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Physicians for Human Rights makes recommendations to the U.S. government at hearing on Bahrain

Yesterday, the Tom Lantos Commission for Human Rights heard testimony from representatives from nonprofit organizations and activists concerned about the lack of progress on human rights reforms in Bahrain.  Richard Sollom, Deputy Director for Physicians For Human Rights, presented testimony to a standing-room-only audience of legislators, journalists, activists, and concerned citizens.

Physicians for Human Rights Identifies Human Rights Concerns in Bahrain

In his statement to the Congressional Commission (read the full statement here), Mr. Sollom identified multiple areas of concern that have arisen over the past 18 months, including

  • The targeting of doctors, including 48 medical specialists who were detained, tortured, and forced to sign false confessions.
  • The militarization of Bahrain’s health system, including the ongoing presence of government security forces inside the nation’s largest hospital, the systematic interrogation of incoming patients and visitors, and the abuse and detention of Bahrainis suspected of participating in protests.
  • The excessive use of force against Bahrainis, including the unlawfully excessive and indiscriminate use of tear gas.

Important Report Release Coincides with Testimony

On the same day as Sollom’s testimony, Physicians for Human Rights issued the report, Weaponizing Tear Gas: Bahrain’s Unprecedented Use of Toxic Chemical Agents Against Civilians.  Sollom and co-author Holly Atkinson, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and former president of PHR, interviewed more than 100 Bahraini citizens during their investigation. Their 60-page report documents the nonprofit organization’s findings, based on physical examinations and medical records.  The report found numerous injuries, miscarriages, and fatalities associated with the Bahrain government’s excessive use of tear gas.

Recommendations from Physicians for Human Rights

In his testimony, Mr. Sollom recommended that Congress support the Medical Neutrality Protection Act, H.R. 2643, legislation introduced by Representative Jim McDermott (D, Washington).

The principle of medical neutrality ensures

  • The protection of medical personnel, patients, facilities, and transport from attack or interference;
  • Unhindered access to medical care and treatment;
  • The humane treatment of all civilians; and
  • Non-discriminatory treatment of the injured and sick.

The proposed legislation would

  • Suspend non-humanitarian assistance to countries violating medical neutrality;
  • Prevent officials from receiving visas who ordered or engaged in any violation of medical neutrality;
  • Add reporting of medical neutrality violations to the annual State Department country reports;.
  • Encourage U.S. missions in foreign nations to investigate alleged violations of medical neutrality.

Mr. Sollom also recommended that the United States

  • Withhold all military assistance to Bahrain until the Government of Bahrain makes measurable progress on human rights and demilitarizes its public health care system.
  • Deny export licenses for tear gas to Bahrain until the Government adheres to U.N. guidelines for its use, investigates the weaponization of tear gas, and holds law enforcement officials accountable for the excessive use of tear gas.
  • Work with the U.N. to seek the appointment of a U.N. Special Rapporteur on Medical Neutrality.
  • Ensure that policy decisions related to Bahrain support human rights protections.
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Bahrain is putting the cart before the horse with its latest attempts at so-called social reconciliation

The government of Bahrain announced last week that they would provide the equivalent of $500,000 US to non-governmental organizations that develop ” social reconciliation” programs.  The Orwellian twist is that this latest effort joins previous initiatives aimed at Bahrainis — primarily at children and young people in school and camp settings — to attempt to influence them to “forgive and forget” past abuses and transgressions by the regime.  This, while Bahraini forces continue to tear gas and shoot birdshot pellets at its citizens, and people who have been tortured, innocent of wrongdoing, still languish in Bahraini prisons, including Abdulhadi Alkhawaja.

In addition to the the deaths and injuries related to police brutality, dozens of women in Bahrain have miscarried their unborn children because of excessive exposure to tear gas.

Perhaps this money might be better spent on reforming the regime’s security and police forces.  Oh, right, they tried that.  Efforts in that direction seem to be fruitless.  The regime’s forces are as vicious as ever.

