Despite government promises to work on human rights abuses and claims of democratic progress, the situation in Bahrain does not seem to have improved, according to a report published on Wednesday by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), a leading rights group.
The Gulf Arab state, which is ruled by a Sunni Muslim monarchy and hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, has been in turmoil since activists mainly from the majority Shi'ite community began protests in February 2011, inspired by successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. The uprising, which was initially crushed when the government imposed martial law and brought in Saudi troops, is still blowing. Protests and clashes between police forces and protesters are happening almost everyday across the kingdom.
Physicians for Human Rights published a 60-page report titled “Weaponizing Tear Gas: Bahrain’s Unprecedented Use of Toxic Chemical Agents Against Civilians” in which it highlights the continuing use of tear gas in the Gulf island which has resulted in the “maiming, blinding, and even killing of civilian protesters.”
“So-called tear gas, often considered a crowd-control method with no lasting harmful effects, can cause permanent injuries, miscarriages, birth defects, and even fatalities as used by Bahrain’s security forces,” says PHR Deputy Director Richard Sollom, the report’s lead author. “Those tactics include firing tear gas canisters directly at civilians or into their cars, houses, or other closed spaces where toxic effects are greatly exacerbated.”
Members of PHR travelled to Bahrain three times in the past 18 months and collected the testimonies of more than 100 Bahrain citizens, including victims of civil rights violations, corroborating witnesses, civil society leaders, and government officials.
The report says that Bahraini law enforcement officials have repeatedly violated U.N principles on the use of tear gas, which according to international laws only authorized for crowd control purposes. PHR documents show that Bahrain authorities failed to “restraint before resorting to force, used disproportionate force when responding to protesters and failed to minimize damage and injury to demonstrators."
The unrestrained use of tear gas has caused, according to PHR, both “superfluous” and “life-threatening” injuries to men, women and children. PHR documented cases of trauma, lacerations to the head, torso, and limbs due to the impact of metal canisters fired at them by security forces. A bystander suffered from a fractured skull and intracranial haemorrhaging after being hit with a tear gas canister.
In the report, the Bahraini government is also accused of violating human rights laws by “weaponizing toxic chemical agents” and using them against members of the Shi’ite community, who has been demanding democratic reforms for the past 15 months. PHR’s findings show that Bahraini security forces have been subjecting men, women, children as well as vulnerable, disabled and elderly people to torture and inhuman treatment strictly based on the fact that they belong to one religious sect. According to the report, Bahraini forces have also been violating people’s privacy by entering their homes and destroying their property.
The rights group suspects the government of being behind these attacks and giving orders “The weaponized toxic chemical agent attacks against Bahraini civilians are intentional—and may be official policy—because of the frequency of the attacks by officials throughout the police force and the lack of accountability for those who perpetrate the attacks,” the report says. Two sisters from Shela told PHR investigators that police shot tear gas canisters directly into their home on five separate occasions.
Physicians for Human Rights warns against long-term health consequences resulting from the use of tear gas in enclosed space including miscarriages and severe respiratory distress, triggering premature death. PHR’s conclusion corroborates activists’ claims, who have reported several cases of miscarriages among women who had been exposed to tear gas.
According to PHR’s findings, the majority of Shi’ite neighbourhoods have been exposed to toxic chemical agent attacks at least once per week since February 2011, as opposed to Sunni neighbourhoods which have been generally spared.
Physicians for Human Rights has called on Bahrain’s government to “immediately end all attacks on civilians and to suspend its use of tear gas while it conducts an impartial investigation of tear gas misuse and holds accountable those who have used the gas in excessive or improper ways.”
The group also asked the Khalifa government to be more transparent and release information about the toxic chemical agents used by its security forces in order for scientists and health professionals to study its effects.
According to activists, at least 80 people have been killed since the uprising began. This number cannot be verified as foreign media and rights organizations are regularly denied entry into the country.