Doctors Without Borders Targeted In Bahrain

Aug 6, 2011
Originally published on August 9, 2011 4:04 pm

In Bahrain, the local office of the international medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres has been raided, its local driver has been arrested, and the operation has been shut down.

The government has largely suppressed a mass protest movement, and the security forces in Bahrain have carried out a crackdown on those who continue to demonstrate against the country's rulers.

MSF has been aiding injured protesters who were too afraid to go to the hospital, for fear they'd be arrested.

The trouble for the group — which is also known by its English name, Doctors Without Borders — started about a week ago. Activists say a young man who had been protesting in his village was hit in the head at close range by police firing a tear-gas canister.

The protester went to the MSF office in the capital, Manama. Owing to the severity of his injuries, an ambulance was called, and the patient was taken to the hospital.

On July 28, the next day, 14 police vehicles pulled up to the MSF office. Authorities raided the building and reportedly took away furniture, medicine and patient files — and arrested the group's local driver, Saeed Mahdi.

Now, the rented villa that used to house the MSF office is locked up and empty.

The government says Mahdi lied about how the protester had been injured. A press release distributed by a Washington-based lobbying firm that's been contracted by the Bahraini government says Mahdi was charged with providing false information and providing medical services without a license.

The larger issue is the way that the medical community in Bahrain has become a battleground. During the crackdown, dozens of doctors and medics working in Bahraini hospitals were arrested and accused of making the wounds of protesters worse — and in some cases, even killing protesters — to make the government look bad.

Now, activists say the main government-run hospital has become a prison of sorts, with injured protesters being detained on site and held incommunicado.

MSF says it was providing a service for people too afraid to seek help in such a hospital.

The government says it was unaware MSF was operating in Bahrain. MSF spokesman Jerome Oberreit disputes that claim.

"We've systematically been transparent with the Bahraini authorities about our presence in Bahrain. On numerous occasions, we have submitted proposals to actually be able to run formal clinics, to be able to follow patients to hospital, and while they've received these proposals, they've never actually been answered," Oberreit says.

Mansoor al-Jamri used to edit Bahrain's only independent newspaper. He was forced from his job during the crackdown, after being accused of printing false information.

Al-Jamri says despite the government's recent efforts to remake its image — hiring public relations firms, launching a national dialogue, and inviting legal experts to investigate wrongdoing — cases such as this show that officials are not sincere about reconciliation.

"We would like to see a brave government — brave in the sense that it will face up to the mistakes that had been committed in Bahrain, and to reconcile the situation directly with the people," al-Jamri said. "Any maneuvering will only waste time, waste energy, and also possibly lose Bahrain the opportunity to recover."

MSF has confirmed that Mahdi, the driver, recently was released from detention. The condition of the protester who was injured in the head and taken to the hospital remains unknown.

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MICHELE NORRIS: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris. In Bahrain, the government has shut down the offices of the international medical aid group, Doctors Without Borders. It's known there by the acronym of its French name, MSF. The group had been aiding protesters who were injured in clashes with security forces. And NPR's Kelly McEvers was in Bahrain when the government moved against MSF. She reports the trouble began about two weeks ago.

KELLY MCEVERS: Here's Mahdi's lawyer, Reem Khalaf, a few days after he was arrested.

REEM KHALAF: All that I knew from the newspapers is that he said, yes, I did that. Of course, after maybe after beating him or maybe he didn't even say it. Maybe they just said that he said it.

MCEVERS: MSF says it was providing a service for people too afraid to seek help in such a hospital. The government says it was unaware MSF was operating in Bahrain. MSF spokesman Jerome Oberreit disputes that claim.

JEROME OBERREIT: We've systematically been transparent with the Bahraini authorities about our presence in Bahrain. On numerous occasions, have submitted proposals to run actually formal clinics, to be able to follow patients to hospital. And while they've received these proposals, they've never actually been answered to.

MCEVERS: Mansoor al-Jamri used to edit Bahrain's only independent newspaper. He was forced from his job during the crackdown, after being accused of printing false information. Jamri says despite the government's recent efforts to remake its image - hiring PR firms, launching a national dialogue, and inviting legal experts to investigate wrongdoing - it's cases like this that show officials are not serious about reconciliation.

MANSOOR AL: We would like to see a brave government brave in the sense that it will face up to the mistakes that had been committed in Bahrain, and to reconcile the situation directly with the people. Any maneuvering will only waste time, waste energy, and also possibly lose Bahrain the opportunity to recover.

MCEVERS: Kelly McEvers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.