Royalists in Bahrain label any person who supports the opposition, democracy, and human rights as a “terrorist” and anyone who attempts to bring light to these injustices as an instigator of violence.  The lion’s share of violence, however, is coming from the regime, as numerous, reputable journalists, human rights organizations, and witnesses have reported again and again.

Evidently “social reconciliation” in Bahrain does not involve protecting the human right freedom of speech.  At time of this announcement, the government banned all demonstrations and marches and imprisoned one of the nation’s foremost civil rights leaders, Nabeel Rajab, for speaking his mind on Twitter.

While Bahrain continues to imprison political prisoners…arrest, beat, and torture citizens for speaking their mind…tear-gassing villages…blinding and maiming children and adults with birdshot….any discussion of “reconciliation” is premature.

After all, we are not talking about a parking ticket here.  There have been hundreds of documented cases of human rights abuses, including torture and loss of life.  People have disappeared who are still not accounted for.  People have lost their jobs because of their beliefs.  Mosques, hundreds of years old, have been destroyed.

What kind of reconciliation was Bahrain seeking when they shot a tear gas canister into Zainab Alkhawaja’s leg at close range on June 27?  What kind of reconciliation were they seeking when they shot four-year-old Ahmed Alneham with buckshot, maiming him for life, while his father begged them to stop?

Actions speak louder than words.  Peace is impossible without freedom.  Reforms first — then reconciliation.

 

Bahrain: one step forward, two steps back (video)

Zainab Al Khawaja remains “samood” after being targeted and hit by Bahraini security forces today (photo by #BCCLive correspondent)

There was good and bad news out of Bahrain today.

On the good news end of things, the human rights activist Nabeel Rajab was released from prison today after being detained on June 6 for comments he made on social media.  However, the bad news is he still faces charges on several counts associated with what Americans would consider expressions of free speech.

The government of Bahrain announced it would present compensation in the U.S. equivalent of $2.6 million dollars to the families of 17 victims killed by police, and charged three members of its police force with murder in connection with deaths during the crackdowns.  However, the bad news is that more than 50 people have been killed, and the violence against Bahrain residents continues.  The latest fatality is an 18-month old boy who lost his life after exposure to lethal quantities of tear gas that was fired around his home.

Human rights activist Zainab Al Khawaja, also known as @AngryArabiya on Twitter and the daughter of Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, was targeted and shot with a projectile by Bahraini police today and sustained an injury to her leg that required her hospitalization.

The youngest victims of tear gas in Bahrain – the babies and the unborn

Photo credit: Hasan Jamali, Associated Press. Bahraini anti-government protesters demonstrate Thursday, June 21, in Diraz, Bahrain. Riot police used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse the demonstrations against alleged deaths of infants and miscarriages blamed on excessive tear gas. Arabic on the sign reads: “For what crime have they been killed?”

Excessive exposure to tear gas has been demonstrated to cause miscarriage in pregnancy, and infants are particularly susceptible to the side effects of tear gas, which can be fatal in instances.  Unfortunately, in Bahrain, many families have lost their young and unborn babies through exposure to tear gas.

On Thursday, June 21, a demonstration was held in Bahrain to bring attention to this tragic development.  However, the demonstration was not met with sympathy.  The protesters were fired on with tear gas and stun grenades.  During the clash, even two press photographers, one from Associated Press, were temporarily detained by riot police.

For the past two years, tear gas has been used against Bahrainis in a number of ways — much of it indiscriminate and excessive.  It has been used against protesters, fired into neighborhoods, and even propelled directly into homes.  The BICI report stated that Bahrain’s police used a disproportionate amount of CS gas when dispersing protests, and that in a number of situations, police fired CS gas into private homes in an “unnecessary and indiscriminate” manner.

