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SAMJ: South African Medical Journal

versão On-line ISSN 2078-5135
versão impressa ISSN 0256-9574

SAMJ, S. Afr. med. j. vol.102 no.3 Pretoria Mar. 2012




Health professionals should be speaking out about the victimisation of doctors in Bahrain



To the Editor: Doctors in Bahrain who treated people wounded during and after demonstrations have been arrested, tried by a military court and given sentences of up to 15 years' imprisonment. A report by the Physicians for Human Rights1 recounts the result of an on-the-spot inquiry as follows: 'Our investigators spoke to eyewitnesses of abducted physicians, some of whom were ripped from their homes in the middle of the night by masked security forces ... [the report] documents other violations of medical neutrality, including the beating, abuse and threatening of Shi'a physicians at Salmaniya Hospital; government security forces stealing ambulances and posing as medics; the militarisation of hospitals and clinics, thus obstructing medical care; and rampant fear that prevents patients from seeking urgent medical treatment.' Most of the doctors are women, and there have been reports of torture, including electrocution and threats of rape while in detention.2

These accounts are shocking and remind South Africans of a sorry history where human rights abuses at the hands of security forces were allowed to go unchecked and where the health sector was drawn willingly and unwillingly into violations of the rights of patients and professionals.3 Not surprisingly, there has been sustained outcry from the medical profession in other parts of the world.4-7 Following the exposé by Physicians for Human Rights, and pressure by the World Health Organization and the World Medical Association, it was announced by a civilian court that some charges against 20 health professionals would be dropped and that a new trial would begin to assess the allegations.8

We ask why there has been so little outcry in South Africa, a country whose history should make it acutely aware of the consequences of the political abuse of doctors. The South African Medical Association released a Medigram reporting the resolution of the WMA,9 but has not taken any proactive steps to champion the cause of the persecuted doctors. Why has SAMA not been more active? Why have members of the medical profession not seen it as their ethical obligation to take action in solidarity with colleagues, if only to press our government, a member of the UN Security Council, to take diplomatic action? One of the consistent findings of research into complicity of health professionals in human rights abuses3,10,11 has been the effect of isolation and a failure to stand up for colleagues under threat, a finding echoed in the conclusions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.3,11

It appears that since the late 1970s we have not learnt sufficiently the importance of health professionals speaking truth to power. One of us (SS) wrote to the President of SAMA, urging SAMA to take action, to which there was not even an acknowledgement. South Africans deserve better.


Stuart Saunders

Emeritus Professor
University of Cape Town

Leslie London

School of Public Health and Family Medicine
University of Cape Town


1. Physicians for Human Rights. Do no harm: A call for Bahrain to end systematic attacks on doctors and patients. Physicians for Human Rights, Cambridge. April 2011. (accessed 12 January 2012).        [ Links ]

2. Sky News. Bahrain docs face jail despite torture claims. 22 November 2011. (accessed 17 January 2012).        [ Links ]

3. Baldwin-Ragaven L, de Gruchy J, London L. An Ambulance of the Wrong Colour. Health Professionals, Human Rights and Ethics in South Africa. Cape Town: UCT Press, 1999.        [ Links ]

4. Gray B, Ockelford P. Bahrain health workers in danger: call to action. N Z Med J 2011;124:109-110.        [ Links ]

5. Devi S. Medical community urged to defend Bahraini doctors. Lancet 2011;378:1287.        [ Links ]

6. Jackson G. Stop: the medical and human rights scandal in Bahrain. Int J Clin Pract 2011;65:823.        [ Links ]

7. Friedrich MJ. Human rights report details violence against health care workers in Bahrain. JAMA 2011;306:475-476.        [ Links ]

8. Nathanson V, Chrispin E. Bahraini health workers to be retried before a civilian court. BMJ 2011;343:d6547.        [ Links ]

9. South African Medical Association. SAMA insists on a fair trial for Bahrain physicians. Press release 17 October 2012. (accessed 12 January 2012).        [ Links ]

10. British Medical Association. The Medical Profession and Human Rights. Handbook for a Changing Agenda. London: Zed Press, 2001.        [ Links ]

11. Rubenstein LS, London L, Baldwin-Ragaven L, and the Dual Loyalty Working Group. Dual Loyalty and Human Rights in Health Professional Practice. Proposed Guidelines and Institutional Mechanisms. A project of the International Dual Loyalty Working Group. Physicians for Human Rights and University of Cape Town, Boston, 2002.        [ Links ]

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