PHR concerned about possible increase in miscarriages due to prolonged tear gas exposure

Cambridge, Mass. - 04/19/2012

Upon returning from an investigation in Bahrain, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) today criticized the Government’s indiscriminate and systematic use of tear gas against civilian protesters and densely populated Shia neighborhoods. PHR calls for the immediate suspension of the use of this toxic gas because of its suspected severe health impact on the population. “Despite promises of reform since our investigation to the Kingdom last year, the Government’s excessive use of force has only increased. Security forces now strategically use tear gas –its innocuous-sounding name belies its deadliness – as a potentially lethal weapon against men, women, children, and the elderly alike,” said Richard Sollom, Deputy Director of PHR. “More troubling is the Government’s pattern of attack. Not only do security forces target street protesters, they go out of their way to shoot or throw tear gas into civilian homes. We may be beginning to see serious longer-term health consequences among people routinely exposed to high doses of this toxic gas. Based on our findings, PHR is concerned about possible increased rates of miscarriage and birth defects in Bahrain.”

According to recent reports, the Government of Bahrain has arrested about 60 leading democracy activists in an attempt to contain anti-government protests ahead of this weekend's Formula One Grand Prix race.

“When all eyes turn to Bahrain this weekend to watch the Formula One race, we cannot forget the protesters who are being constantly attacked by their own government,” said Dr. Holly Atkinson, PHR’s Immediate Past President and co-investigator. “Last week, I saw young children regularly exposed to tear gas and spoke with women who had suffered miscarriages, which might be due to prolonged tear gas exposure. Even worse, many of these vulnerable people are afraid to go to a hospital for care.”

PHR investigators found continued militarization of Bahrain’s healthcare system, including systematic interrogation of suspected protesters arriving at Salmaniya Hospital. In April 2011, PHR released the report Do No Harm, [pdf] which detailed Bahrain’s attacks on physicians, medical staff, and patients.

“By militarizing the country’s medical system, the Government of Bahrain has succeeded in intimidating and subduing a vulnerable population—the sick and wounded. Many patients are afraid to seek care and instead are utilizing private hospitals or an ad hoc community network of care provided by medics and civilians,” said Dr. Atkinson.

Patients and medical staff alike are protected under the principles of medical neutrality, and PHR calls on the Government of Bahrain to respect these principles and cease intimidation of the medical community and those who seek care.

PHR also remains extremely concerned about the more than 400 current political detainees in Bahrain, including detained human rights defender Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who is entering a life-threatening stage in his hunger strike. PHR renews its urgent call for his immediate and unconditional release. During their recent investigation, PHR investigators also received alarming reports of continued abuse and torture in “black site” detention facilities operated by Government security forces.

PHR renews calls for the Government of Bahrain to demonstrate a genuine commitment to reform by meeting the following key benchmarks:

* Dismiss all charges against the 52 medical workers and reinstate their positions in public medical facilities * Void the convictions of four medical workers currently imprisoned * Thoroughly investigate and prosecute alleged perpetrators of torture, killings, and other serious human rights abuses * Immediately suspend the use of toxic tear gas because of its suspected severe health impact on the population * Cease excessive use of force against Shia neighborhoods and civilian protesters in violation of the rights of Bahraini citizens to assemble and peacefully protest * Undertake a genuine national dialogue with all stakeholders to promote democracy in Bahrain

“Over the past year, the Bahraini government has repeatedly promised that reforms are on the horizon, but we only found a deterioration of the human rights situation there,” said Sollom. “The time has come to turn words into deeds. The Government of Bahrain needs to promise less and deliver more to its people.”

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