Physicians for Human Rights has also chronicled the use — or should we say, the misuse, of tear gas — and resulting fatalities.  Many deaths have resulted from inhalation, or through injuries sustained by being struck by the projectiles.

Although the Kingdom has pledged to pursue the recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission, very little in the way of true reform has taken place, and the use of excessive tear gas continues unabated.

We’ve been provided with a list of names of infants and unborn children by ea_as on Twitter, and list them here.

We mourn their passing, and we send wishes of sympathy to their families.

Fadak Mushaima from Al Dihe

Hawra Mohamed from Sanabis

Fatima Al Samie from jidhafs

Ali Badah (he was named like his martyr brother Ali Badah, from Sitra)

Hussein Sabeel from Sitra

Sajida Jawad from Al blad Al qadeem

Yahya Youssef from RAS Rumman

Fatima Abbas from Adarei

Batool Mohammed from Sanad

Hadil Mohamed from Sarr

Yasser Mehdi from Karrana

Reda Hani from Almaamer

Sayed Hussein Sayed Ahmed from Sanabis

If you have updates or corrections to this list, please let us know.

The Bahrain Coordinating Committee deplores the use of tear gas by government forces against the residents of Bahrain, and joins international human rights organizations in calling for its immediate cessation.

How to survive tear gas attacks by the police in Bahrain

In Bahrain, public safety is not a given.  As has been reported by journalists worldwide, peaceful demonstrators, journalists, and even bystanders have been beaten, arrested, tear-gassed, and shot at with bird shot pellets, rubber bullets, tear gas canisters, and live ammo.

The Bahrain Coordinating Committee joins every major human rights organization in the world in condemning the abhorrent practice of the excessive and indiscriminate use of tear gas against Bahrainis.  The extent and nature of these well-documented attacks is almost beyond belief.  As this seasoned reporter says in this interview with Dan Rather, “I’ve never seen so much tear gas.”

Even if you are not involved in a protest, you may be injured as a bystander.  Riot police routinely, sometimes daily, enter neighborhoods and shoot tear gas indiscriminately in the streets, and sometimes directly into homes (see video below).

Fatalities associated with tear gas in Bahrain

The elderly, young children, babies, pregnant women, people with disabilities, and people with breathing disorders have been especially vulnerable to the effects of exposure to tear gas.  Physicians for Human Rights reported in March 2012 that at least 34 people, ranging from infants to 73, had died in Bahrain as a result of tear gas exposure over the period of a year.  One 14-year-old boy, for example, died  this year, after his lungs collapsed when tear gas canisters were shot directly into the home of his family.  In April 2012, the same organization issued a press release warning of severe health implications, including miscarriages, if it continues.

Preparedness tips for possible tear gas exposure

If you live in Bahrain, or are planning to visit Bahrain, it’s important to plan for your personal safety, and the safety of your friends and family. Tear gas exposure is a real possibility, even a likelihood, so learn what you can do to minimize its impact.

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, and I have not experienced these kinds of situations.  Please obtain the advice of medical professionals and experts.

Know what to expect.  Tear gas is used because it causes pain, discomfort, and confusion.  When you are exposed to tear gas, your eyes tear up and your vision becomes blurry, and your nose runs. You may choke, wheeze, and find it difficult to breathe.  Some people feel sick and vomit.  If your skin is exposed, it may burn or hurt.  You may get a rash or burn from where the tear gas comes into contact with your skin.  People tend to become very angry and upset when exposed to tear gas, so it may be hard to think rationally and take the steps you need to protect yourself and others (which is why advance planning is so important).  The effects may be even worse on children and the elderly.  Try to avoid exposure to tear gas, if you can.  I know that is not always possible.

Serious side effects associated with prolonged exposure to tear gas (an hour or more) or excessive amounts of tear gas (such as are routinely used in Bahrain) include blindness or death (because of damage and burns to the throat and lungs).

