or the Ministry of Interior was available for comment.