Op-ed | Grand Rapids Doctor: The U.S. Cannot Stay Silent while Atrocities are Committed in Bahrain

Qasim Omran of Grand Rapids is a doctor with expertise in pulmonary medicine, critical care and sleep medicine. A native of Bahrain, Omran recently was part of an ADHRB delegation that met with congress members to speak about problems in Bahrain. Omran treated injured protesters during the 2011 Bahraini uprising that saw nearly 50 people killed and thousands more injured.

This article was published on the Michigan Live: Grand Rapids website. 

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — I traveled to Washington, D.C., last week to help legislators understand what is happening in my home country. I was born in Bahrain in 1964, and lived there until 2011. That is when the protests started, and that is where my story begins.

In February 2011, thousands of Bahraini citizens took to the streets to call for political reforms, taking part in a broader movement for democracy in the Middle East.

Bahrain’s security forces responded to the peaceful protests with excessive force, resulting in nearly fifty deaths during the first few months of protests, and injury to thousands more.

As a medical professional, I was asked by colleagues to come to Salmaniya Medical Complex—Bahrain’s only public hospital—to help treat injured protesters. In the initial days of the protests, I saw patients with injuries that I had never seen before—bodies maimed by live ammunition and bruised by tear gas canisters fired at close range. At least three of our patients died from their injuries during my first few days at Salmaniya.

Not long after protests broke out, the government began to attack not only people on the streets, but patients at the hospital as well. Security forces came to the hospital to interrogate, abuse, and arrest patients suspected of participating in the protests, identifying them based upon the types of wounds they had suffered.

Patients who had suffered broken bones or birdshot, tear gas, and live ammunition wounds were among those typically targeted. I watched as security forces prevented medics from administering treatment to the injured, and as they refused to allow ambulances, which are housed at Salmaniya, to recover wounded protesters and bring them to the hospital.

On March 16, 2011, Bahraini security forces moved to occupy Salmaniya Medical Complex, claiming that the facility was an opposition stronghold. This enabled forces to monitor patients and medical workers and to interrogate and torture suspected protesters.

So intimidating were the government’s actions that protesters with potentially life-threatening injuries were deterred from seeking proper medical attention at the hospital, and were instead forced to seek often-inadequate treatment in makeshift clinics set up in people’s homes. Five days after the government began its occupation of Salmaniya Medical Complex, I left Bahrain.

Since the uprising, 82 two medical professionals have been arrested on a variety of politically-motivated charges meant to intimidate citizens from speaking out against the government’s abuses.

Fifty-two of those medics were sentenced by a special military court to prison terms ranging from one month to fifteen years. After considerable condemnation from the international community, these convictions were overturned and the accused were retried in civilian courts. Thirty-eight medics were subsequently sentenced to similar jail terms, while only 14 were acquitted.

Although I am no longer in Bahrain, I cannot be silent about what is happening in my home country.

That is why I traveled to Washington, D.C. last week: to share my story with legislators, including my own representative, U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, R-Cascade, to encourage lawmakers to press for meaningful reforms in Bahrain.

Since my last trip to Washington a little over a year ago, there seems to be a greater awareness among legislators and their staffs of the human rights situation in Bahrain. Indeed, Congress has been instrumental in encouraging the Executive branch to promote human rights in Bahrain. However, much more could be done by the U.S. Government to help curtail these abuses.

First and foremost, the United States should condemn the violent crackdown on peaceful protesters in the strongest language possible.

The United States cannot afford to stay silent while such atrocities are being committed by an allied nation.

The United States should also sanction human rights violators from Bahrain, as European Union legislators recently called for.

Because Bahrain serves as home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, it is in the United States’ strategic interests to pressure Bahrain to adopt necessary reforms, hold human rights violators accountable, and encourage meaningful dialogue between the government and the opposition.

With greater support from the United States, it is my hope that my country can one day finally heal.