Prepare an escape plan for tear gas attacks in your neighborhood.  If tear gas is shot into your neighborhood, or worse, into your home, you will need to evacuate to a location as far away from the tear gas as you soon as you can.   If it is shot into your home, do not hesitate: leave immediately.  Discuss your escape plan with your family and trusted friends.  Select two places to meet, if you are separated from each other while escaping from tear gas: one immediately outside of your home, and one in another location, such as the home of a friend or a public park.

Practice your escape plan.  As horrible as this is, you need to practice the drill so your family automatically knows what to do if you must evacuate because of tear gas. Practice at least two escape routes in case the first option is blocked (e.g., the front door).

Pack a small go-bag, such as a backpack or duffel bag, and keep it in the bedroom or wherever it can most easily be reached, so you can pick it up, collect your family members, and be out of the house in seconds.  Everyone should know where it is.  You will not have time to pack anything in a tear gas attack, because it is essential that you minimize your and your family’s exposure to the tear gas, and get to a location where you can decontaminate yourselves.  Do not make this bag so heavy, you cannot carry it (or run with it).  Distribute the contents among family members in separate bags, if needed. The contents will vary according to your family’s needs, but include in this bag

  • Some cash
  • Cell phone
  • Flash light and batteries
  • Identification papers, licenses, insurance cards
  • A small first aid kit; may want to include eye drops
  • A bottle of water for each family member
  • Prescription medicines and asthma inhalers
  • One current photo of each family member
  • A small hygiene kit, including soap (to wash chemicals off skin)
  • Bandanas or towels to put over your mouth while escaping
  • A plastic trash bag you can seal (for contaminated clothing)
  • A spray bottle of water and baking soda solution (for skin)
  • Indispensable personal need items (such as diapers, baby food, glasses, etc.)
  • Comfort items for children (small toy, hard candies, stroller, etc.)
  • Special needs items for disabled or elderly family members

If you are exposed to tear gas, and cannot get immediate professional medical attention, apply first aid measures.

  • Get away from the tear gas. 
  • Don’t touch or rub your eyes with your hands; it may make it worse.
  • Flush eyes with water or saline solution until they stop burning.
  • Wash exposed skin and hair with soap and water.
  • Remove clothing and put in plastic bag, seal, and wash with soap and water later, separately from other laundry.  It’s better to cut off the clothes than pull them over your head in some cases.  If you’re helping someone, or yourself, use vinyl or latex gloves, if they are available, to protect your skin.
  • If you have breathing problems, try to get medical attention, and oxygen.  If not available, asthma inhalers may help.

If you are planning to attend a peaceful demonstration, take steps to protect yourself from harm.  Be aware that riot police may likely attack any demonstration — or any gathering they perceive as a demonstration, which means any kind of group at all, including funeral processions — with tear gas.  Theefore, it’s important to plan ahead for tear gas exposure.  Be sure everyone knows what to do if the police use tear gas against your group.

While marching, be alert and vigilant and think about escape routes you see, as you go.  If you hear a shot from a tear gas rifle, look UP and see where the canister is falling and get out of the way.  They explode, and people have died in Bahrain after being hit with canisters in the head and body.  Never touch or pick up a tear gas canister on the ground.  It’s hot and it may explode.  Get away from the tear gas, when you can, and get upwind of the gas.

If the police arrive, confront you, or start shooting, it’s time to make your escape.  Do not confront the police.  I would work under the assumption that they will hurt you if they catch you, based on their past record of behavior.  Some advise you to move with the crowd, until you can find a side street, doorway, or other escape route.  If you can, walk, don’t run.  This will make you less conspicuous and may make it easier for you to get away.  Some people advised that in a protest, you move along on the sides of marchers, rather than in the middle.  The middle can sometimes bring you some protection against being shot, but it’s also easier to get trampled there.

Children and teens do go to marches. So, if you are young, or small in size, you may want to stick to the sides, so you can escape more quickly.  Or, if you are under 18, and this is just my opinion, as a mother 🙂 consider staying home and helping the cause in other ways.

What you wear, what you do, and what you bring along may help bring you relief if you come into contact with tear gas.  Gas masks are the most effective protection, but not everyone has a gas mask.

If you are planning to attend a demonstration, 

  • Wear long sleeved clothing and pants, to protect your skin from chemical exposure.
  • Wear sturdy shoes you can easily run in, if needed (not sandals or flip flops).
  • Do not wear solid navy blue pants and shirts, as you may be mistaken for riot police in a panic.
  • Do not wear oil-based sunscreens or moisturizers on your skin where there may be tear gas.  The chemicals in the gas will stick to your skin.
  • Try to wear earth-toned colors or colors that blend in. You do not want to be a moving target for a shot gun.
  • Wear cotton, instead of polyester, if you can. Synthetics react more to the chemicals.
  • Don’t wear anything that can’t be washed.  You can wear jewelry that can be removed and washed, but think twice about a watch.  If you come into contact with tear gas, everything on your body will have to be removed and washed with soap and water.

Before you go to a demonstration, bring along the following items, which may help protect you (and your skin, lungs, and eyes), in case the situation deteriorates:

  • A bottle of water to hydrate you and flush your eyes and skin, if needed
  • A plastic, seal-able bag containing wet bandannas or small towels (you may need more than one).  The moist bandana goes over your mouth and will help protect your lips and lungs from tear gas for a few minutes.  The bandana will soak up chemicals so you will need to change it, if you can’t get away fast enough.  Some people advise soaking the material in water, or in a solution of water and lemon juice, or water and baking soda, to neutralize the burning agents in tear gas.  Put this over your mouth while you are getting away from the tear gas, and change as needed.
  • If you have swim goggles, bring those. They may protect your eyes.  Even sunglasses are better than nothing.
  • Don’t wear contac lenses. Wear glasses, instead.
  • A plastic spray bottle containing a solution of water and baking soda, or water and antacid ( Tums, Pepto Bismol, or Milk of Magnesia).  This spray may help neutralize the chemical agents that can come into contact with the eyes, nose, and skin during a tear gas attack.  Some also say cut lemons (squeeze juice on skin).  Ask your doctor.
  • A pair of surgical/first aid gloves (to protect your hands while removing contaminated clothing from yourself or others).
  • A few pieces of hard, sugar candy.  The adrenaline associated with a crisis situation can cause a drop in blood sugar, and some people even pass out.  The candy can help.

Let’s hear from you!

How did this blog post make you feel about what is happening in Bahrain?  Have you, or has someone you know, experienced exposure to tear gas in Bahrain?  If so, what have was tried to minimize its effects?

Please leave a comment, and thanks for reading, and sharing this post.

Resources

Tear Gas Related Deaths in Bahrain, Physicians for Human Rights

Tear Gas Exposure: How to Deal with Tear Gas

Tear Gas / Riot Control Agents, New York Public Health Emergency Preparedness

How to Survive a Riot, Wiki How

Journalist Security Guide, Committee to Protect Journalists

Dan Rather Reports: Excessive Tear Gas Used in Bahrain (video)

New video shot by CBS photojournalist Mark Laganga (on assignment for Dan Rather Reports) documents allegations of excessive force and tear gas being used indiscriminately by Bahraini police and security forces.

Compelling video footage and commentary by Mark Laganga and Dan Rather about the real and current situation in Bahrain.

More than 30 fatalities (including an infant) are associated with the use of tear gas. As stated in the video, people who cannot leave their homes (e.g., the elderly and young children) are especially vulnerable to the government’s daily tear gas attacks.

YouTube description:

Behind the scenes at Dan Rather Reports as we explore the “Arab Spring” uprising in Bahrain. The ongoing uprising pits the United States’ democratic ideals against the cold, hard reality of oil-driven politics. Dan Rather Reports airs Tuesdays at 8pm ET on HDNet.